In the years after Independence, Indian railway workers faced many challenges. The first and most immediate of these emerged in the aftermath of Partition and had to specifically do with staffing. During the crisis, a majority of the running staff and skilled workshop labour left India for Pakistan. While many Hindu and Sikh railway workers came to India from Pakistan, a majority of these were clerical staff. This created a twinned problem of staff shortages in some areas and surpluses in others.

To manage the shortages, Indian Railways dramatically expanded recruitment, instituted intensive training programs, recalled retired staff members, reassigned skilled railway workers, posted railway workers on temporary assignments and finally, relaxed criteria for promotions. All these measures, however, created great challenges for the railway workers.

For existing workers, it created new responsibilities as new recruits required guidance, especially when usual training schedules were no longer available. The challenges were also great for the new recruits who had to take on difficult jobs, often without sufficient training. A glimpse into the difficulties and challenges faced by Indian railway workers at this moment comes from the memoirs of DV Reddy. Reddy described the accelerated recruitment and training procedures he introduced at Moradabad in United Provinces when faced with an acute 60 per cent shortfall in running and maintenance staff. According to Reddy, in the immediate aftermath of Independence, “bare minimum” running and maintenance staff kept the railway systems operational. In order to facilitate this expansion in responsibility, all running staff, at their own time, attended special training sessions. Reddy recalled that 700 cleaners took up new duties as firemen. Their appointments came after a single-day interview process that included literacy and medical examinations.

Indian railway workers also faced great difficulties with absorbing the refugees who had arrived from Pakistan. Like their counterparts fleeing India, these refugees arrived in India facing destitution. The Annual Report of the Indian Railway Board stated “a good number of them had to leave all their belongings in Pakistan.” To provide refugee families with some support, the Indian Railway Board authorised the release of a two-month advance pay for the incoming railway workers. In addition, refugee railway workers could also make use of a special “Rehabilitation Advance” equivalent to three months’ pay, repayable over 36 installments. Beyond such short-term measures, however, refugee railway workers had much difficulty finding jobs in the Indian railway system.

Many of them discovered that thanks to a lack of organisational uniformity, their positions and ranks in the NWR company and the Eastern Bengal Railway company did not correspond to comparable positions in other Indian railway systems. There was also the additional problem of competition with railway workers in these companies. Refugee railway workers who were qualified for leadership roles risked facing resentment from colleagues with whom they were now in competition. Railway administrators had to compile seniority lists to accommodate such potential areas of conflict.

There were other difficulties. Refugee railway workers arrived in India with their personal belongings only. It was unreasonable to expect otherwise, considering the seriousness of the Partition crisis. Yet, without their professional service records or information on pension contributions, refugee railway workers found themselves at the mercy of their colleagues who had to establish service records and similar details based on trust and affidavits. Such approaches could not be taken for pensions, and that created considerable hardship for retired railway workers or railway workers on the verge of retirement.

As of 1948, a year after Partition, 14,000 refugees were still awaiting to establish their pension records.263 The second great crisis that emerged in this period was hunger. Shortly after Independence, the Government of India pursued a policy of gradual decontrol in the prices of several important agricultural products. Specifically, cereals, edible oils, pulses and sugar. The government also began lifting restrictions on the movement of major food grains. The policies not only increased the supply of these commodities in the free market but also resulted in a steep rise in prices. Under these circumstances, the extensive grain store network of the Indian Railways became a lifeline. During the period 1947–1948, the estimated average savings was calculated at a high Rs 30 a month in parts of the country. Indian railway workers relied on these grain stores to buy cereal, cooking oil, fuel, tea and coffee, pulses, sugar and soap. The importance of these grain shops increased even further the following year as a special Inquiry Committee recommended increasing the allotment of monthly wheat/rice rations to railway personnel.

In the 1948–1949 period, the scale of rations increased to 16 ounce (oz) per railway worker, an increase over the existing 12 oz per railway worker. Considering the very heavy manual labor often involved in railway work, the rise made much sense. It was a recognition that adequate labor could not be achieved on empty stomachs. The 12 oz limit for all other adult family members, however, remained. That year, over 6,00,000 railway workers and their families turned to almost 600 grain shops spread across the country to stave off hunger. The following 1949–1950 period, the grain shops introduced sugar, further aiding railway workers in their struggle to stave off hunger.

The third great crisis came in the form of changes in the management of traffic flows. Two big changes emerged in this period. The first of these came in the form of shifts in traffic patterns that resulted from the tragedy of Partition. These were felt most keenly by railway workers operating the systems adjacent to the territories that had now become East and West Pakistan, and those that had historical links with these territories. Railway workers of the Sealdah division in the western part of Bengal were particularly affected. This section once operated seamlessly with the railway system that had now ended up across the border in East Pakistan. All traffic between this railway system and the various railway stations in East Pakistan now went through two newly created international junctions, at Banpur-Darsana and Bongaon-Benaphul. On the western Indian border, Indian railway workers noticed a sharp drop in freight traffic, specifically the shipment of cotton from Punjab to the cotton mills of Kanpur, United Provinces. Pakistani cotton merchants had begun taking advantage of high rates in global markets, far exceeding the ceiling prices fixed in India. It was a minor problem, all things considered. But one the railway workers had to manage nonetheless.

By the 1948–1949 period, railway workers in eastern India began reckoning with steep declines in freight traffic from East Pakistan. In particular, the volume of jute arriving at railway stations in and around Calcutta was falling. Railway workers at Ballygunge, Chitpur, Cossipore Road, Kalighat, the Kidderpore Docks, and Ultadanga noted the fall in volumes. From under ten million maunds in 1946 to 6.4 million maunds in the period 1948–1949. It was an inexorable decline that over the following decades would doom the jute-based eastern industrial engine of the Indian economy.

Excerpted with permission from Shunting the Nation: India’s Railway Workers and the Most Tumultuous Decade in Modern Indian History (1939-1949), Aniruddha Bose, Speaking Tiger Books.