LABOUR HISTORYThe nation-wide railway strike of 1974 was repressed violently, foreshadowing things to come the following year. Yet, it did lead to long term gains, says RANA. P. BEHAL.
LOOKING BACK AT ANGER
While reading this book, my mind was flooded with memories of an almost never ending train journey from New Delhi Deserted railway stations with no porters or even hawkers in sight, manned by the men of Territorial Army, very long and unscheduled halts, overcrowded compartments with commuters sitting even on the roof tops of train compartments. Assam Mail, which normally completes this journey to ferry its hungry and exhausted commuters to Guwahati. The reason: the all-India strike of the railway workers, the subject of study in the book under review.
The author, Stephen Sherlock, has presented a historical account of the all-India railways strike of May 1974 based on an impressive range of source materials: from trade union papers and publications for political parties to private papers of important trade union leaders like George Fernandes and interviews with Union leaders, activists and political leaders - as well as an equally impressive range of secondary publications. While focusing on the central issue of capital-labour relationship, its conflicts and contradictions, the author has also dwelled upon the interconnections of its larger world of trade unions and labour leaders, political parties and political leaders, the railway bureaucracy and the State. He has analysed the growth of labour militancy during the 1960s and 1970s in the context of developments within the railway labour movement as well as in the context of emerging social movements against injustice, deprivation and impoverishment across the country.
During the 1960s unrest grew amongst railway workers on the issue of low wages, harsh working conditions and long hours of work. The negative response from the management (various forms of repressive measures against labour militancy) and the inability of the two railway unions recognised by the Railway Board All India Railway men's Federation (AIRF) and National Federation of Indian Railwaymen (NFIR) to fight for their grievances and protect their interests generated a sense of frustration and alienation among workers. Recognised union leadership was increasingly perceived to be corrupt and prone to fall prey to material privileges due to their proximity with the railway management. There was a perception amongst the worker-activitists that the Government, the railway management and the recognised unions were co-operating and working together to supress and control the militant and independent activities of workers. Under these circumstances, a sense of collective and independent action to fight for their interests led to formation of independent, category-based unions like the Loco Running Staff Association. The category unions led several industrial actions in 1960, 1967, 1968 and 1970 without the involvement of recognised unions. The author considers these developments a clear sign of the labour militancy and rudiments of class-consciousness among the railway workers leading towards the all-India railway strike in May 1974.
The strike of May 1974 started with a major setback when all its main leaders like Fernandes, along with scores of active local level leaders were arrested on the night of May 2. However, there were several areas in the country where the strike was intense, with remarkable display of solidarity among workers, and other sections of society. The strike was led by the AIRF with Fernandes as its president.
The Government and the railway management unleashed a reign of terror deploying security forces on the workers and their families. The author has argued that this was a dress rehearsal for Mrs. Gandhi's authoritarian regime during the Emergency, which began a year later. He says there were already conflicting and contradictory views on the decision to strike both within the AIRF and between the AIRF and category unions. As a result, there were instances of sabotage and cooperation with the management during the strike. The political leadership from among the non-Congress (I) parties like the Communist Party of India (CPI), the Communist Party of India (Marxist) (CPI (M)) and the socialists, constrained by their internal political compulsions, were keen to have a quick negotiated settlement rather than a prolonged general strike. This created a sense of confusion and uncertainty among rank and file worker activists. By the end of May 1974, the strike had been suppressed without any immediate gains.
However, the author does not go along with a view that the strike was a total failure. There were long-term gains. It re-established the railway labour force and its movement as a social force to be treated with a degree of respect. It showed that despite occupational and cultural divisions in an industry spread over the vastness of India, it could achieve a sense of solidarity. Many of the demands like bonus were granted later on in the form of productivity link bonus in 1977. Despite some overlapping and repetitions, this book is one of the best additions to the literature on labour history of post-Independent India.
The Indian Railway Strike of 1974: A Study of Power and Organised Labour, Stephen Sherlock, Rupa & Co., New Delhi, 2001, paperback, p. 513, Rs. 295.
The writer teaches modern history at Deshbandhu College, New Delhi.
CRISIS ON THE RAILWAYS
Hundreds of trains ground to a halt, and hundreds of others remained immobilised in their sheds or yards and at platforms at various railway stations throughout the country as an overwhelming majority of 70,000 loco running staff started reporting sick on Wednesday, August reporting sick on Wednesday, August 2. For the first few days no one seemed sure how widespread the protest was, and very few of those sweating in the humid and crowded railway stations had any idea of the grievances of this section of the 14 lakh railway employees which led to the virtual strike.
This was the third time during the last eight months that locomen has resorted to strike, disrupting railway traffic in almost all zones. The last strike took place only as recently as in May, when train movements on a 10,000 km route length were thrown out of gear. Locomen let off all steam to immobilise the belching locomotives. The earlier protest strike in March had affected train movements in two ones only North and Western.
