With no proper accommodation, substandard working conditions of railway trackmen pose questions to the authority with no answers.
Bengaluru: Sharif and Venkatesh are colleagues. They work in an old government office in Yeshwanthpur near the railway station. Although the huge Ashok trees surround the place, the hustle-bustle of the railway station disturbs the silence of this area.
Sharif was commissioned as a trackman in 2008 while Venkatesh joined on 12th July 2017.
Sharif said that he was not aware that there is a job profile known as trackmen in Indian Railway. After his father’s sudden demise, he felt that it was time to be the bread earner of the family. In those days, joining any government job was prestigious. He got to know that no one will care if his last mark-sheet was of 10th grade; being a trackman just requires physical endurance on the tracks.
Venkatesh on the other hand had a different scenario. After he completed his B.Tech, he sat for the RRC (Railway Recruitment Cell) examination and is now a trackman. A trackman that works in the office but gets paid same as a trackman that repairs the track on a daily basis.
Although, they both differ in a way that they came into this profession but one thing connects them. Besides a regular salary, there are no extra amenities provided to them by the railways. These extra amenities are proper housing, fixed work hours and medical benefits.
Venkatesh said that the only type of extra amenities provided to them is in the form of safety equipment. This equipment consists of monsoon jackets and other tools.
There are many quarters build inside the premises of Yashwanthpur pavement office. While the main office is on the right side, there is a line of quarters build towards the left. Sharif Sheikh said, “There are many quarters here but none of them are vacant. All the quarters belong to grade A employees.”
He added that it is true that the salary structure of trackmen has evolved with time but the danger at work and working conditions remains the same. “I remember carrying six to seven heavy instruments on the tracks, now it’s just two to three but we are habitual to carry it all.”
During the first and second wave of Covid-19, the problems of trackmen came to the surface. Mini Koshta, female trackman, said that when other railway departments were provided with the option of alternative duty, only trackmen were out of this benefit. They had to come to the tracks daily for regular patrolling and maintenance.
Koshta said, “The tracks are dirty all the time. On top of it, the quantity of sanitizers and masks provided by the department were not enough.” She added that the concept of social distancing doesn’t works with them because all trackmen from a unit eat lunch together. “Most of the time, trackmen eat on the side of tracks and during Covid it was the same.”
Most of the time people confuse track cleaners with trackmen. Koshta said that there are not enough track cleaners in each division. “It so happens that people spit and throw food on tracks, and if cleaners are not available supervisors instructs trackmen to clean the mess.” When the virus was strong; this was a major reason why so many trackmen got infected, she added.
A little change was brought in the lives of trackmen by introducing a rail bicycle in 2020. Koshta said that this bicycle was brought for inspection and monitoring of tracks. “A similar bike was introduced three four years back too. But it was not successful even then and now, the divisions do not have this bike. There were some mechanical issues which are not been fixed yet.”
Koshta said that riding this bicycle would have saved on time to reach a repair location. Instead of having to walk to a site, or wait for a rail cart to be brought on track, this was a simpler option for trackmen.
On paper it said that it could be a faster way to assess a track before a train passes. Koshta added that this was especially helpful during monsoon when trackmen are needed to inspect locations, vulnerable bridges and gates after a heavy shower. “But this project was never permitted to use.”
Keeping the weather situations in mind, the job of trackmen requires patience and persistence said Anil Tiwari, Assistant Station Master. He said that not only in monsoon, the work becomes even more difficult during winters.
This is because, in winters, cracks occur on tracks due to cold weather. There is a big key that holds together two tracks from the middle. It is made of hard metal and usually, the trackmen patrolling that area have it.
He added, “Cracks anyway happen. Sometimes it is because of the high-speed trains but mostly it happens in extremely cold conditions.”
Shubha, female trackman said that over-qualification of trackmen is another serious problem in this chapter. She said that due to new recruitments, there are over 45 per cent trackmen that are overqualified for this job. These trackmen come from an engineering background even with a reputed master’s degree in hand.
She said, “Some of them are overqualified while some of them have no education at all. They work together and get paid the same. Some manage to get promotion but still a few of them work on tracks every day.” Shubha added that even with promotion, the facilities of living and working do not change for them.
Although, it’s not the same for every trackman. Pushpa Raj Singh, Ex-trackman says that he had an Arts degree when he became a trackman. After his training; due to his educational background, he got shifted to the position of a junior clerk.
Like him there are many trackmen who are promoted to do a desk job. They handle administration works like maintaining data of employees, receiving and issuing of material to field and other salary and allowance claims. Singh said, “The difference is that we are not officially posted to do the desk work. It’s just a supportive hand to the administration department.”
Technology is constantly evolving for trackmen. Singh said that when he was in service that was in 2013-14, the best thing that was given to the trackmen were GPS systems. After 2015, other tools given to track maintainers have made things comparatively easier.
Tiwari said that trackmen have to be extremely vigilant in a case of emergency. “They (trackmen) use crackers on the track to inform the driver for stopping.” He added that sometimes it’s not possible to stop the train and if clamps on the track gets loosen up, they run for a kilometer or more on the track just to fix it.
