Interview with the Senior Joint General Secretary of the Indian Railways Technical Supervisors Association

Mazdoor Ekta Lehar (MEL) has been conducting and publishing a series of interviews with the leaders of many category-wise associations in the Indian Railways representing loco pilots, guards, train controllers, signal and maintenance staff, track maintainers, pointsmen, etc. Here, in the eighth part of this series, we are presenting the interview of Com. K.V. Ramesh (KVR), Senior Joint General Secretary, Indian Railways Technical Supervisors Association (IRTSA), on the main issues of Technical Supervisors working in Indian Railways.

MEL: Please describe in brief the work/responsibilities of Technical Supervisors.

KVR: Junior Engineers (JEs) and Senior Section Engineers (SSEs) constitute the Technical Supervisors of the Indian Railways. Technical Supervisors are Field Managers for Manufacture, Inspection, Repair and Maintenance of Rolling Stocks (Locomotives, Coaches, Wagons, EMUs, DMUs), Installation, Commissioning and Maintenance of Signal and Telecommunication Systems and equipment, Traction and Traction Distribution, Construction and Maintenance of all Buildings, Railway Tracks and Bridges, etc.

Nearly every infrastructure of Indian Railways is a direct result of some form of Engineering. Engineers have constructed the Indian Railways, which offers one of the cheapest and safest transport systems compared to any transport system in the world.

Technical Supervisors manage a large number of work force in all Production Units, Repair Workshops, Diesel/Electric Loco Sheds, EMU Car Sheds, Open Line Carriage and Wagon, Permanent Way, Bridges, Electric Traction, Electrical Power, Air Conditioning, Train lighting, Signalling and Telecommunication, Printing Presses, etc.

Around 6.5 lakh Senior Technicians and Technicians of Grade I, II and III and helpers are working under the Technical Supervisors; apart from the above technical categories, a large number of non-technical categories like Stores Clerks, Office Clerks, Office Superintendents and Chief Office Superintendents are also working directly under the JEs and SSEs and are supervised by them in the execution of the above-mentioned work.

MEL: What are the main problems being faced by your cadre?

KVR: Technical Supervisors (JE and SSE) are shouldering the direct responsibility for safe, efficient and ‘failure-proof’ production, repair, maintenance and operation of Rolling Stock, Loco, P-Way, Bridges, S&T, OHE and other assets and equipment of the Railways. Their pay levels are neither commensurate with their responsibilities nor with their education levels, recruitment conditions and training. Though the Railway Ministry has supported this demand as far back as in 2010, the Finance Ministry has still not approved it for more than a decade.

Our demand is that the government and Ministry of Railways should grant Pay levels 7, 8 and 9 for the category of Technical Supervisors.

Further, though the posts of our counterparts in Central and State Government departments have been classified as Group B, we have been denied this. This of course affects our emoluments. The demand for classification of posts as Group B has been pursued by JEs and SSEs in various fora but the Railway Board has just been discussing it for decades.  The Member Staff (MS), Railway Board, in a note on 25.05.2007, agreed  that while there has been reclassification of Grade D to Grade C posts in a large number of categories, the reclassification from Group C to Group B has been marginal. Further notes made by the Financial Commissioner (FC) also justified the demand for reclassification from Group C to Group B and gave financial concurrence. However the committee appointed by Railway Ministry in 2018, “To examine in detail the issue of granting Group-‘B’ status (Gazetted/Non-Gazetted) to various existing Group-‘C’ posts of Indian Railways (including implications and modalities) in line with DoP&T Order dated 09.11.2017”, failed to understand the facts about the category of Technical Supervisors and brought out a report which was not in any ones favour and has not been implemented.

Our demand is that the posts of SSEs should be classified in Group-‘B’ Gazetted and that those of JEs should be classified in Group-‘B’ Non-Gazetted for greater efficiency, higher productivity and safety in the Railways.

The third big problem is that we have negligible career progression due to lack of promotional avenues and anomalies.

SSEs in the category of Technical Supervisors were given no improvement in the Cadre Restructuring since 1984 and JEs are eligible for only one promotion in their cadre, in spite of manifold increase in duties and responsibilities of the Technical Supervisors/Rail Engineers

There has been no upgrading or Cadre Restructuring of the Apex Grade of Group-‘C’ ever in the Railways (either in 1979, 1984, 1993, 2003 or 2013). Consequently, there is extreme stagnancy and resultant frustration amongst the incumbents of the Apex Grade of Group-‘C’, especially amongst the Technical Supervisors/Rail Engineers in the Railways.

