12-hr shift with 18-kg weight,and constant risk of getting killed. But even as 13 lakh Railway employees like him contemplate a strike,trackman Bhola says the fact that he can be replaced anytime weighs him down
One would have thought that trudging along a railway track each day,with trains whizzing past,and carrying heavy equipment would have taken its toll after 34 years of service. But for Bhola Pal,51,hard work is a part of life. Without it,he says,I wouldnt know what to do.
A trackman with the Railways since the age of 17,Bhola insists that people only use his first name as that is how he registered himself when he came to Delhi from Unnao in 1989,searching for a job.
Bholas two-bedroom home is in a Railway compound near Mandawali Chander Vihar station. Built in 1972,it is where 25 families of trackmen,mates and keymen live,with an attractive plus: lot of space for children to play.
Trackmen used to be known as gangmen till the Railway Union changed it because of the negative connotations attached to the word gang. They work all day be it under the scorching sun or in numbing cold to ensure that trains run smoothly,getting paid Rs 15,000-18,000 a month.
A recent Indian Express report found that a railway employee dies in the line of duty on four days out of five,making his job statistically far more dangerous than that of security forces in some of Indias most violent combat zones. An average 300 railwaymen have been killed in accidents every year over the past four-five years. Most were run over by trains as they patrolled the tracks. Their safety was in the news recently after four trackmen were mowed down in Mumbai on Diwali.
The duties of trackmen include laying,repairing,maintaining,cleaning tracks,checking on track ballast,upkeep of safety equipment,ensuring tracks are not blocked,checking for cracks,and looking for damages in fishplates.
Says Divisional Railway Manager A K Sachan,If an employee meets with an accident while on duty,he is compensated. If he dies,his dependent gets a job.
The dangers and hazards of his job dont seem to perturb Bhola. My fate is in the hands of god.
He wakes up at 5 am each day. A devotee of Hanuman,he prays morning and evening. At 51,he is already a grandfather of a four-year-old,and lives with three of his four children,all of whom were educated at a government school in Shakarpur. Ramu (28) is a tailor and is married to Ramu Baba,with whom he has a daughter; Sangeeta (24) married last month,and Ram Sumer (21) is currently on a visit to Unnao. The apple of his eye,though,is his 13-year-old daughter Seelu. He sees a reflection of his wife Kamala,who passed away four years ago,in her.
After his prayers,Bhola takes a bath,only with cold water. His daughter-in-law cooks the meals,and after a breakfast of roti-sabzi,Bhola leaves for work. His first stop is the equipment shed which is in the compound itself. The weight of the equipment he carries is around 18 kg and includes a crowbar,beater,rake blast and hammer.
A ballot for a country-wide by the All India Railway Federation is scheduled on December 20-21,and a Charter of Demands has been framed. The demands include filling of vacancies,a hike in salary, and implementation of a joint committee on problems of trackmen.
Bhola has no great expectations of things changing. Hes a man with not many interests beyond work and family. He rarely watches television and considers it to be his daughter-in-laws domain,hasnt seen a movie in years,and only listens to devotional music. He says that it doesnt matter who he votes for either,because the sarkar is always the same.
Posted along the same 6 km stretch (12 km up and down) since he first began,he says that he knows it like the back of my hand. Trackmen rarely get transferred,he adds. His duty lasts from 8 am to 6 pm and he gets a two-hour lunch break. The 25-member gang are mostly old friends,except a few who are in their 20s.
Bhola has no ambition to become a keyman,which is a post higher. Its a lot more responsibility. If there is an accident because the rail had split and not been repaired,the keyman gets reprimanded first, he says.
Most trackmen are as disciplined as the men in the Army, says chief senior section engineer Pradeep Kumar Sharma.
Imandari se naukri karni chahiye (One should work in all honesty), Bhola adds. Because though the Railways would not be able to function without us,we can always be replaced.
Getting home by 6.30 pm,Bhola sleeps by 9.30 pm after eating a simple dinner. His favourite food is gobi,daal and chawal.
Asked how he sleeps with the roar of engines rattling along the track every few minutes,he laughs,Ive got used to it,but its the new trackmen who have a tough time.