After a day’s work on Monday, Mumbaiites returning home were held to ransom by local train motormen who went on hunger strike – and taxi drivers who milked the resulting desperate demand for road transport.
Around 800 of 1,100 motormen on the Central and Western railways began their strike on Monday morning. Until 4 pm, trains ran on schedule – after that the motormen started complaining about their health and more than 50 short-terminated train services. By 6.30 pm, almost 90 per cent of them joined the strike. Over 70 per cent of train services were cancelled, the rest run with barely 10 per cent of motormen staff.
State Home Minister R R Patil has recommended that the Essential Services and Maintenance Act (ESMA) be invoked. Under the Act, the strike can be declared illegal and the motormen can be arrested and fired if they do not report to work.
While the railway administration spent the day debating invoking ESMA, commuters suffered. Chief public relations officers of the WR and CR told Hindustan Times they expected a final decision on ESMA by Tuesday morning.
The motormen refused to budge until late on Monday evening. “The authorities have not approached us yet, so the strike continues,” said Devendra Yadav, convenor, Joint Action Forum, which is representing the striking motormen.
“The demands are being discussed with the Railway Ministry as well. The strike is unwarranted,” said CR chief PRO, S Mudgerikar. Most of the city’s 65 lakh suburban rail commuters were stranded at various stations, or stuck in packed buses or in traffic jams for hours before they reached their homes.
“Churchgate station was chaotic; trains ran late and were badly overcrowded, and we couldn’t find a taxi for 30 minutes,” said Shreya Shetty, a government law college student. Most buses were overcrowded and skipped stops because they simply couldn’t take any more passengers. Many commuters tried to reach originating bus stops in a bid to get seats.
“It took us more than two hours to reach Mahim from Colaba. The bus was crowded and didn’t stop at most stops after Dadar,” said Mahim resident, Pankaj Vashisht. Taxi drivers exploited the situation. “We couldn’t find a taxi to go from CST to Worli. We had to fight with a taxi driver, who was demanding double the fare,” said Prabhadevi resident, Sunil Samarth.
Virar-based Vijay Panchal (42) was one of the commuters gathered around the indicator at Churchgate station. He worried he would have to stay the night at his office if the trains took too long to arrive. “I had been forced to do that the last time there was a similar strike – I hope I don’t have to do it again today.”
Commuters blamed the railway administration for its failure to gauge the seriousness of the situation, and its inability to ensure smooth running of services. CST and Churchgate stations were swarming with angry commuters who had already waited hours for their trains back home. At Churchgate, angry commuters broke a ticket-booking window and threatened a stationmaster.
Commuter violence was also seen at Grant Road, Charni Road, Parel and Kurla stations, forcing police to cane them.
As part of contingency measures to handle commuters spilling over into the road transport network, 2,000 public and private buses had been pressed into service. The BEST ran additional services, while the railways allowed commuters to travel on outstation trains that halted at major stations.
Some sneak out for a bite
The motormen were in for a surprise when one of their fellow employees was caught eating idli at a well-known eatery outside Churchgate station.
The striking employees had a tough time explaining to their fellow workers indiscretion.
“He couldn’t have been one of us,” said a motorman, requesting anonymity.