In the Technical Departments of Engineering, Mechanical, Electrical, Signal and Telecommunications and Stores, only 3450 Group-‘B’(Gaz.) posts for 7.77 lakh posts of Group-‘C’ and erstwhile ‘D’, i.e., just 0.44% posts are available in Group-‘B’(Gaz.)

In fact, number of Group-‘B’ (Gaz.) posts (promotional avenue for JE and SSE) in technical departments of Railways had witnessed negative growth. It was reduced from 4274 to 3447 between the year 2009 and 2019. Thus, the strength of Group-‘B’ (Gaz.) posts was reduced by 20% in a period of ten years.

After the implementation of 6th CPC recommendations number of supervisory levels in Railways was reduced to two from four. This has reduced the administrative efficiency and severely affected the promotional avenues amongst the Technical Supervisors.

Our demand is that to avoid the serious discontent and dejection among the Technical Supervisors in Railways and to improve the level of supervision for smooth functioning of Railways, Pay Level-8 (GP Rs. 4800) functional and Pay Level-9 (GP Rs. 5400) need to be introduced.

Without going into technical details, I will also stress that there are sever anomalies in our pay scales that should be addressed immediately.

The fourth big problem is of hazardous and strenuous working conditions and related allowances.

The duties of open line JEs and SSEs are arduous in nature. They are working in open environments under the sky. The 24 × 7 work, exposure to hot sun, heavy rain, cold climate and unhygienic work areas, particularly the presence of human excreta and other non-biodegradable wastes are posing continued health risks. Today the staff strength is lower than the benchmark. Whenever new trains were introduced a proportionate addition of manpower was not done adequately. This results in more stress on existing staff strength.

There are other areas that have health risks, for example, in Welding shops, Paint shops, Forge and Smith shop, Electroplating shops in Workshops and Production Units of Indian Railways. In Diesel sheds, there is exposure to high noise to the decibel level of 180, working temperature around 50 degree centigrade and air pollution beyond permissible levels. Some workers are exposed to radiations like X-ray and many chemicals.

Our demand is that railways should grant Risk and Hardship allowance for JEs and SSEs as applicable from the Risk and Hardship Matrix recommended by the 7th Central Pay Commission.

MEL: How safe are your working conditions? For example, hundreds of trackmen are killed every year. Have there been any casualties in your category due to unsafe working conditions?

KVR: Work in areas like P.Way, Bridges, OHE, S&T, open line depots and yards, production units and workshops is prone to accidents which may result in heavy injury, even death. Accidents along the track, like being run over while on work, industrial accidents, etc. are taking a heavy toll.

Work stress-related health issues like diabetes, high BP and heart diseases are highest in the cadre of SSEs and JEs among all Railway men. It was proved in an in-house study conducted in one of the Zonal Railway Headquarter hospitals where a significant number of SSEs was getting treatment for various heart diseases; informally, it was agreed that work stress may be the major cause.

During the time of the COVID-19 pandemic, many JEs and SSEs and thousands of other employees got infected while discharging their duties. Many of the employees’ dependent family members also got infected from the employees. Rate of COVID infections and deaths among Railway workers and their family members may be equal to the medical and front-line workers, much above the national average.

MEL: How has the privatisation, introduced step by step in the Indian Railways, affected your category?

KVR: Outsourcing and contract work is a major threat, particularly for this category. They have taken a heavy toll on the quality of service rendered by the Railways to its customers. Technicians of technical departments undergo training in a well-established system to make them competent to do any particular work and to acquire basic knowledge about the system of Railway working. But Railway suppliers and contractors don’t engage qualified employees and they are not trained.

Execution of work through employees hired by Railway contractors who are neither qualified nor trained is more difficult and involves high risk. In the absence of Railway Technicians or when a smaller number of them is available, most of the responsibilities and accountabilities fall on the heads of JE and SSE. Employees hired by Railway contractors are grossly underpaid so they cannot form a reliable and competent workforce. The problem is getting further aggravated when Railway contractors keep on changing their hired employees on a daily basis. These arguments are also applicable for items supplied by private firms to Railways. Tendency to bypass or skip procedures and to push in inferior quality materials or services are major threats not only for this category of employees but for the Railways and its customers.

MEL: What is the Total number of Employees in your Category who currently employed in the Indian Railways as against the actual sanctioned number?

