Workers at the Integral Coach Factory (ICF) in Chennai have been protesting since the end of October. They are opposing the pacts signed by the Indian Railways with two multinational companies, for the manufacture of 200 Vande Bharat sleeper express trains. All trade unions, irrespective of political affiliation, have come together to oppose the privatisation pacts, including the BJP affiliated Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh (BMS).
ICF, established in 1955, is the largest coach manufacturer in the world, with a record of producing 70,000 coaches in 68 years. Apart from manufacturing coaches for the Indian Railways, ICF has also exported coaches to many other countries. It is a profit-making company. The ICF workers are repeatedly pointing out that there is absolutely no justification for the handing over of the production of the trains to private companies.
ICF workers are agitated over the fact that production and maintenance of the Vande Bharat trains – one of the much-publicised projects of the present BJP government — are being handed over to private monopoly capitalist companies. It is reported that the Indian Railways has signed a contract with an Italian company, Titagarh Rail Systems Ltd (TRSL) and state-owned Bharat Heavy Electricals Ltd (BHEL), to manufacture 80 Vande Bharat sleeper trains in ICF in Chennai. Similarly, a joint venture between the Russian engineering company Transmashholding (TMH) and public sector company Rail Vikas Nigam Ltd (RVNL) has been given the contract to manufacture 120 trains in the Marathwada Rail Coach Factory (MRCF) in Latur. And in May this year, French multinational company Alstom secured the contract for manufacture and maintenance of 100 aluminium-body Vande Bharat trains. The maintenance work for these trains has been privatised for the next 35 years.
According to the terms of the contract, the TRSL-BHEL will produce trains at Rs 139 crore/16-coach train and the TMH-RVNL at Rs 120 crore/train. In total, 3,200 coaches will be produced. The private firms will be given the existing prototype, design and drawings of the sleeper trains designed by the ICF. They will be provided space for production in the PSUs along with the existing infrastructure. They will also be provided resources such as electricity, gas and water by the Railways.
ICF workers who already have the knowhow and skills for manufacturing these trains will be employed by these companies. They will have access to facilities of many other production/maintenance centres of the Indian Railways. The top management of the Indian Railways has announced a grant of more than Rs 70 crore to Titagarh Wagan for buying additional machinery.
By offering the multinational companies the facilities and resources of ICF and other public sector units for the manufacture of these trains, the government is enabling these companies to make massive profits, without having to make any major investments in infrastructure, production lines, highly skilled manpower, as well as services such as electric power and water. The entire infrastructure as well as design and production capability of the ICF and associated PSUs will be made available to these private multinational companies.
The protesting workers at ICF have questioned the need to privatise the production of the Vande Bharat trains. They have pointed out that the coaches of the Vande Bharat trainset, initially known as Train 18 (because the team producing it took only 18 months from inception to complete it for a successful run), were designed by the Research Designs & Standards Organisation (RDSO) under the Ministry of Railways and manufactured by the ICF. The specifications were also standardised by the RDSO. On 27 January 2019, the services using Train 18 sets were named Vande Bharat Express with the first service commencing on 15 February 2019. The train set has already been tested successfully for 180 kmph speed.
These trains were made for low-cost maintenance and operational optimisation. The cost of a 16-coach Vande Bharat train was initially about Rs115 crore, but the ICF-United Workers Union (UWU) has said that the ICF workers have successfully reduced its cost to Rs 98 crore and further to Rs 70 crore. They have said that the present prototype of the Vande Bharat train is 85% indigenous. The remaining 15%, i.e. high-speed motors, brake controls etc. are imported. Through more research, workshop and infrastructure facilities, ICF is capable of making these indigenously too, and further reduce the cost of production. Despite this, the government is handing over the production to private players at an additional cost of Rs 50 crore per train.
The Joint Action Committee of ICF workers, which is leading the agitation, the ICF-JAC, has estimated an additional cost of Rs 11,600 crore for the manufacture of these trains by the private companies. This cost will have to be borne by the people of our country. It has estimated a total loss of 65,510 Railway jobs, as a result of this privatisation.
ICF workers observed a black day on October 25, condemning the privatisation. On October 27, more than 100 workers held a protest dharna at the ICF general manager’s office from 8 am to 1 pm. Following this, the Railway Workers’ Unions also organised a protest action near Rajarathinam Stadium at Egmore.
They demanded that the Indian Railways withdraw the pact with the two private companies. They demanded that the Railway Board carry out recruitment of workers to fill all vacant posts in ICF. The ICF-JAC has vehemently rejected the government’s plan to allow the private companies to function independently within the ICF work premises, stating that ICF workers are quite capable of designing new versions and creating new technology. They have declared their resolve to intensify the struggle if their demands are not met.