The protests across the country against the Centre’s short-term military recruitment scheme Agnipath have a recurring feature: railway properties have been vandalised, torched or attacked across the country from Bihar to West Bengal to Telangana.
In the first week of the protests, coaches of three running trains and one empty rake were damaged, a stationary train was vandalised, a railway station defaced, while mobs set ablaze a railway station in Bihar and at least three trains in Secunderabad in Telangana.
According to the ministry of railways, till Tuesday, the protests impacted 612 trains, with 602 of them being cancelled and 10 partially cancelled. According to sources, a conservative estimate of the damage to trains caused during the protest is at least Rs 25 crore.
This isn’t the first time the Indian Railways found itself the target of such protests. As a 168-year-old organisation that is a subsidised mode of travel for millions of Indians, the Railways carries huge symbolism for demonstrators seeking to make a point. The accessibility and reach of the national carrier means it is also difficult to keep away protesters.
As the fourth largest rail network in the world, the Indian Railways is spread out across 64,000 route kilometres. It ferries nearly 23 million passengers per day on 13,000 passenger trains and has a workforce of nearly 1.3 million.
“Targeting the Railways is a very old form of protest. Even during the Emergency period and the Jayprakash (Narayan) movement, the Railways was targeted, as it is a visible government structure. There is no police presence especially in the interiors. Other government offices have more security presence and thus it becomes easier to attack government symbols through the Railways,” says Badri Narayan, a Professor at the Govind Ballabh Pant Social Science Institute in Allahabad.
A senior railway official pointed out that protests often lead to significant losses, with even slight damage to a rake or a coach having ripple effects across the entire train network.
“In situations where such protests get violent, we hold an emergency meeting and ensure we have divisional control manning by officers of the Operating, Commercial and RPF wings 24X7 because you have to respond quickly. Even if one small station is blocked, it impacts operations across other stations, even all the way till Delhi… Even a blockade at a very small station in the main line will result in bunching of dozens of trains till 200-300 km away from the blocked station,” the official explained.
The official also pointed out that apart from discomfort to passengers, there is the damage to the economy. “The most crucial and invisible impact is on freight trains because of the volume. If a main line in one division is blocked, it can lead to shortage of goods such as food grains, cement, oil, salt etc in an entire state or a region,” the official said.
Before the protests over Agnipath, the Railways had suffered losses in January this year amounting to around Rs 18 crore in Bihar during violent agitations by students who alleged irregularities in results for the first stage of the examination conducted for various posts under the Non-Technical Popular Categories (NTPC).
During protests against the farm Bills, farmers in Punjab had held rail blockades, resulting in total suspension of trains in the state for nearly two months. In November 202o, there was a tussle between the Centre and Punjab government over running of trains in the state. The Railways claimed losses of nearly Rs 1,200 crore in freight revenue with more than 2,225 goods trains suspended and 1,350 passenger trains cancelled and diverted at the time.
In February 2021, the Railways had to send 20 additional forces of the Railway Protection Force (RPF) across Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal, ahead of a call for a four-hour Rail Roko campaign across the country.
Earlier, the 2015 Rail Roko agitation in Punjab is believed to have caused financial loss of Rs 100 crore to the Railways, with more than 550 trains being impacted in a four-day long farmers’ stir.