Mumbai: The general secretary of the largest trade union in Central Railways—the National Railway Mazdoor Union—P.R. Menon, has been working 14 hours a day, addressing workers, holding gatemeetings and at times dropping in at railway men’s residential colonies.
But Menon is not complaining. For him and other leaders of registered trade unions with the Indian Railways, the stakes are high as the largest workforce in India and the largest railway system in the world in terms of number of employees, goes to the polls on 26-28 November. The secret ballot will decide which of the contesting unions will be accorded recognition to negotiate on their behalfwith the largest employer in the country.
Results of the polls will be announced on 3 December. Former Railway Board chairman C.L. Kaw has been appointed the chairman of the secret ballot committee that will oversee the elections. Currently, in addition to the two recognized unions, each zone has a few more unions attached to political parties.
This is the first election in the Indian Railways’ 154 years history and the railway ministry is treating it on a par with the general elections in the country. Some 2,000 polling booths are coming up across the railway network and some 5,000 railway protection force personnel will try to maintain law and order during the three-day electoral process.
The elections will bring about a significant change in the way trade unions have functioned in the railways. While traditionally two unions—the National Federation of Indian Railwaymen’s, affiliated to the Indian National Trade Union Congress, and the All Indian Railwaymen’s Federation, affiliated to the Hind Mazdoor Sabha—have been recognized unions, the Supreme Court has recently ordered the railways to hold a secret ballot.
Under the court’s guidelines, only those unions that get 35% of the votes polled or 30% of the total electorate will be recognized by the management. If a union gets over 50% of votes, it will be the only recognized union. “Our demand has always been that there should be only one union for every industry since multiple unions lead to loss of bargaining power,” Menon said.
As India’s rail system struggles with the challenges posed by an ageing infrastructure and increasing load of passenger and freight traffic, there has been a concerted effort to outsource non-core activities including catering and parcel services. Also, vast tracts of land owned by the railways are now being handed over to the private sector in an attempt to garner additional income.
All this is posing a challenge to trade unions. Says R.P. Bhatnagar, president of the Central Railway Mazdoor Sangh, another recognized railwaymen’s union, “Vacancies to various posts are not being filled and the management has been cutting down on existing jobs. As a result of this the existing staff are over loaded. In the long run, this is sure to affect the quality of service they put in.”
The railways employed some 1.8 million workers in 1974 and the number is now down to 1.4 million while the number of trains has gone up significantly, notes Menon.