Better jail than rail: George Fernandes' slogan that led to Asia's biggest railway strike in 1974

Fernandes is credited with introducing the productivity-linked bonuses, bump in salaries for railway workers during his tenure as All India Railwaymen's Federation (AIRF) president from 1973 to 1976.

Published: 30th January 2019 01:58 AM  |   Last Updated: 30th January 2019 01:58 AM   |  A+A-

Former Union Defence Minister George Fernandes talking to the reporters. (File | PTI)


NEW DELHI: "Better jail than rail" - the slogan coined by the then firebrand leader of the railwaymen's union, George Fernandes, had galvanised workers to one of the major railway strikes in Asia in 1974, following which Emergency was declared, recalled old timers.

Fernandes, credited with introducing the productivity-linked bonuses, bump in salaries for railway workers during his tenure as All India Railwaymen's Federation (AIRF) president from 1973 to 1976, used this slogan during meetings to enthuse workers into participating in the strike.

"He was a firebrand leader. In the meetings, one of its favourite slogans was 'better jail than rail' - indicating that the government spent much more on the convicts in jail than railwaymen which really enthused workers. During his tenure as union leader he pushed for higher salaries for us at par with PSUs, allowances and need-based minimum wages," recalled Shiva Gopal Mishra, general secretary of AIRF, who knew Fernandes from his student union days.

"As a union leader, he would clearly issue orders regarding who could be on strike and who couldn't. He issued instructions that all those workers involved with essential services should not participate in the strike," Mishra said.

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He added that when there was some heartburn over this decision, Fernandes had announced that those that were not part of the protests should ensure the well being of those that were.

"He made sure that those that sat out of the protests felt part of it. That was his charisma. There have been so many leaders who led us, but George was one of a kind," said Mishra.

Such was his status as a union leader, Fernandes was asked to get a permission slip made from the reception by the guard at Rail Bhavan when he came to join as Railway Minister, three days after he was appointed in 1989.

"George Fernandes was astounded that he had been allocated the Ministry of Railways. He said he had led the biggest railway strike in Asia and headed railway unions. How could he be sitting across them at the table now? For three days he refused to go to Rail Bhavan to attend office," his close aide Jaya Jaitly wrote in her book 'Life among the Scorpions', published in 2017.

Mishra remembers the day clearly.

"Most of us thought that it was great news and now all our demands will be met. We met him and pushed for our demands. But he always used to say that government will always be government! He said coffers were empty! However, eventually, he did come through not just for us, but for taxi unions, students unions, daily wagers - he was a fighter, over and above all the titles that he is remembered by," said Mishra.


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