Riding high on the turnaround story of the country’s once-ailing train system, Railways Minister Lalu Prasad finds himself in a bind days before he presents his fourth budget. Should he further privatise the Railways and compromise his commitment to social justice or provide more jobs to those who belong to the lowest strata of the society?
The mammoth Indian Railways, which runs the world’s second-biggest network, employed 17 lakh people five years ago when it ran 11,000 trains. The train count has risen to about 15,000, but the number of employees has fallen to about 14 lakh since Lalu took over, said Shiv Gopal Mishra of the All India Railway Men Association (AIRF). He said the trend towards privatisation threatened to destroy the system of accountability built up over decades.
An estimated 1.8 lakh positions, including 22,000 reserved category jobs, are vacant in the railway. The ministry has surrendered hundreds of other jobs. “When there are no recruitments, the commitment towards providing reservations becomes meaningless,” said Mohan Paswan of the All India SC&ST Railway Employees Association.
The worst hit are the Valmikis, who occupy the lowest rung of the Hindu caste hierarchy, and are traditionally employed as safai karamcharis. Their number has shrunk by half to 22,000 since 1990. Ahead of the next budget, these are among issues that have been brought to the notice of Congress president Sonia Gandhi, said Ashok Kumar, the association’s general secretary.
“Some plans are good, but the entry of the private sector in core areas can lead to a serious agitation. Policymakers must desist from adventurism,” said M. Raghuviaiah of the National Federation of Indian Railway Men.