In fact, the locomen had been going on strike every year since 1967 to press their long neglected demands. This movement of the running staff has for long been led by the South Zone, where the All India Loco Running Staff Association has its headquarters. It was, therefore, the running staff in the Southern Zone that initiated the first steps towards direct action in 1967 to press its demands, which even then included an eight-hour working day. In 1968, the agitation spread to the South-Central railway. There was still another strike in 1969 but the first major protest came in 1970, when railway traffic in the entire Southern Zone was paralysed for several days. Still another agitation in 1971 led to a settlement at the level of the Southern zonal manager's level but only for the terms of the agreement to gather dust. In the rickety railway almirahs. Next year, 1972, train traffic in the Southern Zone remained disrupted for as long as 21 days.
COUNTRY WIDE STIR
This time, the aggrieved locomen succeeded in organising an All-India agitation covering almost all the nine zones and immobilising most of the 11,000 locomotives on the tracks. On the second day of the strike itself, 405 trains were reported to have been cancelled, though the Railway Board had maintained that most of them were only suburban ones and that the locomen's protest had not affected the express and mail passenger trains at all. The Railway Board declared the strike illegal, advising its zonal managers to secure the arrest of the strikers and to take punitive action. As the number of arrests increased reports of more and more trains being cancelled in different zones started pouring in into the Railway Board offices which still continued to maintain that most train services were running as usual.
It was painful experience for the high bureaucrats of the railway Board to be shocked out of their complacency and made aware that it was not as normal on railway tracks outside as they saw the conditions inside their offices. As the locomen's leaders went underground to evade arrest under the Defence of India Rules, several members took up the issue in Parliament. In the Lok Sabha, an adjournment motion supported by all the Opposition stalwarts including Prof. Hiren Mukherjee, trade union leader S. M. Banerjee, Bhogendra Jha succeeded in persuading the Chair to allow a debate on the issue. The walk-out in the Lok Sabha was followed by a heated discussion in the Rajya Sabha, where Bhupesh Gupta took up cudgets on behalf of the striking locomen. Railway Minister L. N. Mishra took a reasonable stand, agreeing to release all the arrested locomen once the agitation was called off and to look into their demands.
But as past experience had shown, it was not the Ministers who were to blame for the prolonged disturbed industrial relations on the Railways - which are the largest employers in the country - but the top bureaucrats of the railway Board. The unrest among the 14 lakh Railway employees has often, and rightly, been blamed on the Board, which is a legacy of the Raj days of railway administration. The Board, comprises a chairman, who is the ex-officio principal secretary to the Railway Ministry, financial commissioner and three other members, they act as executive heads for day-to-day administration and management of the 120 year old Indian railway network, which is the largest in Asia with an overall investment of Rs. 4,335 crores, a route length of 59,790 km., over 35,000 coaching vehicles and nearly four lakh wagons. It runs about 10,800 train services every day moving about 6.8 lakh passengers in different parts of the country.
The Board's position in the overall railway administration is clearly anachronistic. As the executive wing, it is responsible for the day-to-day administration of the network and as the ministerial secretariat, it is entrusted with the work of overall policy decisions and long-term planning. The officers who run the administration through the nine zonal managers also act as ministerial secretaries. This dual function has brought about many anomalies. Bureaucrats thus control not only the entire railways system but also themselves, while the Minister has to depend on them almost totally. This gives the member-secretaries a great leverage in administration and decision-making. There have been occasions when the bureaucrats arrogated all powers to themselves, treating the Ministers concerned as rubber stamps. At times, relations between the bureaucrats and the Ministers concerned have been greatly strained to the detriment of the administration. The Hanumanthaiya Ganguli clash serves as an example.
The locomen's case illustrates how this has, over the years, contributed to the strained industrial relations and prevented the solution of the employees' long-standing grievances. Solemn assurances made from the highest quarters have often been flouted.
When the locomen organised themselves as firemen's councils and loco drivers' association and later as the All India Loco Running Staff Association, as early as the 1967, the then Railway Minister C. M. Poonacha assured the running staff (after an agitation) that he would look into their demands. The job was soon passed over to Parimal Ghosh, who succeeded Poonacha. When the locomen renewed their agitation in mid 1968 to press their demands Ghosh again gave them a similar assurance. The Chief Minister of the four Southern States has intervened then to secure the redressal of the locomen's grievances, and the Prime Minister also said she herself would look into them. But all that Ghosh proposed was negatived by the Railway administration, from the zonal managers level to that of the Board. After waiting for months, the running staff once again approached the new railway minister, who by then was P. Govinda Menon. There were new assurances, and they again remained unfulfilled. The locomen started suspecting the intentions of the railway board which according to AILRSA President M. R. Sabhapathi, "was intend on nullifying all the assurances of all the ministers''. There was still another agitation in 1970. Once again in Tamilnadu and Kerala Chief Ministers intervened on the locomen's behalf and were told by G.L. Nanda, who had by then come to hold the charge of the railway ministry that dispute would be settled within 6 months. A high level meeting of the locomen's representatives and senior officials was held in Delhi in May 1970. It was agreed that each one of the 32 demands would be taken up one by one and settled. The railway Board also promised to treat the period of agitations as leave. Though the minutes of the meeting were recorded and maintained by the Board, 6 months later it went back on its assurance regarding the periods of agitation.