It was the Bibek Debroy Committee of NITI Aayog in 2015 that set the ball rolling for privatisation of railways. It came up with a vision for two decades to privatise major areas of a mammoth network of Indian Railways. Since then, the Modi-led BJP government has resorted to privatisation in various ways. Contractualisation of the workforce and outsourcing of various operations have already replaced lakhs of workers. The huge network of Indian railways which employed more than 35 lakh workers has now been downsized to around 10 lakh. Corporatisation has become the first step for privatisation and all production units are already being corporatized with various operations like ticketing, catering, etc., being brought under IRCTC. Soon the Indian Railways will be handed on a platter to private corporate houses.
The government has come up with a plan to hand over railway stations to private companies in the name of ‘redevelopment of stations to match global standards’. They targeted some 400 stations for privatisation, but are yet to make much progress. Some trains like ‘Tejas’ were allowed to be operated by private operators. There are also plans to handover all railway tracks in the country to the corporates in a phased manner.
The government has now found a new way of selling out public infrastructure like ICF (Integral Coach Factory) in Chennai, which is one of the best performing production units in the country. They indigenously produce the breed of Vande Bharat trains. The product was drummed up as one of the best, modern, indigenously produced trains in the country, but one that will be handed over to multinational companies.
Recently, the Indian Railways has concluded two agreements – one with Titagarh Rail System Limited (TRSL), an Italian company in collaboration with Bharat Heavy Electronics Limited (BHEL), and another with Transmashholding (TMH), a Russian company in collaboration with Rail Vikas Nigam Limited (RVNL).
TMH-RVNL consortium is expected to produce 120 Vande Bharat trains of 16 rakes and TRSL-BHEL consortium is to produce about 80 trains. ICF produced the same trains for Rs. 70 crore, while the international market rate for manufacturing the same is estimated to be at Rs. 200 crore. The government has awarded the contract for the production of the same coaches and trains to MNCs at the rate of Rs. 120 crore per train, i.e., Rs. 50 crore more than the production rate of ICF.
However, it does not end here. The companies are also given government land for free, along with free utilisation of power, gas, water, etc. They are also entitled to use the technical knowhow, design, drawing and everything that was supposed to be the patents, intellectual property rights, of ICF and Indian Railways.
Additionally, the ICF land, resources and infrastructure in Chennai are handed over to the TRSL and whereas, the Marathwada Rail Coach Factory (MRCF) in Latur is being handed over to the TMH.
Ironically, all these are carried out in the name of “Atma Nirbhar” (Self Reliance) and “Make in India”. In this joint venture, a Special Purpose Vehicle called Kinet Railway Solutions Limited is floated and registered as a company in which 70 percent of shares is owned by the Russian company – TMH. This is the “Atma Nirbhar” principle that the Modi led BJP government is promoting, where indigenous technologies are developed and handed over to multinationals at a higher price.
With “Make in India”, foreign companies had to invest and produce in India, to add to the wealth of the country. However, in reality, we see that Indian wealth and indigenous technology is being swallowed by the multinational companies.
The ICF workers are opposed to such a shameful model of reliance on multinationals in Indian soil and are on a warpath to secure their rights and the pride of the nation. Thousands of ICF workers unitedly formed a Joint Action Council (JAC), including all trade unions of ICF, against the handing over of ICF land and infrastructure to the multinational company, and made it loud and clear that Indian workers and employees are quite capable of producing Vande Bharat trains at a much cheaper rate.
Workers demonstrated on 25th October, 2023 and held a sit-in demonstration on 27th October, 2023 in front of the GM office, demanding the scrapping of the unfair and unilateral agreement with the corporates.
The argument advanced by the management justifying the act of handing over the manufacturing of Vande Bharat trains was that the ICF did not have sufficient manpower.
According to the JAC, for in-house manufacturing of one 16-car rake of Vande Bharat (excluding propulsion system), ICF needs approximately 227 Group C employees, including 182 direct technicians, 27 supporting staff, 18 technical supervisors. It is said that 22.2 percent technicians’ posts (totalling 1,419 posts as on 01.09.2022) and 600 helper posts are lying vacant for quite long in ICF. If these vacancies are filled up, ICF can phenomenally increase its production capacity. But, the government has chosen the route of privatisation instead. In fact, the original strength of 16,000 workforce in ICF was brought down to 10,000 and now close to 2,000 posts are vacant.
In fact, various models of privatisation of Indian Railways will have a great impact on the railway fare and travel. Trains have been one of the major form of transport used by the people of the country. It is acknowledged as an affordable transport for the poor. Introduction of newer variety of trains only lead to increased fares and the public transport is being turned to serve the privileged. Even experiences of China, Japan, etc., shows that public transport needs to be subsidised from the larger interests of growth and development of the economy and the countries. Trying to make public transport a profit driven industry, not only makes travel unaffordable for the millions of poor, but also makes a greater impact on the growth of the country as a whole and its people.
In such a backdrop, the working class movement in the country should rise up to demand the scrapping of agreement to hand over the production of Vande Bharat trains to the multinational companies. The struggle to repeal the policy of privatisation and monetisation can be successful only if the Modi-led BJP regime is thrown out of power.