In the railway workforce, trackmen play a vital role. They install, inspect and maintain rail lines. In insurgency ridden areas, an alert trackman may be the only one to forestall disaster if he detects in time a loosened fishplate or a planted explosive. It is estimated that at least 2 lakh such personnel are required to patrol and maintain the 1.4 lakh km of rail lines in the country. It is a tough and risky job to keep the tracks safe — on average, over 300 trackmen are killed in service every year, around 3,000 are maimed in accidents. It makes news headlines whenever engineers or PhD holders apply in droves for clerical posts in the Railways. Despite this hankering for a secure Railways job, there is a shortfall of around 50,000 trackmen. Yet, believe it or not, there are at least 30,000 trackmen not attending to their official duties. Why? Thanks to a warped culture of privilege, they are being used as ‘domestic helps’ in the residences of senior Railways babus. A Railways circular recently circulated in the Vijayawada division of South Central Railways, and quoted in the media, gives a telling glimpse of this sheer wastage of precious human resource. The circular says that pointsmen (or trackmen) are deputed for various works which are “not included in the duties of pointsmen like sending them out for bringing tea, scks and other persol works that are highly irregular and result in non-exchange of alright sigls for trains, delay in attending failures etc., and inviting unsafe situations and adverse comments.” So that is the sad story in a nutshell — railway personnel who should be manning the tracks to keep these secure for trains, are instead doing household work at the beck and call of high officials. Mercifully, the Central government has now woken up to this perversity, possibly goaded by the three train derailments within a fortnight in August last. After a distressed Suresh Prabhu made clear his wish to be relieved as Railway Minister and Piyush Goyal was appointed in his place, the overhaul has begun in earnest. In a recent order, the Railway Ministry has scrapped a circular of 1981 that had institutiolized such pernicious VIP culture. All senior officials have been asked to relieve railway staff engaged as domestic help in their homes; reportedly, around 6,000-7,000 personnel have reported back to work in the past month alone.
The new Railway Minister has done away with the protocol of senior officials travelling in cosy saloons and having executive class travel privileges; he wants them to start travelling in sleeper and AC 3-tier classes, mingling with other passengers. The practice of general magers presenting themselves whenever the Railway Board chairman or other members came visiting on zol visits — has also been ended forthwith. So, whether at office or home, senior Railway officers are being told to exercise restraint and not block up human resource due to a false sense of status or privilege. This is surely a laudable move, and is in line with the ban on red beacons by the Central government from May 1 this year. However, a number of ministers and political leaders, many of State level, have openly defied the ban, some in front of mediapersons. Even in Assam, despite the State government enthusiastically supporting the ban, a tendency has been observed in the increasing use of blue flashing beacons, which only ambulances and vehicles of the police, army and fire service should be having to cut through traffic. Clearly, the VIP culture remains entrenched among sections of political leadership and babudom, and they are fighting back teciously to hold on to their privileges.
Even the Army top brass is seized of this problem over the use of sahayaks or ‘buddies’ by senior officers. A relict of colonial times, the ‘buddy’ system allows combat soldiers to be used as orderlies to polish the boots and maintain the uniform of ranking officers. But after a jawan vented his ire on social media of being exploited and abused as an orderly, Army Chief Bipin Rawat said in January this year that the Army Headquarters had submitted a proposal to the Central government that sahayaks could be done away with in peace locations. While defending the system as essential for functioning of the Army in wartime and deployment of forces in field areas, General Rawat warned that any officer found misusing his buddy will face stern action, while also announcing that a ‘suggestion and grievance’ system will be put in place across all formations to check abuse. There have been similar complaints aired by troopers of paramilitary forces like BSF and CRPF, that they had not signed up to serve the country by doing the marketing chores of their senior officer’s wife, pay his bills, take his child to school or walk his dog! There have been States like Kartaka that have banned the use of trained constables serving as cooks, manual workers and gardeners at the homes of senior police officers. Other States too should usher in such reform, for nothing builds up morale and bonding in the forces more than an egalitarian and just structure.