On Tuesday morning, Mumbai’s local train commuters woke up to the furious frustration of India’s jobless youth, as nearly 3,000 apprentices training with the Indian Railways staged a four-hour rail roko agitation between Dadar and Matunga stations. Protesters blocked the city’s Central line train services from 7 am to 11am, paralysing the rush-hour commute for thousands of Mumbai residents heading to work, school or college. Some of the protesters threw stones at the police, who had to use lathis to disperse the demonstrators.

The protesters, members of the All India Act Apprentice Association, had travelled from across Maharashtra, Bihar, Punjab and other states to demand permanent jobs with the Indian Railways. Before 2014, they claim, these technical jobs were granted to most trainees who successfully completed the railway apprenticeship programme set up under the central Apprentices Act, 1961.

“But now the Railways is hardly giving any jobs to its apprentices, and many of us have been sitting unemployed for three or four years even though we have the skills to do railway jobs,” said Santosh Kumar, one of the many protesters who travelled from Bihar to participate in Tuesday’s rail roko.

The protesting apprentices called off their Mumbai agitation late on Tuesday morning after the Railways agreed to give them a reply within two days. However, most protesters that Scroll.in spoke to were sceptical of this promise.

“Since August last year we have held big protests in Delhi and Gorakhpur, written to more than 30 MPs and even met the railways minister, but all we got is false assurances,” said 23-year-old Kumar who in 2015 completed his apprenticeship as a “fitter” to instal locomotive parts. “Where are the jobs that this government had promised in the name of Skill India?”

Santosh Kumar travelled from Bihar to Mumbai to protest on Tuesday. Photo: Aarefa Johari

What is the Apprentices Act?

The Apprentices Act was passed in 1961 in order to meet India’s growing need for skilled workers in a variety of technical engineering fields. The law governs skills training programmes offered to engineering diploma holders and Industrial Training Institute graduates. The Indian Railways – the biggest employer in the country – offers its own apprenticeship programme under the provisions of this Act, training students in their engineering departments, electrification and production units, as well as in their locomotive, carriage and wagon sheds.

Just last month, the Railways announced its plans to train 30,000 apprentices in its 16 zones across India in order to boost the Bharatiya Janata Party government’s Skill India initiative.

Apprenticeships in the Railways can last for one, two or three years, depending on the level of technical education the trainee has already had. At the end of their training period, apprentices are given a certificate from the National Council for Vocational Training, to help them get jobs in the Railways and other industries. However, the Apprentices Act makes it clear that employers are not obliged to provide trainees with jobs at the end of their apprenticeships.

In a statement released during the protest in Mumbai on Tuesday, Central Railway emphasised this. “They are given only training for a specified period to improve their skills and experience of having worked in the field,” the statement said. “However, Ministry of Railways has taken a decision and reserved 20% of the seats filled through direct recruitment.” It encouraged protesting apprentices to apply for the latest round of recruitments before March 31.

Railway Minister Piyush Goyal also issued a statement to point out that Indian Railways is in the midst of a large-scale recruitment drive, with nearly 90,000 jobs on offer this year. “We have already reserved 20% posts for ‘Course Completed Act Apprentices’, who were engaged in railway establishments under the Apprenticeship Act,” Goyal said.

‘Not getting jobs we are qualified for’

The decision to reserve 20% of technical railway jobs for trainees who complete their apprenticeships was made through a government notification in June 2016. Protesting apprentices, however, have demanded the removal of this 20% quota.

“Before this quota was introduced, getting jobs in the Railways was almost a guarantee,” said Ajmer Singh, a 24-yar-old from Kapurthala, Punjab, who has had no job since his apprenticeship ended in 2014. “But if they now give jobs to only 20% of the apprentices, where will the rest of the 80% go?”

Ajmer Singh (centre), with other protesting apprentices outside Dadar station in Mumbai.

Contrary to assumptions of the Railway Ministry, protesters claimed that the skills they have learned at the Railways apprenticeship programmes were not always applicable to jobs in other industries, narrowing their employment prospects if they fail to land a Railways’ job.

“When we go outside to look for jobs, and mention that our past experience is of fitting locomotive parts or making railway signals, they don’t give us work,” said Pravin Sonawane, a 2015 batch apprentice from Maharashtra’s Jalgaon district who learnt how to be a fitter. “If the Railways don’t have jobs to give us, then why do they have such a big apprenticeship programme? And how were they able to give jobs to most apprentices earlier?”

Sonawane earned a monthly stipend of Rs 2,800 during his year as an apprentice with the Central Railway. Now, after two years of unemployment, he has finally settled for a job as salesman in a Mumbai mall, earning Rs 9,500 a month. “This mall job has nothing to do with the skills I have learnt in my training, and it is a contract job I can lose any time if I don’t meet monthly targets,” said Sonawane. “If I had got a job in the railways, I could have been earning at least Rs 18,000 per month by now.”

Of the 62,907 “Group D” job vacancies announced by the Railways this year, Sonawane claims only 12,495 jobs were given to apprentices. “But we are at least 25,000 apprentices across India, so more than half of us are not getting the kind of jobs we are qualified for.”