At Shakur Basti in Delhi’s Punjabi Bagh area, a bumpy kuchcha road from Mahatma Gandhi Marg leads to the Northern Railway Press, a facility that was established in 1954 to print train tickets and other material used by the Railways.
Now, 65 years later, it along with four other railway printing presses — in Mumbai (Central Railway), Kolkata (Eastern Railway), Chennai (Southern Railway) and Secunderabad (South Central Railway) — are heading for closure.
Shiv Gopal Mishra, the general secretary of the All India Railwaymen’s Federation (AIRF), that is leading protests across the country against the move — cites the “tall legacy” of the union to press their case. “Our former presidents and members include illustrious leaders,” says Mishra, listing among others former Indian president V V Giri as the AIRF’s founder member (in 1924), and freedom fighter Jayaprakash Narayan as its president. The AIRF had also participated in the freedom struggle, Mishra, 68, who has been the union’s general secretary for over 11 years now, adds.
In a letter on June 4, Manoj Kumar Gupta, the Executive Director of Railway Stores, informed the general managers of the Indian Railways about the decision to close the printing presses by March 2020.
S K Tyagi, the zonal president of the Northern Railwaymen’s Union, says, “About 90 money-value items were printed here (the Punjabi Bagh press). About a year and a half ago, the government decided to reduce the number of items to 40. But the decision was never implemented.”
Says AIRF president Rakhal Das Gupta, “There have been numerous attempts to close the press, but it has stood the test of time. Mamata Banerjee (Railway Minister between 2009 and 2011) provided the much-needed oxygen, facilities were upgraded and new printers acquired. Successive railway ministers kept the facilities alive. Suresh Prabhu (minister from 2014 to 2017) also understood the importance of the presses. But his successor, Piyush Goyal, is in favour of closing down the presses, as he believes printing can be outsourced.”
Mishra claims their primary concern is not retrenchment but the possibility of fraud if the work is outsourced. “The Railways has lakhs of vacancies, everybody will be redeployed. The concern is that outsourcing will lead to a rise in cheating,” says Mishra.
Calling it continuation of the government process to hand over the Railways to the private sector, Kedar Nath, the zonal vice-president of the Northern Railwaymen’s Union, says, “PRS (passenger reservation system) and UTS (unreserved ticketing system) tickets along with other money value items (such as receipts issued by railway travelling ticket examiners) are printed here. If such things are printed by private entities, how can one guarantee it would not lead to fraud?”
As per the June 4 letter, all material currently being printed by these presses would be “outsourced to Trade (IBA/RBI approved Security Printers) till the complete digitisation of ticket systems and money value items”.
The branch secretary of the union at the Shakur Basti printing press, Pratap Singh, says if that was the government’s intention, “why did they splurge money on the press? In the last couple of years alone, the Railways bought new printers from Rotatek (an industrial equipment supplier in Spain) at a cost of Rs 16 crore. Two new buildings were constructed. About six employees were sent to Spain to learn how to operate the new machines. If they wanted to wind up operations, why did they do all this?”
Refusing to comment, Senior Manager, Printing and Stationery, Dipankar Gupta, who heads the Shakur Basti plant, says, “The decision has been taken by the highest body… We will do as instructed.”
As of now, work is on as usual at the press. “Nearly 185 people are currently working in shifts,” says Kedar Nath.
Mishra says that is why he hopes that this is another storm that the press will eventually weather. “The meetings with the Railway Board have been fruitful. They said they will review the decision.”