KVR: As per the Railways Board’s submission to ‘empowered committee of secretaries’, formed by the Government after implementation of 7th CPC recommendations, the total sanctioned strength of Technical Supervisors was 59,147 with the strength of JEs and SSEs being 39,628 and 19,519, respectively. There are about 20% vacancies in this category.

MEL: Is there any move by the railway authorities to decrease the number of sanctioned posts in your category by surrendering the posts?

KVR: Yes, reduction in number of sanctioned posts is being done continuously over the years. To justify outsourcing of items and to award work contracts, non-filling up of vacancies and surrendering of posts are done indiscriminately.

The Railway Board, in its recent letter dated 20.05.2021, directed 16 Zonal Railways to surrender 13,450 posts by re-assessing the staff requirements through work studies. Creation of both safety and non-safety posts for new assets cannot be done by Zonal Railways since the Railway Board in its letter dated 02.07.2020 gave directions for freezing new post creation except safety, reviewing/surrendering posts created in last two years and surrendering 50% of existing vacancies. In another letter dated 25.03.2021, the Railway Board conveyed to Zonal Railways that the creation of non-gazetted safety posts will require the approval of the Department of Expenditure (DoE).

Main objectives of technological advancements in Railways should be for increasing the speed, safety, comfort, efficiency and economy in train operation, and not reduction of staff, who are the assets of the Railways. Excluding the COVID-19 pandemic period, all along Railway business both in Passenger and Freight is always increasing year by year. Increase in passenger and freight business is being achieved by lesser number of staff, putting the system in tremendous pressure.

Important performance indices of Railways between the year 2010-11 and 2018-19 have registered good increase. Passenger KM and Net freight tonnes registered more than 18% increase. Between the years 2010-11 and 2019-20, track KM has increased by 10.8%. The number of rolling stock in possession i.e. locos, coaches and wagons has increased more than 26%. But staff strength (Group-‘C’ and ‘B’) has been reduced by 5.9%! Fixing target for surrender of posts without any scientific study about the work content and without taking into account forecasted increase in Railway business after COVID pandemic is dangerous.

Increasing work load, requirement of higher level of supervision for new technologies which requires new skill sets, non-availability of sufficiently trained manpower clubbed with reduction of strength in our own category and in technicians’ category are adversely affecting the functioning of JEs and SSEs.

MEL: How many contract workers are employed in your category?

KVR: Railways don’t engage contract workers directly. Railway suppliers and companies executing the work contracts engage their workforce in Railway premises. There is no consolidated data readily available about the number of workers engaged by Railway suppliers and contractors; the number is increasing rapidly. The system of ‘supply and installation’ and contracts on ‘turn key’ basis makes the number grow further. It may be assumed that these posts never return to Railway workers since know-how and technical knowledge are not shared with the Railways. There may be roughly four lakh employees engaged by Railway contractors in Railway premises.

MEL: What steps has your union taken to bring these problems to the notice of the authorities?

KVR: IRTSA (Indian Railways Technical Supervisors Association), registered under the Trade Union Act-1926 as a categorical association formed in November 1965, is over 55 years old. IRTSA represents issues specific to the category as well as common issues of Central Government employees continuously in various fora. Oral evidence before Pay Commissions and High-level Committees formed by Railways were presented specifically to justify the demands of the category.

Dharnas and Mass Fasts highlighting the demands were held several times at New Delhi and at Zonal/Divisional levels. Numerous memorandums were submitted to the Government, Railway Minister, Finance Minister, Members of Parliament, etc. Regular visits are made to the Railway Board to pursue the demands. IRTSA also takes both recognised Federations into its confidence. Recently, IRTSA also steered two legal cases on the demand for higher pay level for JEs and SSEs and Group-‘B’ (Gaz.) status for SSEs. The appeal filed by IRTSA at CAT Chennai for getting higher Pay Level for JEs and SSEs is pending for four years.

MEL: What has been the response of the railway authorities to solve the problems faced by your category?

KVR: Most of our main demands need to be addressed by the Railway Board at the highest level. For pay-related issues, Railways require approval from the Finance Ministry. Railway Board Members and all other officers used to call Technical Supervisors the back bone of Indian Railways. But all these warm words don’t convert into action. Demands of higher Pay Level and classification of posts into Group-‘B’ (Gaz.) were diluted by Railway Board by making a common proposal for all categories other than the Accounts Department.

MEL: Thank You Comrade K.V. Ramesh for this very informative interview! We fully support the just demands of the Technical Supervisors of the Indian Railways. It is necessary for all Railway workers as well as the entire working class to support these just demands.

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