Pune, Dec. 30: The privatisation of railway reservation brought Mumbai’s booking counters to a standstill today.
The Western and Central railway came to a halt after the Central Railway Mazdoor Sangh and the National Railway Mazdoor Sangh struck work to protest the privatisation. Eighty booking windows at Chhattrapati Shivaji Terminus alone remained shuttered. Late tonight, the strike was called off.
The railway ministry gave three private railway ticket booking agents the contract, on an experimental basis, to sell tickets. The go-ahead came five years after private agents first tried convincing the ministry that the booking centres were neither equipped nor efficient to handle the increasing volume of travellers.
Harrison Travels, Mahavir Travels and Meenakshi Travels have each been allotted three windows at Kalbadevi, Mumbai Central and Vile Parle. They have been given an extra window for enquiries. Each agent is said to have spent Rs 60 lakh to Rs 70 lakh in setting up the computerised and air-conditioned counters.
“This will help the passengers who won’t have to go all the way to a government booking counter to reserve tickets,” Ladaram, an agency representative, said. Each passenger, however, will have to shell out a “nominal” fee of Rs 15 for sleeper-class tickets and Rs 25 for AC tickets.
According to the travel agencies, privatisation would have happened two years ago if the railway unions had not vociferously attacked the proposal.
The state invited tenders in March 2000 after getting the railway ministry’s nod. Sixty-four travel agents applied and three were chosen on “merit”.
The Railway Travel Service Association is confident the experiment will work and thus trigger similar set-ups in other states.
The new booking counters will remain open from 9 am to 8 pm on weekdays and from 9 am to 2 pm on Sundays and national holidays. The counters will open an hour later than government booking offices to prevent the travel agents from taking advantage of the “new, passenger friendly situation”, Ladaram said.
The railway unions, however, said things are not as rosy as the agencies make them out to be. The railways, they said, would suffer daily losses of Rs 8,54,000 at each reservation centre (with four booking windows). They didn’t say how.
National Railway Mazdoor Sangh secretary P.R. Menon said the unions decided on the strike after their talks with Central Railway general manager S.P.S. Jain failed.
“When we spoke to the railway authorities, they said privatisation was a decision made by the ministry. There was nothing they could do about it,” Menon said.
After the hand-over to private agencies, the railway employees manning the booking counters till now fear being shunted out to other railway departments. The unions also fear privatisation of other departments in the future.
According to Central Railways public relations officer Y.G. Kale, the unions took an impromptu decision, not allowing the railways to prepare for the situation. “All Central and Western lines have been hit badly,” Kale said.
The ripples were felt in Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh, too. Work at Agra and Jhansi, in particular, came to a complete halt.
A senior railway official in Pune alleged that the booking contracts had been handed to “people close to the BJP”. About Ladaram, he said: “Everyone knows he is a BJP man.”
For the travel agents, the privatisation “is a revolutionary move”, as a representative of Meenakshi Travels put it. “Everyone will soon see how privatisation was the need of the hour,” he said.