Suburban train services in Mumbai limped back to normalcy this evening after motormen of both the Western and Central Railways called off a hunger strike that they began yesterday morning to press their demand for higher pay and allowances.
The agitation had crippled the suburban railway system in the metropolis that carries about 6.9 million passengers a day. The Railways were forced to cancel most of their 3300-odd suburban services today.
The strike was called off by the motormen after talks between their leaders and Maharashtra Home Minister R R Patil, who assured them that the State Government would take up their demands with the Ministry of Railways and the Central Government.
He told them that he would also request the Railways to withdraw the disciplinary action agaist the striking employees and assured them that the State Government would withdraw action initiated against them.
Mr Patil told mediapersons later he had also impressed upon them the need to withdraw their agitation immediately in view of the great incovenience caused to the travelling public.
Earlier in the day, Chief Minister Ashok Chavan had held a meeting with some of his colleagues and top officials of the Railways, the police and the transport department on ways of handling the situation and minimising the difficulties caused to commuters.
There was a move to use the Essential Services Maintenance Act (ESMA) against the striking employees, but the Chief Minister had said that it would be done only as a last resort. Mr Patil said ESMA was not used because the State Government was in talks with the representatives of the motormen.
Mr Chavan told journalists that 4200 buses were pressed into service in the city to provide some relief to commuters. He said traffic on the suburban system had fallen to 20 per cent of normal numbers and attendance in the State Government Secretariat was in the range of 10-15 per cent today.
"Generally, life in the city was paralysed," Mr Chavan said. He said he had taken up the matter with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh while in Delhi yesterday and had also discussed the issue with Railways Minister Mamta Banerjee, who was away in West Bengal.
The issue was raised in the Lok Sabha by members of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the Left parties and many others, including Mr Sanjay Nirupam of the Congress. The Opposition said Ms Banerjee must make a statement on the issue.
In Delhi, Cabinet Secretary K M Chandrashekhar reviewed the situation at a meeting with Railway Board Chairman S S Khurana and other senior officials.
The Western Railway said it had made special arrangements to keep the local trains running though the number of services would be fewer and the travel time would be more than usual.
The Railway appealed to people in Mumbai to plan to travel by the suburban trains only if it is absolutely necessary. It said about 250 local services would run today, about 20 per cent of the normal number.
A statement from the Western Railway said that every 20 minutes there would be a train from Churchgate to Borivali and Virar, alternatively, stopping at all stations.
Similarly, every 40 minutes there will be a train from Virar and Borivali, alternatively, for Churchgate which will stop at all stations. There will be a few services originating from Andheri to Vasai Road and Bandra to Bhayander. These trains will be run from 05.00 hrs to 23.00 hrs and will take additional travel time.
On the fast corridor, about 110 additional train services will be run with 10 coaches each of long distance trains. These trains will be run between Churchgate- Virar, Mumbai Central - Virar and Dadar- Virar. These trains will halt at Dadar, Bandra, Andheri and Borivali and at all stations between Borivali and Virar. All suburban tickets and passes will be valid in these trains.
The authorities have also made arrangements for running additional buses from various stations like Churchgate, Dadar, Bandra, Andheri, Borivali and so on.
The Western Railway has set up a special helpline 10721 to provide information about the situation to members of the public.
The statement also appealed to the motormen to not resort to the hunger protest in the interest of the commuters.
In Delhi, the Ministry of Railways said the motormen were demanding higher pay than recommended by the 6th Central Pay Commission and additional allowances which were not part of the recommendations of the Pay Commission.
An official press release said that some of their demands regarding national holidays and night duty allowances had already been met.
It pointed out that the Indian Railways had 1.4 million employees on their rolls and, traditionally, the grievances of all sections of staff are resolved through consultation with their recognized federations. The release said the agitation by the motormen was not supported by any of the recognized federations, unions and associations of the Railways.
According to the release, Railways Minister Mamata Banerjee had also met the representatives of the agitating motormen and it had been explained to them that their genuine grievances were being looked into.
It said the grievances of the motormen were also before the Regional Labour Commissioner, Mumbai and a conciliation meting between the management and the employees was held on April 29. The Regional Labour Commissioner has advised the motormen not to resort to their protest action and fixed the next conciliation meeting on May 12, it said.
The release said any precipitative action taken during the conciliatory proceedings was unlawful under the Industrial Disputes Act.
The release said that, despite appropriate action by the Railways, the motormen had resorted to unlawful action, which had resulted in the cancellation of many suburban trains and caused a lot of problems for commuters.
It said the General Managers of the Central and Western Railways had been asked to take all necessary steps to ensure that appropriate alternative arrangements were put in place in coordination with the State Government to cause minimum inconvenience to the travelling public. The Central Government was also being kept fully informed in the matter, the release added.