“Our demands have been pending since January 26… it's the administration that is stalling services”
The demands of motormen of the Mumbai locals have been pending since January 26, when they first decided to go on strike. However, at that time, the Railway authorities stepped in with the assurance that a fast track committee would look into their demands. The Joint Action Forum of motormen also intimated its decision to go on strike in May if no move was made to settle the demands.
However, a union spokesperson said the fast track committee had not even met them once and that much time had lapsed since they first made their demands. From Monday, the motormen went on an indefinite hunger strike and many were hospitalised. As a result, by evening trains were stopped at various stations and chaos reigned.
Head of Western Railway Motormen's Association Devendra Yadav said: “If our demands are not met we will go on hunger strike again. We also discussed the issue with [Maharashtra] Home Minister R.R. Patil. The government has assured us that the grade pay for assistant drivers will be raised from Rs. 1,900 to Rs. 2,800 and that for the motormen, from Rs. 4,200 to Rs. 4,800. We are not asking for anything extra. We are keeping within the ambit of the Railway Board stipulations.”
The Union was also defensive about the strike. Association secretary Sunil Gurav said, “We were not the ones to stall the train services; it's the administration. To malign the motormen, they started announcing since yesterday [Monday] that trains are not running due to the strike. They got unauthorised people from outside to operate the trains. Now the same administration has been brought to its knees. We will not get back to work till the suspended motormen are taken back on duty.”
The motormen sat in protest at the Churchgate station here awaiting the letter of assurance from the Western Railways general manager.
In a late development, Mr. Patil visited the Churchgate station and assured the group of motormen that orders revoking the 20 dismissals had been cleared. He urged them to go back to duty and said he had come to the station expressly because he had heard that they were not willing to join work till such an assurance was given.
On Monday, commuters were stranded all over the city and people staying in the far flung suburbs were the worst affected. While extra buses were pressed into service, vehicles piled up on key arterial roads causing massive traffic jams. Some travelled all night by road to reach home on Tuesday morning. Many commuters stayed back in their offices, slept on railway platforms or tried to walk home. Women were hit hard as many had to spend the night at the station.
While the Central and Western Railways had emergency plans in place, only 20 per cent of the services were operational on Tuesday. Barely 15 per cent of the people reported for work in the city that day. In the morning, 20 motormen, 10 each from Central and Western Railways, were dismissed. Later, 170 motormen from the Central Railway, who were obstructing the work of the others, were taken away by the police. By evening, 70 motormen reported for work in the Central side, the spokesperson said.
Things reached a pretty pass on Tuesday morning with Chief Minister Ashok Chavan calling an emergency meeting, where he gave the motormen time till late afternoon to call off the strike. He said the Centre had allowed the State to invoke the Essential Services Maintenance Act, adding that he would use it only if necessary.
In view of the inconvenience to the public, he also appointed Mr. Patil to negotiate with the motormen. The Home Minister's reassurances led to the strike being called off. Mr. Patil said Union Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar and Mr. Chavan had spoken to Ms. Banerjee on the issue.
Mr. Patil criticised the Opposition Bharatiya Janata Party and the Shiv Sena for supporting the strike call and then making a ruckus by switching sides in Parliament. On Tuesday morning, Sena chief Bal Thackeray called on the motormen to return to work after having supporting them earlier. He said he would take up their demands with the government.
Meanwhile, Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) president Raj Thackeray threatened that if the motormen failed to return to duty by afternoon, the MNS would resort to an agitation. Some MNS activists demonstrated at the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus and Thane.