The year was 1974. Then-Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s image that was built on pro-poor policies and the 1971 war victory was waning. In the summer of 1974, the All India Railwaymen’s Federation (AIRF), announced a strike, perhaps the largest ever in history ( over a million people participated) and this stands as yet another example of how public institutions are broken down by Indian politicians.
The AIRF was a bastion of leftists. Big names like Jayaprakash Narayan, Jyoti Basu were associated with it during various points in time in post-Independent India. Worrying over the potential voter base, the Indian National Congress launched its own union — the Indian National Railway Workers’ Federation (INRWF). These two unions were merged, only to break up later. AIRF went back to its original structure, but with the creation of various other unions, the power of AIRF was diluted. All other unions acted as puppets of the ruling INC, which made it difficult for shared comradery among these unions.
The Indian Railways itself operates in a unique setup. The government owns it and influences policies, especially passenger fares, but the Railway board, a group of IRAS officers hold the ultimate control over the entity till date, though Piyush Goyal has tried to do something about it. The bureaucrats of this nature have lesser regard for the railway worker compared to a politician, who would at least want to work for votes. The grievances of railwaymen were plenty but never heard. Various small scale strikes were held throughout the 20th century, post and pre-independence, but none of them had a major impact. The Indian railways did not follow the 8-hour work rule, which was a problem, especially for the locomotive drivers. Steam engines were hard to work, with loco pilots expected to run them from source to destination. Post-independence, diesel trains started to be slowly introduced and could travel larger distances compared to the steam engine, but there were no changes in the working conditions of the locomotive crew.
Indeed, this problem was simmering for decades and small scale strikes of localized nature reared their heads throughout the 60s and 70s. None were successful or had a major impact. The major unions slowed progress down and workers were disillusioned by them. Working conditions did not improve. It all started with the crafts union. A relatively small and new union, it revolted against the inaction of established unions. And the AIRF, now headed by George Fernandes, supported it. A nationwide strike was called and the nation’s lifeline came to a halt. Indira Gandhi, who famously nationalized the banks to supposedly help the poor, was not happy that workers dared to ask for their rights. She tried to suppress them using her power. Thousands of striking workers were arrested and fired. But she was careful not to make new leaders, instructing her railway minister to not arrest George Fernandes which would result in him being hailed as a hero, though that was inevitable. She also made sure goods trains were unaffected and one passenger train ran between major cities.
The strike, which lasted 20 days had major repercussions. The perception of Indira Gandhi’s image changed and further events led to some overcompensation. Large scale strikes against a government entity had not been done before. Though George Fernandes, an LTTE supporting, possible CIA spy, and middle-class Bangalorean is widely credited today for the strike, he was not very popular with the rank and file mainly due to his action post the strike. Many felt he caved in after 20 days and he was not very helpful to those that got fired during the strike when he became railway minister later. The strike, in general, was brought to an end due to the brutal suppression of the Indira Gandhi government. The governments after that, at the centre and the state, remained wary of the power of unions and slowly brought them under their control. No major strike affecting the public happens these days, but token one-day bandhs are aplenty, often leading to no major change. Unions that exist today in government and government entities are only extensions of major parties and only exist as another avenue of corruption. It stands as another failed institution along with numerous others, which makes me really sceptical of the left vs right debate over progress and development. With such corrupt institutions existing on both sides of the political spectrum, I have little hope that either a revolution or completely free markets will solve the problems in our country unless our politicians stop meddling with our public institutions.
Eventually, the locomotive pilots got what they rightfully deserved. 8-hour rule is now the norm and the locomotive pilots got fixed hours and fixed routes which not only made their lives easier but also made our train journeys safer.