Of the 1.27 million staff/officers in the Indian Railways, around 218,000 are from Scheduled Castes.
When the semi-high-speed and fully air-conditioned Tejas Express between New Delhi and Lucknow began running under private operators through the Indian Railway Catering and Tourism Corporation (IRCTC), there were some protests, though they failed to gather momentum.
But now, Dalit and tribal activists are considering how to fight off a move that might spell an end to a major organisational tool that Dalits
have used since Independence to empower themselves — reservations for the two categories in the Indian Railways, the largest government employer of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (SC and ST).
Of the 1.27 million staff/officers in the Indian Railways, around 218,000 are from Scheduled Castes. Their total annual salary amounts to nearly Rs 18,500 crore. Add to this, the Scheduled Tribe employees and number goes up to around Rs 26,000 crore.
“Around 218,000 Indian Railways
employees are Dalits.
Annually about the same number of Dalits
are Railways pensioners. With the decision to run private trains, will the Dalit story be over by 2050?” said Chandrabhan Prasad, a Dalit activist who has spent a lifetime chronicling Dalit business activity and manages the Adi-Dalit Foundation.
Kanshi Ram, leader of a Dalit organisation, in 1978 saw the opportunity to use post-Independence policies of affirmative action adopted by the government of India to ensure reservation of jobs for Dalits in government to launch the All India SC, ST, OBC and Minority Employees Association (BAMCEF) — a non-political, non-religious and non-agitational organisation. BAMCEF laid the seeds of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) under Kanshiram’s heir Mayawati
to band Dalits — primarily government employees a large section of who were from the Indian Railways
— to launch a political movement of Dalits and (later) Muslims against upper and middle caste domination.
With the launch of private trains, many Dalits feel an important mobilisation tool will be lost to them forever. This could result in a gradual erosion of Dalit economic power — currently via reservation through government — and be replaced by private sector Dalit entrepreneurship: Something many Dalits have been arguing for as a back-up means to fight social injustice.
Many activists, however, feel that in the interim, organisation of Dalits who are employed by government as part of its affirmative action programme, could suffer a slow setback, even as these categories of socially deprived Indians demand reservations in promotions in government and other mechanisms that helps them overcome discrimination.