Trackmen were previously referred to as gangmen and their activities revolve around maintaining tracks. The change in their term as ‘gangmen’ occurred until the Railway Union modified it due to the bad connotations which are connected to the word ‘gang’.
Sanjay Kumar, Chief Officer Superintendent in Divisional Railway Manager (DRM) office, said that the responsibilities of trackmen involves repairing, cleaning tracks, preservation of equipments, checking for rail cracks and searching out damages in fishplates (which sets two tracks together).
These trackmen set out each morning carrying heavy gadgets towalk alongside a stretch of rail to test for any possible defects. Sanjay said that they work all day under extreme heat and cold to make sure that trains run smoothly.
Indian railway has functionally divided the country into different zones. There are 18 zones in the country. Every zone has its own headquarter which is further divided into different divisions.
These divisions are subdivided into various small sections.
For Bengaluru, each division has 17 units or sections. These sections are nothing but the stretch of land that a group of trackmen have to cover and maintain. Previously, the section was around 14-16 kilometers but now its six to seven kilometers.
Every division has its own engineering department. The engineering department is further divided into two work forces – construction and maintenance of railway tracks. Trackmen come under the maintenance part of it.
Now, each section is headed by a Permanent Way Inspector (PWI) which is a supervisory post. Under them, around 30-40 trackmen work. Trackmen work under three shifts – 8 am to 4 pm, 4pm-12 pm and 12 pm to 8 am.
PWI decides the shifts of each trackman that works under him. Usually, the trackmen are posted in the crossing gates and they are given individual unit number. Each crossing gates has around five to six trackmen posted.
Kumar said that this crossing gate system is prevalent in tier-II cities, but for metro cities like Bengaluru, trackmen are posted in stations itself. He added, “Ideally these trackmen should be provided with accommodations near the area where they are posted, which means railway quarters.”
Explaining further, trackmen usually work in pairs. This is because tracks are divided into two lines – up line and down line. One trackman will go towards the former while the other will move towards the later till they reach the nearest section.
The recruitment system of trackmen is partially the same as it was 10-20 years ago, Kumar said.
He said that for a trackman to get recruited, the physical requirements are the same as a soldier. They were supposed to carry around 10-20 kg of sack on their shoulder and run for 2 km. Female candidates are also recruited in the same way.
In the initial days, it was just normal basis recruitment (i.e., labor ways). Now, recruitment is done through an examination conducted by the RRC board (Railway Recruitment Cell) which is under the Railway recruitment board.
After examination, a physical test is conducted for recruitment.
Kumar said that at initial recruitment, training will be provided for all the employees which are valid for five years. Kumar added that maximum trackmen retire as key men (who patrol tracks) while the operating situations continues to be the same till their retirement.
Many times the authorities have commented on the working situations, wages and promotion possibilities of trackmen with a sign of improvement. Reports say that trackmen have advanced over the years, with technology along with salaries and accommodations.
According to a report tabled in 2015 parliament stated that females represent only 6.7 percent of the total railway employees. This representation isn’t just rested towards the tough operational activities however, it consists the administrative posts too.
The railways claimed that woman personnel serving in those posts have submitted numerous complaints regarding lack of proper sanitation and difficult operating situations especially on the tracks.
Shubha said that most of the female trackmen are given office work right after their training. She said that when female trackmen work on tracks, they face a lot of problems. “There are no proper washrooms is the major one.” She added that these are some problems which can be easily solved by the authority but instead of addressing them, the number of female trackmen is decreasing every year.
Shubha said, “I am the only one female trackman in the entire office. Also, there are no females working on the tracks. So, it’s just restricted to office work.”
Sanjay Vishwas, union member at DRM office said that trackmen are usually made to work for long hours. “We work for long hours every day. We have even worked till late night which has serious repercussions to our health.”
Vishwas said that the union has many times written letters to the engineering department to work on the shift pattern of trackmen. “There are so many site accidents that happen at night but still the authorities are quiet on the constant exploitation.”
Vishwas added that India has become quiet on the deaths of trackmen. In 2013-14, there were many reports stating that a trackman’s job is far more dangerous than that of security forces.
The average might be less but there are still 2-3 accidents in every two to three months, Vishwas said. “Mostly trackmen are run over by trains while patrolling the tracks. All they get after their death is a compensation which takes years to get cleared because the families are not well aware of the process.”
Subrato Mukherjee, human-rights activist at Aman Satya Kachroo Trust Kolkata, said that people don’t know what it takes to save the lives of millions travelling on trains. The work is tougher than it seems on the outside. He added that trackmen are no less than guardians of the biggest voluntary organization of India and there is no way that railway can work without them.
“Even after losing their lives on tracks, these courageous men and women wake up everyday and do their work with full honesty. It has to be a constant effort from all the ends to make their conditions better.”
Venkatesh said that most trackmen are usually happy with the type of work they do. “We do not expect much. We know it’s a hard job and understand that everything can’t be flowery in a professional space.” He is planning to call him family from Madurai to settle with him. Even after two years of constant letters to the department, he still hopes railway will provide him with a quarter nearby.
Meanwhile, Sharif is just silent. He just finishes his 9-6 job and goes back home. His 15 years of service has taught him much and the one thing he knows well is that, “change takes time.” He thinks that maybe someday the life of a trackman will be equally dignified as that of an officer.