Mazdoor Ekta Lehar (MEL) is carrying out and publishing a series of interviews with the leaders of many category-wise associations in the Indian Railways, representing the loco pilots, guards, station masters, train controllers, signal and maintenance staff, track maintainers, ticket checking staff, etc. Here in the first part of this series, we are presenting the interview of Com. M. N. Prasad (MNP), Secretary General, All India Loco Running Staff Association (AILRSA).
MEL: What are the main problems being faced by the loco running staff?
MNP: There are many problems faced by Loco Pilots and Assistant Loco Pilots. I will elaborate on a few of them.
- Railways have not implemented the 8 hour duty for loco running staff. Hence for the majority of our staff, duties exceed 8 hours and for 5%-10% of the staff, it even exceeds 14 hours at a stretch! The railway administration is denying periodic rest as per the rules; further, there is denial of the mandatory rest time at our Head Quarters. Workers all over the world are entitled to a minimum of a weekly day off and in effect this means a rest of 40 hours (24 hours for day off and 16 hours as normal rest between two duties) four times in a month. However in the case of loco pilots, they are only being given 30 hours as weekly rest four times in a month or 22 hours 5 times in a month! With such restricted rest times, they are kept away from the community at large, forced to live a life of isolation and are not even able to get a proper night’s rest. The absence of proper weekly holiday/rest, added with the uncertain hours of work has virtually shattered the family life as well as the health of a large section of loco running staff. A vast majority of them have been rendered medically unfit before the attainment of their age of superannuation and another large section of loco pilots voluntarily retire and leave the service, unable to stand the strain of adverse working conditions. Even this meager weekly rest is often denied. Leave is not sanctioned and 25% of the posts are always kept vacant. The crew is booked for 4 or 5 nights consecutively in place of two consecutive night duties.
- A very low starting pay scale of level 2 (Rs. 1900 basic) is allotted to the initial grade of Assistant Loco Pilots, though engineering graduates are the ones mostly recruited to this post. There are only three grades of Rs1900, Rs. 2400 and Rs. 4200 even though there are increasing levels of work and responsibility / (Mail/Express/Rajdhani) are allotted the very same scale of level 6. The highest pay for Loco Pilots is restricted to level 6 while all other railway employees have pay levels up to level 8 and even more. Running allowance is fixed taking the minimum of basic pay instead of mean pay and thereby allowances are reduced by a third for the entire running staff.
- Medically decategorised staff (Loco running staff who are unable to maintain the required highest level of fitness, mainly due to heavy work stress and inadequate rest are decategorised ) have not been absorbed in equivalent posts and seniority is not being given properly. The medical decategorisation process is willfully delayed for years together and the entire period is treated as sick leave in violation of the IRMM (Indian Railways Medical Manual). Additional Pension benefits of running staff are denied to decategorised running staff, violating the provisions of the Disability Act and also the Railway pension rules. Running staff covered by NPS (New Pension Scheme) too are denied this benefit.
- We are the only category that suffered 3O% pay cut during cancellation of trains due to Covid. We could not earn running allowance through which 30% of our pay is paid. No compensation is given though the running allowance rules dictate that it should be.
- Industrial disputes raised against the 6th CPC (Central Pay Commission) pay anomalies was sent for adjudication by the National Industrial Tribunal in 2011 and it is still pending there due to criminal dilatory tactics played by the railway administration.
- The Railway administration, especially zonal and divisional administrations, are not operating the train services as per the laid down safety rules and they pressurize the staff to make them violate safety rules. Every short cut or unsafe practice finally has the impact of increasing the stress and strain of the duty of running staff.
- It is also seen that in case of an accident, during the inquiry, investigations are not conducted as per the laid down guidelines i.e. with technical investigation support and with psychometric assessment process. Soft targets are blamed for causing the incident, while the fault of the administration in the accident is never accepted. Even 34 years after the Justice Khanna Committee recommended that the attitude of enquiry committees should change from ‘who went wrong’ to ‘what went wrong’, there has been no change in the way enquiry committees are conducted. Most often it is the loco running staff members who are held responsible, whether or not they are guilty.
