Tens of thousands of porters in rail stations across India had reasons to cheer Tuesday as Railway Minister Lalu Prasad agreed to induct them as employees - giving them a life of security and belonging.
Disgusted with being called "coolies" - a legacy of the British Raj and a sad reminder of the days of slavery - the daily-wagers were elated after learning that they will be inducted to oversee unmanned railway crossings and do other sundry duties.
"This means I will be a permanent employee of the Indian Railways," exclaimed Mahik Ram, 42, from Rajasthan, as he showed his license tied to his biceps. "It was hard to accept that you are an outsider in the system you serve.
The tone and tenor of Lalu Prasad's budget speech could have hardly been more politically correct: Jobs for porters; special campaigns to clear backlog vacancies for SC/ST posts; appointments of OBC candidates — a ten times increase in the staff benefit fund from Rs.35 to Rs.350 per employee for 2008-09. He has also proposed minorities cell in the Railway Board and Zonal Railway offices for promoting minority welfare and ensuring their adequate representation in railway services.
There is an inherent political message to the Minister's declaration to have one member from the minority community in all the recruitment boards and committees.
But, All India SC/ST Railways Employees Association general secretary Ashok Kumar has a doubt: "Is there more populism than substance to the Railways Minister's pronouncements?"
This year's budget proposals put a final seal on plans to hand over all cleaning jobs to the private sector. Asks Kumar: "Does this not spell a death knell for the careers of thousands of "Safai Karamchari's" who have been traditionally employed with the Railways?". He said that 22,000 Safai Karamcharis had lost jobs since Lalu Prasad took over the reigns of the Railways.
(With agency inputs)