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Issue #1926      August 3, 2020

Railway privatisation

The working class and the people of our country have red flagged the Modi-led BJP government’s moves to privatise the railways in the country.

Thousands of workers across the country participated in the demonstrations opposing the unbundling of Indian Railways into pieces and handing it over to the corporate [sector] – domestic and foreign. According to the reports, demonstrations were held in front of 717 major railway stations in twenty-two states across the country. More than 30,000 workers including railway employees in several places participated in the demonstrations.

The BJP government has recently extended invitation of “Request for Qualification” (RFQ) to the private corporations, Indian and foreign, for operating 151 passenger trains between 109 pairs of major stations, over the Indian Railways tracks. The 151 private trains will operate in twelve clusters including Bengaluru, Chandigarh, Jaipur, Delhi, Mumbai, Patna, Prayagraj, Secunderabad, Howrah, Chennai.

It is to be recalled that within days of returning to power in the last year’s general elections, the government announced that its priorities to be taken up within 100 days. These included labour law amendments, privatisation and creating land banks to be handed over to big corporations. The 100 days action plan of the Indian Railways included corporatisation of the production units and other services. Privatisation of the railway stations had already started in its previous regime. Two private trains, the Tejas Expresses have also been started.

Indian Railways, one of the largest rail networks in the world, is the lifeline of our country’s economy. It carries more than [approximately twenty million] people every day from one place to another and is a part of the life of [millions] of our people. It is this sector playing a key role in our economic development, providing an affordable mode of transport to the common people, contributing to the unity and integrity of the nation, that the Modi-led BJP government wants to place at the altar of the private corporations, both domestic and foreign.

Privatising the railways, as part of the now discredited neoliberalism, was on the agenda of the ruling classes since the official advent of neoliberal regime in our country.

During around the last three decades, policies adopted by successive governments were aimed at diluting the responsibility of the government in providing basic and essential services to its citizens like health, education, affordable transport, communication services etc. All these are being increasingly handed over to private players for making profits. This process reached the pinnacle now under the second tenure of the Modi-led BJP regime.

In its first stint in governance, in 2014 itself, the Modi-I government set up the Bibek Debroy committee which recommended the destructive unbundling of the Indian Railways vertically and horizontally and handing it over piecemeal to the private corporations. It has announced 100 per cent FDI (foreign direct investment) in almost all the activities performed by Indian Railways – construction, operations, maintenance, rolling stock, dedicated lines, train sets etc.

It is appalling that it has chosen the period of lock-down, imposed under the Disastrous Management Act, ostensibly to contain COVID-19, to fast-track all these measures. Probably it hopes that the present time, where people bound down by lock-down protocols that prevent them from coming together en masse to lodge their protests against the attacks on their livelihood and against measures intended to mortgage the interests of the nation, is the best opportunity to be “seized”, as suggested by the NITI Aayog CEO. The BJP government probably derives sadistic pleasure in grabbing this as an opportunity.

But the working class and the people of the country have decided to belie such hopes. Even during the lock-down, braving many difficulties and restrictions, toiling people, the workers, peasants and agricultural workers have been increasingly coming out to raise their voice against the anti-people policies that are being pushed by the Modi-led BJP government through ordinances, notifications etc. The 3rd July, 2020 all India protest day called by the joint trade union platform, witnessed participation of around 12 lakh [1.2 million] workers across the country. That was followed by the protests against railway privatisation on 16-17 th July, 2020.

The call for protests against railway privatisation was given by the CITU [Centre of Indian Trade Unions] as per the decision of its secretariat that met online on 7th July, 2020. Despite the short notice, all the state committees of CITU took up the issue seriously. Railway privatisation impacts the country, its economy and the people, particularly the poor, the workers and employees, the small vendors etc, who travel everyday to their workplaces. CITU also urged upon all patriotic and progressive sections of the people to join the protests against this anti-national measure. It has also appealed to the railway employees irrespective of their affiliations to unite and oppose privatisation of the railways.

In many states, peasants, agricultural workers, students and youth also joined the demonstrations despite Section 144 and other restrictive measures being put in place by the administration. In several places workers including railway employees were prevented from participating in the demonstrations and even arrested.

The central leadership of CITU protested with placards and flags in front of Rail Bhawan, the headquarters of railway ministry on July 16th morning. They also participated in the demonstration held in front of New Delhi railway station by the Delhi state committee of CITU on 17th July.