MEL: How safe are your working conditions?
MNP: There are several psychometric assessment reports, e.g. from the Karolinska University (Sweden) Stress Research Report, the Dr. Rajesh Ranjan report and the RDSO (Railway Design and Standards Organisation) report on the working condition of loco running staff in which it is stated that the occupational health hazard index of loco running staff is highest as compared to all workers in the railways and across all transport sectors. The psychosomatic effects of longer hours of work, continuous night duty, unscheduled duty, high stress level, etc. have its adverse effect on alertness and reaction times. But railway administrations neither have any plan for the reduction of occupational health hazard index nor have any suitable plan for justifiable compensation. On the contrary, inhuman penalties are imposed for every accident caused due to the working conditions.
MEL: Have there been any casualties in your category due to unsafe working conditions for which loco pilots have been unjustly blamed?
MNP: Casualty on account of train accidents is not a serious issue for running staff. But every safety violation is a potential safety hazard. In every accident, irrespective of the running staff is the most vulnerable to be held responsible because a loco pilot and the assistant loco pilot are alone in the cab and there is no other eye witness to support them. Every shortcut procedure increases their stress many fold. The inhuman working conditions have serious adverse effects on the life span of loco pilots. A large number of loco pilots are compelled to end their service prematurely without any compensation, as they fail to maintain the level of concentration and fitness.
MEL: How has the privatisation being introduced step by step in the Indian Railways, affected loco pilots?
MNP: It is learnt that some private agencies are recruiting staff for working as loco pilots and some technical staff from other department are being used as loco pilots in tower wagons and in some big sidings for removal and placement of rakes. Contract Loco Pilots are engaged in some private sidings where Railway Loco Pilots were utilized previously for those shunting operations.
MEL: What is the Total number of loco pilots and assistant loco pilots currently employed in the Indian Railways and what is the actual sanctioned strength? How many are there on contract?
MNP: According to the Task Force Committee Report, the total strength of loco running staff (Loco Pilots and Assistant Loco Pilots) is 83098 while their total sanction strength is 104446 There are about 200 there on contract.
MEL: Can you describe in brief the struggle of your Association for the rights of workers?
MNP: All India Loco Running Staff Association (AILRSA), a category association representing Loco Pilots and Assistant Loco Pilots, has been consistently resisting the privatization policy of the Central Government and the Railway authorities. We took the initiative to organize an all India Convention against the Debroy Committee report in February 2018. We have organised protest programs individually or collectively wherever possible against every action taken by the Government to privatise Railways and also against every decision of central government and Railway administration that goes against the interests of the workers or the general public.
MEL: Is there any move by the railway authorities to decrease the number of sanctioned posts in your category by surrendering the posts?
MNP: Yes. Mail and Passenger crew links are being revised with the sole motive of increasing the distance covered in a single duty, reducing the rest time at Head Quarters and outstation and so on. This is done with every revision of train timings. The formula for deciding goods crew strength was changed to reduce the sanctioned strength, and additional trainee reserve is not sanctioned even though the entire staff is trained in both diesel and AC tractions and are sent for additional training programs and many training scheduled are ordered following the introduction of new versions of locomotives, wagons and coaches. Always keeping about 25% posts vacant, introduction of EMU and DEMU instead of conventional passenger rakes, introducing high speed and high capacity locos and wagons, etc. are being resorted to in order to reduce staff strength.
MEL: What has been the response of the railway authorities to solve the problems faced by your category?
MNP: The Railway administration is very careful to take every step to deny all the possible benefits to loco running staff. The Railway administration is very effectively utilizing every opportunity to impose many injustices on and discrimination against loco running staff in the Indian Railways. We are trying to gather all railway workers for the movement against the anti-worker policy of privatization through joint struggles. Saving the Railways is vitally important for our country.
MEL: Thank you for this very informative interview, Comrade M. N. Prasad and we fully support the just demands of the Loco Pilots and Assistant Loco Pilots of the Indian Railways. It is necessary for all Railway workers as well as the entire working class to support these just demands.