Chennai Metro Rail operations pits permanent workers against contract workers

Chennai Metro Contractualisation

Complaints of delay in arrival of Chennai metro trains has become rampant
Chennai metro trains along the stretches of Wimco Nagar-Chennai Airport and Chennai Central-St.Thomas Mount often face delays caused by technical glitches. Pic: Chennai Metro Rail Limited

Many public services have moved towards contractualisation and casualisation of labour in the past few decades. The city has in recent years seen protests on this issue by workers of the Greater Chennai Corporation (GCC) and the Chennai Metro Water Supply and Sewerage Board (CMWSSB). Chennai Metro Rail Limited (CMRL), the Special Purpose Vehicle(SPV) created for the metro rail project, has also grappled with issues around the engagement of contract workers. 

What has the recruitment model followed by CMRL been? How has contractualisation affected services, if at all? What are the long-term implications of such a move?

Long wait for permanent jobs at Chennai Metro Rail Limited

According to sources in CMRL, when the recruitment process for various roles including technician, train operator, station controller and junior engineer was conducted in 2011, the number of vacant posts was 721.

Around 300 candidates cleared the three-level exam, which includes a written test, psychometric assessment and an exam in the vernacular language (Tamil). Of these, nearly 250 were issued the appointment order in 2013. They underwent training in Delhi for a year followed by another year of training in Chennai.  Some of the candidates were also trained in Bengaluru.

Even as 50 candidates who cleared the exams were kept on a waitlist, CMRL decided to outsource the manpower from private contractors for all key roles. The candidates had to launch a legal battle that went up to the Supreme Court in order to secure the jobs they had been selected for. It took them nearly 8 years to win the legal battle against CMRL.

In the meantime, the CMRL has stopped the recruitment of permanent workers and moved to hire for almost all the key roles on a contract basis. 


Read more: Chennai Metro Phase II: Promises, problems and expectations


Key roles in Chennai Metro entrusted to contract workers

At least 45 metro trains run between Wimco Nagar-Chennai Airport and Chennai Central-St. Thomas Mount.

The CMRL authorities brought in around 20 to 30 contract workers in early 2018 and ordered the permanent workers to train them to operate the trains.

“We would instruct them on how to operate the trains. We were promised orally that it was only for alternative arrangements in emergencies. The number of contract workers kept growing, while the recruitment of permanent workers stopped. Now, there are over 300 private train operators who operate almost all the trains all by themselves. At the same time, the permanent workers, who have undergone multiple levels of training, are stationed in the control rooms or stations to monitor them,” said Ramesh*, a permanent worker of CMRL.

Crowded passengers in St Thomas Mount metro station
Disruption in Chennai Metro Rail service puts several passengers through hardship. Pic: Laasya Shekar

He further added that even in the Southern Railways, it would take more than three years for a qualified loco pilot to operate the trains all by themselves but in the Chennai Metro, the contract workers are deployed after only a few months of training.

Permanent workers, who have been trained to operate trains, were also trained on being Station Controllers. The role is akin to that of Station Masters in Southern Railways. They are the ones who are in charge of monitoring the passenger flow, sale of tokens, travel cards and tickets and monitoring the cash flow. The workers would be deployed to operate trains for six months and be assigned as Station Controllers for the next six months.

”In case of any untoward incident, the Station Controllers would know how to handle the situation, evacuate and rescue the passengers. However, now the private operators know only to operate trains. A new post of ‘Station In-Change’ has also been created by the CMRL authorities to deploy private workers in the role of ‘Station Controllers’ and we have no idea as to what kind of training they undergo to be recruited for this particular post,” said Vijay* another permanent CMRL worker.

Permanent workers face flak

Ever wonder what goes on in the background when your metro rail stops in the middle of nowhere or how a technical glitch in the system is fixed? According to sources, when a train stops, be it for any reason ranging from signal issue to a fault of the train operators, the contract workers at the central control room in the office of CMRL in Koyambedu, who monitor the trains, get notified first.

A permanent worker who oversees the work of the contract workers in the control room then takes charge of the situation. The permanent worker then passes on the relevant instructions to resolve the issues to the train operator, who in many cases is yet another contract worker.

“These situations are very crucial. If not handled immediately and with utmost attention, there are higher chances of a collision or any other untoward incidents,” said Vijay.

Once the permanent worker steps in to handle the emergency situation and resolve it, they have to send an e-mail to the higher authorities detailing the causes for the particular issue, its impact and the resolution.

At least two to three permanent workers are deployed in the control room to monitor the work of the contract workers. Apart from this, they are also assigned to schedule trains, notify the change in train times and manage the additional deployment of trains.

All permanent workers, who are put through proper training, can monitor the movement of trains, operate the trains, coordinate with the train operators, control the trains and handle emergency situations.

However, because of the present structure in place, every issue passes through multiple personnel before it comes to the attention of a permanent worker. This method of escalation causes unnecessary delays in fixing any issues. Ultimately, for every contract worker’s mistake, a permanent worker has to take accountability. 


Read more: Temporary workers keep Chennai going at great personal cost


Contractualisation a drain on funds

The reason often cited by governments and agencies for a move towards contractualisation of labour is the lack of funds.

Even after nine years of employment, a permanent worker receives only around Rs 45,000. The 50 permanent workers who were employed last year after winning the legal battle are paid only around Rs 21,000.

On the other hand, the CMRL pays the contractor a sum of Rs 68,000 per worker for certain roles. However, union leaders allege that contract workers ultimately receive only around Rs 20,000 to Rs 25,000, with the rest of the money going to the contractors.

“It is a loss of revenue for the government. It also leads to room for doubt as to where the rest of the money goes,” said A Soundararajan, State President of the Centre for Indian Trade Unions (CITU) who is also the honorary President of the CMRL Employees’ Union.

Pointing out that roles like train operators, traffic controllers and other such roles are perennial, he said that it was illegal to employ workers on a contract basis for perennial works.

“There is a 1:4 ratio of permanent workers to that of contract workers in the operation sector alone. The contractors can get a licence from the government for workforce supply only for ‘non-perennial’ works. How could they use the same workforce for perennial jobs? This is not only unfair but also illegal,” he said, adding that contractualisation was also against the reservation system.

He further added that the stakes for workers employed on a contract basis for highly skilled work are not high as they are unlikely to be made permanent. Such a move could foster lethargy and put the safety of the passengers at risk. 

When permanent workers spoke out against contractualisation in 2018 and raised the issue through their union, the administration of CMRL dismissed the workers who were office bearers in the CMRL Employee’s Union stating that the workers violated the code of conduct. The workers had to undertake a legal battle to win their jobs back, with a few of them yet to be reinstated.

When Citizen Matters tried reaching the CMRL authorities, they maintained that any delays in train operations were caused due to technical glitches in the signalling system and refused to comment further on the staffing patterns followed by the agency. 

*Names changed on request

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About Shobana Radhakrishnan 26 Articles
Shobana Radhakrishnan is a Senior Reporter at Citizen Matters. Before moving to Chennai in 2022, she reported for the national daily, The New Indian Express (TNIE), from Madurai. During her stint at TNIE, she did detailed ground reports on the plight of migrant workers and the sorry-state of public libraries in addition to covering the renowned Jallikattu, Tamil Nadu Assembly Elections (2021) and Rural Local Body Polls (2019-2020). Shobana has a Masters degree in Mass Communication and Journalism from the Pondicherry Central University and a Bachelors in English Literature. She keenly follows the impact of development on vulnerable groups.