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 second part of this series, we are presenting the interview of Com. S. P. Singh (SPS), General Secretary, All India Guards Association (AIGC).
MEL: What are the main problems being faced by Guards in the Indian Railways?
SPS: Long working hours on duty, 14 to 20 hours working per trip, denial of leave & periodical rest (weekly rest) puts the health of the Guards at great risk. While many workers elsewhere get 40 hours as a minimum rest period in a week, in the case of guards, they are only being given 30 hours as weekly rest four times in a month or 22 hours 5 times in a month!
Guards are given dictatorial orders to abide by illegal instructions, for example forcing Guards to work without Learning Road and without Brake Power Certificate. Whenever a Guard has to take a new route, it is mandatory that he should travel on that route for a minimum of three times to familiarise himself with the stations and the signals on the route. That is called “Learning Road”. “Brake Power Certificate” is issued by the C&W (Carriage and Wagon) Department that the train is certified for the trip. However for Goods trains this is being dispensed with and the Loco Pilot and the Guard are made to do the examination of the train to certify it!
Goods Guards are forced to discharge duties from dilapidated B/Vans (Brake Vans) which even in this 21st century do not have water, fans, lighting or proper seating or sanitation facilities!
The Railway authorities claim that they do not have funds to provide exclusive women’s toilets to Women Loco Pilots, Assistant Loco Pilots and Guards though they have been working from the past one and half decades. It claims it does not have funds to bring all the new recruits into the Old Pension Scheme. But it always has funds to waste on schemes to benefit private players which I will explain below.
MEL: How safe are your working conditions? For example, hundreds of Track Maintainers are killed every year. Have there been any casualties among Guards due to unsafe working conditions?
SPS: The casualties are less as compared with the Track Maintainers category but grievous injuries are regular. Refusal to give medical attention led to death of a few guards during Covid-19. Gross violation of rules led to the death of a Goods Guard at Sabarmati, Vadodara Division, Western Railway on 12th July, 2020. Our casualties are less but we feel serious concern about the working conditions of the track maintainers.
MEL: How do the working conditions of the Guards affect the safety and comfort of the rail passengers?
SPS: The Administration uses threats and forces us to start the trains in unsafe conditions in the name of punctuality. The system is such that not only the train in which a Guard is riding, but the train in the adjacent line, irrespective of Goods or Express, should also be in safe condition to ensure the safety of the travelling public. The coal loaded in open wagons is not being covered with tarpaulins (though the railway rules are clear that it should be covered). Its dust falls in the eyes and food of the travelling public as well as polluting the surrounding areas. Asthmatic patients encounter breathing problems and infants are the worst sufferers. The Guards in these coal loaded wagons are most severely affected as they are covered head to toe with coal dust which enters their eyes and mouth.
In some cases, defective doors get opened on their own and they may damage the OHE (Overhead Electrification) Masts and these masts may fall on track or sometimes project into coaches and cause serious injuries to passengers.
MEL: How has the privatisation that is being introduced step by step in the Indian Railways, affected the Guards?
SPS: Privatisation has affected the Guards very badly, leading to a multitude of problems.
Firstly, they removed the post of Assistant Guard, as a result of which more than 5000 Assistant Guard posts were lost.
Front Luggage Vans and Guards Lobbies are being leased to private contractors. The private contractors are loading indiscriminately beyond the permissible weight and Guards Lobbies and cabins are getting damaged. The Guards’ seats, dogboxes, writing tables, and so on are regularly getting broken.
Dedicated freight corridors (DFC) are being developed with the funds of the Railways to be handed over to private companies. But the Union Government allowed these private companies to formulate their own Safety Rules and HOER (Hours of Employment Rules) as well as other labour laws like Workmen Compensation Act, etc. Their rules are very clear that trains will not have a Guard. Instead of a Guard, they have demanded the provision of End on Train Telemetry (EOTT) Machines. There is an agreement between the Government and DFCCIL (Dedicated Freight Corridor Corporation of India Ltd.) that Railways will provide EOTT Machines in place of Guards. Each machine will cost Rs.12 lakhs. The Government has already invited global tenders worth Rs.100 Crores. This is a wasteful expenditure of public money. Job opportunities to thousands of youth were lost due to this unilateral decision. Group D staff have also lost promotional careers.
In the name of advancement of the technology, the Government is determined to withdraw the Guards cadre on the main lines also, deploying the above EOTT machines instead. The dreams of thousands of youth will be shattered with this move. Guards will lose a decent living standard. Existing Guards will be assigned to work in lower grade and many will be shunted out. The safety of passengers will be in peril.
