The prospect of a 1974-type strike is hovering over Indian Railways, which may have a deleterious effect on the economy, apart from inconveniencing passengers immeasurably. In 1974, the All India Railwaymen Federation (AIRF) led by labour leader George Fernandes had gone on a 20-day strike, thus crippling the Railways. Speaking to The Sunday Guardian, AIRF general secretary Shiva Gopal Mishra said different railway unions are planning to go on an indefinite strike from 11 April as the government is not paying heed to their demands.
“A strike ballot was conducted among AIRF members on 11-12 February, in which 95% of them voted in favour of a strike. A similar ballot was conducted among National Federation of Indian Railwaymen (NFIR) members, in which an overwhelming 96% favoured going for a strike. Therefore, we are planning to go on an indefinite strike from 11 April,” Mishra said.
The three major railway unions are NFIR, which is affiliated to Congress’ trade union arm INTUC; AIRF, which is not affiliated to any particular party but is dominated by socialists; and Bhartiya Railway Mazdoor Sangh (BRMS), which is not affiliated to any party but is dominated by right-wing leaders
The total strength of Railway employees is 13.20 lakh. AIRF has a membership of 9.86 lakh, while NFIR has around 9 lakh membership. BRMS has 2 lakh members. There is a provision of dual membership in Indian Railways.
The unions are against the minimum wage of Rs 18,000 as suggested by the Seventh Pay Commission. They want it to be increased to Rs 26,000. They are opposed to the slashing of HRA from 7.5% to 3%. The unions are also opposed to the new pension policy, which envisages investing pension funds into the share market, which according to them, has led to a sense of insecurity among the employees.
Mishra, who is also the convenor of the National Joint Council of Action (NJCA), said: “So far we have maintained our patience. But the government is not listening to our problems. There is a total communication gap with the government and therefore, we have no other option left but to go on a strike.”
“Keeping in view the results of the strike ballot, a notice for the strike will be served to the respective general managers on 11 March, in case the government does not resolve our genuine demands. This will be the biggest strike by Railway employees, the responsibility for which would be on Government of India,” added Mishra.
Mishra said that he has approached the BRMS as well seeking support. When contacted, BRMS general secretary Virjesh Upadhyaya said, “Though there have not been any formal talks with AIRF and NFIR, we will extend our support to the strike. There are a lot of issues related to railway workers which the government has failed to address. We have been fighting for the cause of railway workers and, therefore, will support the strike, if it happens.”
Asked whether he has discussed the issue with Railway Minister Suresh Prabhu, Mishra said: “We have no problems with the Railway Minister. He talks to us on a regular basis. But the Finance Ministry and Personnel Ministry are not listening to us. We are responsible people and do not want the strike as it will affect the economy and cause inconvenience to the people. We did not go for a strike in the last 41 years. But now our patience is running out.”