At the heart of Railways’ track maintenance challenge is an unusual problem with its trackmen: overqualification.
The job of manual labour involves patrolling tracks day and night in all weather conditions while looking for faults in the tracks and rectifying them with tools.
But the job has attracted more and more educated youths over the years. Officers claim that the new, educated lot does not want to really to do the job as faithfully as its predecessors. Of the almost 2.2 lakh trackmen in India, the number of those with graduate and postgraduate degrees and diplomas has increased manifold, the Railways said. “There are also MBAs,” said a Railway Board officer. “They just want a railway job. They don’t want the work. They are more suited for office work, they claim,” he said.
That supervising them in the rigours of a trackman is a tough challenge was indicated in an audio-clip purportedly of a conversation between an older gangman and a Railway official after the derailment. “Nowadays, the boys don’t want to do this job. They say, ‘give us jobs like sitting at a level crossing gate’ and the like. No one was listening to the Junior Engineer,” he is heard saying.
So, the Group D job selection process, which involves a written exam as an entry point, throws up a lot of people who would rather do something else than patrol an 8-km railway section on foot all day, carrying a heavy tool bag. That is something railway officers come to know only after they are inducted.
“Soon after these boys join, we keep getting frequent requests from them for transfers to other Group D jobs like working in the coaching depot or as bungalow peons in officers’ houses. Some claim they know computers and have certificates to show,” said a Northern Railway officer, who did not want to be named.
The minimum qualification in the earlier days for the post was education till Class VIII, which was later increased to Class X. Two months ago, the minimum qualification was made Industrial Training Institute certification. However, the ones who appear for the exam are often Commerce and Science graduates and postgraduates. Two years ago, for 4,000 vacancies of trackmen, the applications received were 10 times more.
Efforts to replace this age-old profile, a legacy of the British-era railways, results in backlash from unions, even though nowadays there are rails without too many fishplates that require lesser continuous manual inspection. The Railways’ way of introducing mechanised processes of track health assessment has always been slow because of this.