Running Rooms were privatised and hence proper sanitisation, quality of food, etc. suffered. When they were under railway departmental maintenance, medically certified Cooks and staff used to cook good food.
Lobbies are being privatised. The unskilled staff, who are ignorant of the HOER, Labour Laws and the system of Running Duties depend on the system based Crew booking and whenever internet problems or link failures arise, Guards are subjected to hardships and sometimes their legitimate hard worked Kilometerage (distance covered) does not get properly recorded.
Box-Porters were removed and private Box-Porters were provided. They don’t work with responsibility. This has resulted in trains getting detained and delayed. Using this as an excuse the administration ordered us to carry all the line box equipment weighing about 12 to 15 kgs in a trolley bag. It is an additional burden and extremely difficult for the Guards to secure the suitcase and drag it around in the yards.
I would like to emphasize that the Railways does not want to provide basic connectivity to backward areas claiming that it is not economically viable to lay any new lines in these areas. However they are pumping its precious revenue in High speed corridors which are to benefit private players. The Government has adequate funds to construct a new Parliament Building, Bullet Train Corridors, etc. but it doesn’t have money to give Dearness Allowance or Dearness Relief to its employees and look after the interests of rail passengers and rail workers.
Under the excuse of the pandemic, the Railways are looting crores of public money by running special trains instead of regular trains. The Government is silent on resuming the poor man’s passenger trains. It seems that unless its target of privatisation of services is completed it will not restore normal services. The AIGC demands the restoration of all Mail, Express and Passenger Trains to their status before the lockdown.
The Railways has been selling out its services one by one. Railway Schools and Junior Colleges have been closed. Waiting rooms on platforms have been removed. Private Waiting Rooms have been developed that will charge exorbitant user fees. They will benefit only the affluent. Railway Hospitals do not have an adequate number of qualified Doctors. Station Buildings and surroundings are being beautified with precious public money before handing over to private players
Rail users and tax payers are requested not to fall prey to the Railway Administration which is trying to present a rosy picture of privatisation of rail services. We Guards, being staff at the helm of affairs, are well aware of fraudulent management of the media by the Railway Administration. The needle of suspicion points towards the Judiciary too. The nomination of the former Honourable Chief Justice of India to the Rajya Sabha only strengthens our suspicions.
MEL: What is the total number of Guards currently employed in the Indian Railways and what is the actual sanctioned number?
SPS: Currently there are only 26,496 Guards on roll though the total sanctioned strength of Guards category is 34,818!
MEL: Is there any move by the railway authorities to decrease the number of sanctioned posts of Guards by surrendering the posts ?
SPS: Non-filling of recruitment level posts and indiscriminate surrendering of posts has become the order of the day and this is causing grave concern. The Administration is determined to merge our Category with other non-running categories to deprive the status of Running Staff to Guards.
When the LOCK-DOWN period was being enforced and the nation was struck with fear of the pandemic, on 8th May 2020 the Government constituted a Committee to rationalise the different categories. The AIGC strongly protested by sending 20,000 emails and 25,000 guards took part in a Twitter campaign which was trending at 4th position.
Freight loading has been surpassing all its past records and freight services are increased, but Guards are not being recruited proportionately. They are being compelled to work without adequate statutory rest. The section congestion speaks volumes of the traffic on the railway tracks.
In the month of November, 2020, the DRM (Delhi) surrendered 350 Guards posts vide its Memo No. 269/2020. The existing strength of 1315 good guards in the Delhi Division has been reduced to 965 with a single stroke of the pen. We were not at all consulted. In these conditions Guards are struggling to get their rest and so on.
MEL: How many Contract Workers are employed as Guards?
SPS: Contract workers are not employed as Guards. However a few skeleton strength Guards were recruited in DFCCIL who are private employees. They are not governed by CPC pay scales or DA, etc. Except the Kolkata Metro Railways, all Metro Railways are also run by private agencies and Guards are not deployed in all of them.
MEL: Can you describe in brief the struggle of your Association for the rights of Guards?
SPS: We have taken all our grievances up to the PMO (Prime Minister’s Office), the Ministry of Labour and many more officials and there has been no response. Their attitude is just like the three monkeys. They don’t want to listen, they don’t want to see the ground realities and they don’t want to speak of justice.
MEL: What has been the response of the railway authorities?
SPS : The Railway Authorities are extremely autocratic and do not want to listen to our problems.
MEL: Thank You Comrade S.P. Singh for this very informative interview and we fully support the just demands of the Guards of the Indian Railways. It is necessary for all Railway workers as well as the entire working class to support these just demands.