‘Shunting the Nation’ by Aniruddha Bose: Understanding what makes Indian Railways tick in a crisis : The Tribune India

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‘Shunting the Nation’ by Aniruddha Bose: Understanding what makes Indian Railways tick in a crisis

‘Shunting the Nation’ by Aniruddha Bose: Understanding what makes Indian Railways tick in a crisis

Shunting the Nation: India’s Railway Workers and the Most Tumultuous Decade in Modern Indian History (1939-49) by Aniruddha Bose. Speaking Tiger. Pages 240. Rs 599

Book Title: Shunting the Nation

Author: Aniruddha Bose

R Sivadasan

The book ‘Shunting the Nation’ by Aniruddha Bose is a well-researched narration of events, sprinkled with interesting statistics. It is set in the backdrop of a very difficult period. Indeed, 1939-1949 is a decade that stands out as a point of inflection in India’s history.

Most readers would remember the images of overloaded trains crossing the borders during Partition, and people looking for their loved ones. This book anecdotally introduces us to the tremendous challenge faced by the Railway workers and officers. Each tale of the dangers that they exposed themselves to, while protecting individuals and yet carrying people to safety en masse, is a reminder of the importance of public transport in moments of crisis. In very recent times, the role that Indian Railways played in transporting people and critical medical supplies during Covid-19 was another example of collective action for the common good.

The author has skilfully shared statistics to showcase the sterling performance of Railway personnel just before and during World War-II. There was extensive diversion of manpower and material to overseas warfronts of the British Empire. In the face of the deep erosion of assets, the staff overcame the most insurmountable challenges to deliver a phenomenal increase in volume and distance of both freight and passengers. One can only salute the resilience of the organisation and credit the author for showing how we tend to miss the courage and valour of seemingly ordinary people and organisations.

He has brought out the criticality of Railways in transporting people during the 1942 attacks on the eastern front, carrying military personnel to protect the borders, bringing refugees to safety, and continuing transportation services despite shortage of material and manpower.

Chapter 1 is a story of the valour of the Railways’ workforce that should make every Indian proud. A much depleted organisation set new records in movement of rolling stock and carrying capacity.

The diversity of activities that the personnel carried out, like creating sidings for airfields, blood transfusion coaches, building ramps for military movement, volunteering in every way to help the government defend the subcontinent, reflects on the inbuilt discipline and culture.

The author has linked the successes of the workforce to the trade union negotiations held with a Railway Board dominated by British officers. The battle for better wages, food support and working conditions is portrayed as a pre-condition to undertake innovation, carry more traffic and face the crisis with versatility. This is somewhat simplistic. The Indian Railways has always worked as a unitary organisation and the success lies in the culture of discipline that is inherent.

The author briefly touches on the conflict of staff at an individual level with regard to the freedom struggle, and the collective decision to support the British in the war. The ‘railway collective’ sought to support the government as they saw their interests align with the Railway Board’s existence in the long run.

The confrontation between officers and staff has been narrated factually. These anecdotes are expected to convey the power of collective action, mostly focusing on the trade unions. However, when it comes to the Indian Railways, it is very difficult to restrict the concept of collective action to a particular category of workers and make a firm distinction between management and workers. The Railways in India, particularly post-Independence, has operated as a unitary organisation. After the 1974 strike, the commonality of objectives of officers and staff has been established and all lines of distinction have blurred.

The Permanent Negotiating Machinery (PREM) and pay commissions have ensured a positive collaboration amongst workers and officers.

The author’s reflective style of writing tends to impose a perspective on the reader without giving any alternative theory to evaluate events. The conclusion on the success of collective action against class conflict is simplistic when we consider the decade in question. The author fails to capture the intricate interplay of several other factors that may have governed the outcomes. The valour and determination of Railway men is also a result of the tradition of discipline. Their actions were often dedication to duty and not merely an outcome of trade union action.