Around 10,500 people participated in the demonstrations in West Bengal where demonstrations were held in front of 101 railway stations including the headquarters of Eastern Railways, the Eastern Railway Bhawan in Kolkata, where a big mobilisation was held. Large numbers of railway employees led by the Eastern Railwaymen’s Union affiliated to All India Railwaymen’s Federation (AIRF) joined the protests in West Bengal, Jharkhand, Bihar etc.

The Dakshin Railway Employees’ Union (DREU) affiliated to CITU took the initiative in extending total support and mobilising the railway employees in the demonstrations in Tamil Nadu, Kerala and also in some districts in Andhra Pradesh wherever it has influence. In Tamil Nadu, demonstrations were held in front of 113 major railway stations including the Chennai Central station. More than 3,200 workers participated in these. Police arrested the DREU members in Sengottai and Katpadi junction stations in Tamil Nadu.

In Mumbai, demonstrations were held in front of four major railway stations. In addition, protests were held in front of thirty-four other railway stations in the state including Nasik, Aurangabad, Solapur etc. Hundreds of workers participated in a dharna [unlawful assembly of five or more people] in front of Solapur railway station and were arrested.

Demonstrations were held in front of ninety stations each across Andhra Pradesh and Telangana. Hundreds of people demonstrated in front of Vijayawada station in Andhra Pradesh. Sixteen people were arrested in Telangana including in Hyderabad, Kothagudem etc. Members of AITUC [All India Trade Union Congress] and IFTU [Indian Federation Trade Unions] also joined the protests in Andhra Pradesh.

More than 2,000 workers and others participated in the demonstrations held in Jharkhand and Odisha. In Jharkhand, demonstrations were held in front of fifty-two big and small stations including Dhanbad, Hatia, Bokaro etc. These stations were under three zones, Eastern Railway, South Eastern Railway and East Central Railway. Demonstrations were held in front of Rourkela, Cuttack and other important stations in Odisha.

Over 1,000 workers participated in the demonstrations in Assam, Karnataka and Punjab. In Punjab, CITU members including Anganwadi employees participated in the demonstrations held in thirty-two stations in eighteen districts. Workers marched in processions in villages and towns when they were not allowed to reach the railway stations. The Anganwadi Mulajam Union, Punjab took the initiative to organise the demonstrations in eight stations on 17th July. Despite the flood situation, protests were held in front of sixteen railway stations in six districts in Assam. In Karnataka, protests could not be held in Bengaluru where total lockdown was imposed, but they were held in front of seventy-five railway stations in other districts.

Despite the repression by the BJP-led government in Tripura, demonstrations were held in eight stations in five districts in Tripura. In Panisagar, police arrested CITU cadres. In other places too they prevented people from participating in the demonstrations. Despite this, workers formed a human chain along the railway track in some stations.

Hundreds of workers joined the demonstrations in almost all the other states. In Jammu and Kashmir, despite the troubled conditions, protests were held in Anantnag, Baramulla and Pattan in Kashmir valley. Demonstration was held in front of the Northern Railway DGM office in Jammu.

In Kerala, the High Court has prohibited mobilisations due to COVID-19. Despite this, symbolic protests were held in fourteen places in some districts like Kozhikode, Waynad, Idukki etc.

The All India Loco Running Staff Association called upon its members to support and participate in the demonstrations. Loco Running staff participated in many places. Besides DREU, members of CITU affiliated unions in Chittaranjan Locomotives, in the Integral Coach Factory Chennai etc also participated in the protests in large numbers.

It is significant that many general workers, including scheme workers also took this issue seriously. Many participated in the protests displaying handmade placards and banners. Several unions prepared posters and widely circulated them through social media networks. The IT unions have initiated an innovative measure by changing their Facebook profile pictures to include the demand to stop railway privatisation.

The central trade unions have also expressed their anger at the attempts of the BJP government led by Modi to privatise railways and are in the process of taking up joint all India protest against this in the coming days. CITU appeals to all national federations of railway employees to come together and discharge their due role in the struggle against privatisation of railways. It also urges upon all railway employees to unite irrespective of affiliations and join the trade union movement in fighting the neoliberal policies, of which railway privatisation is an integral part.

People’s Democracy

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