A group of track maintainers conduct railway maintenance work at Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (CST), Mumbai. Once known as gang men (since they work in gangs) before the nomenclature was termed offensive, they test and assess track health and conduct repairs and maintenance.
The men walk along miles of railway lines for an average of eight hours a day, sometimes more, in all-weather conditions, often carrying 20-25 kg in monitoring equipment and other tools. They must check that the ballast or track bed below the sleepers is packed correctly, repair cracks and fishplate damage, make sure nuts, bolts and welding are intact, and check on the clips that hold rails to the sleepers.
It is a dangerous job. About 400 track maintainers are killed every year in train accidents, mainly because the only thing to keep them from being run over is a manual alert system where other men blow a whistle and shout down the line to let them know a train is coming.
Last January, railway minister Suresh Prabhu announced that the Railways would use ‘Rakshak’ devices – walkie-talkies to help supervisors contact track maintainers in real time so they’d know when to move away from tracks. But each device costs Rs 80,000 and it was deemed too expensive and experimental. To this day, the trackmen of Mumbai’s suburban network still rely on signals and whistles to alert one another about approaching trains.
Some track maintainers who serve Mumbai’s Central Railway live as far as Igatpuri and Karjat, located two and three hours away from the Mumbai Metropolitan Region. Since it is inconvenient for them to travel back and forth every day, they are accommodated in ‘tapris’ or temporary dwellings such as the one above.
There are tapris sprinkled along the railway lines. Five men currently live in this tapri, located just beyond Platform 6 at CST. It is a bare room with hooks where the men hang their clothes and possessions. They also take turns to do the cooking. “I’ve made a 3 kg handi of pulao for us today,” says trackman Vijay Harpal (standing). “I cook in huge quantities because we eat like tigers. We need all the energy we can get,” he says.
Post-lunch, the men unwind for a half-hour of R&R before returning to work outside.
The CST tapri has no running water or toilet. There’s a mat that the men share in place of a bed, and implements and parts piled in one section, like scrap. “This is where we keep our tools, clothes, and mobiles while we are out working,” says Umesh Janardhan Koli (32, third from left). Koli has been a track maintainer for nine years.
The lone source of water comes from a tap just outside the tapri. This water is used for bathing, cooking and washing utensils. “The lack of amenities is the least of our problems. More often than not, miscreants and drunken louts who walk along railway lines stand outside the tapri and throw rocks at us,” Koli reveals. “I’ve lost count of the number of times we’ve complained to the railway police.”
“No one really wants to become a track man, because you can’t get promoted or transferred to another department. Once you’re in, you’re in for life – unless you leave,’ says Rahul Kumar (25, left), from Rabdi village in Bihar’s Gaya district.
Kumar lives with his wife, Shanti (seated), and two sons in a one-room flat in GTB Nagar, Mumbai. “A few days after moving to Mumbai, I’d gone to CST with my husband to see the kind of work he does,” says Shanti. “His is a thankless job. I don’t like it one bit.”
“I have no complaints, but it would be nice if we got decent raincoats during monsoon,” says Sandeep Boyesar (extreme left). “The ones we have are useless in the Mumbai rains and water seeps in anyway. Working in the monsoon is most difficult because there’s a greater risk of getting a shock from damaged overhead wires.”
Ramesh Bhadange, 57, is the mate or seniormost member of the gang of track maintainers we followed, who maintain the tracks running out of CST. He has been a trackman for 38 years. Originally from Manmad village in Nashik district, he lives in the CST tapri and stays in his Railway quarters, situated three hours away, once a week. “I am looking forward to retiring in three years,” Bhadange says.
Mumbai’s track maintainers work in shifts that typically stretch from 8 am to 5 pm or 10 pm to 6 am. Work like lifting, packing and tightening rail joints, checking ballast, and hand-raking debris is done in the day. Repair work and replacements are done between 1 am and 4 am.
35-year-old Ganesh Chavan (second from left) is the senior-most trackman after Ramesh Bhadange and has been in the profession for 10 years. “Our most important auzaar (tool) is alertness,” he says. “It’s challenging to meet expected outputs with trains coming and going every two minutes. We are sometimes called to do a double-shift too, and I’d like to see that changed. Even though they pay us for extra duty, it’s exhausting to do heavy labour in the day and be called again near some station at night to do the same thing.”
Chavan attends a night school in Parel, a distance of over 35km from his home in the distant suburb of Kalwa. “I’ve only studied till the eighth grade. I want to change that,” he adds.