New Delhi: For the first time in its 154-year history, the Indian Railways, under pressure from the Delhi high court, is poised to hold elections to decide, through secret ballot, the leadership of its trade unions.
An election could challenge the sway of the two apex unions, affiliated to the Congress and the Left parties, which were the only ones that were granted the right to negotiate with the management of the railways.
While multiple unions are allowed, the Congress-controlled National Federation of Indian Railwaymen (NFIR) and the Left-aligned All-India Railwaymen’s Federation (AIRF) have been the only ones with the right to negotiate labour deals.
“We will finalize the modalities of conducting the polls within a month,” said an officer who is part of the committee headed by former Railway Board chairman C.L. Kaw, which is framing ground rules for the elections.
The railways also plans to enforce a “one employee, one union” norm that will eliminate multiple union memberships, added the official, who didn’t want his name used.
The polls, which would involve 1.4 million workers of the railways, would be held at the zonal level involving workers from all 16 railway zones.
If the elections throw up an alternative, such as the Bharatiya Janata Party’s Bharatiya Railway Mazdoor Sangh, (BRMS), it could potentially introduce an element of uncertainty to structural reforms—including such controversial measures that outsource jobs to the private sector—that are key to the future growth of the railways.
At present, there are two unions at the apex level and they have two affiliates in each of the zones. Together with these 34 unions, there are on an average between three and five unions, which owe their allegiance to other political parties, in each zone. All of them will be contesting the upcoming zonal elections.
As of now, even though many unions, including the BRMS, have been registered with the registrar of trade unions, they have not been recognized by the Railway Board for negotiating on behalf of the workers as they are not affiliated with either of the two apex unions which historically have been running the trade union movement in the railways.
This radical change has come at the behest of the courts. The BRMS had appealed to the Delhi high court asking for the railways to hold trade union elections at the earliest. An order was passed in March asking the railways to hold polls within six months.
“BRMS has been working without official recognition for the past four decades,” said BRMS president D.M. Ramdeo.
“NFIR and AIFR, on the other hand, have been enjoying the benefits of recognition. Ever since the (Delhi high) court ordered elections within six months, by 22 September, we have been awaiting the notification (for conducting elections). But we suspect that the Railway Board and the two recognized federations are acting in collusion... That is why we have demanded that the labour department, or any other neutral agency, should conduct the elections.”
The BRMS has also demanded before the board that the recognition of the two federations should stand withdrawn to ensure a level playing field the moment the notification is issued.
The special negotiation rights conferred to the two unions backed by the Congress and the Left have also led to the criticism that the railways is perhaps the only public sector undertaking where workers’ unions are totally dominated by those affiliated with the UPA coalition currently in power. “The Left- and Congress-backed unions have been offering tacit support to Lalu’s ministry and that is no secret,” says a former railway official, referring to railway minister Lalu Prasad Yadav.
Some critics say this is why the two unions have never troubled the railway management beyond a point even though the behemoth has steadily reduced manpower and invited private players to participate in projects.
NFIR secretary general M. Raghavaiah said allegations that his union was colluding with the railways management were baseless. “We have taken up issues with the pay commission and forced the management to consider filling up vacancies. We are first a railway trade union and our political affiliations are secondary,” said Raghavaiah, dismissing the criticism that they had gone “soft” on Lalu. “The (union) elections will not have any impact on us,” he said. “Our unions are bound to win.”
AIRF general secretary J.P. Chaubey said the union had strongly opposed the railways’ public-private partnership programme, as proof that the union does go against management. “When the railways announced they were looking for private partnership for the Kapurthala Coach Factory, we told them to purchase the technology and not to enter into a joint venture,” he said. “We are putting the pressure on the management.”