In October 2017, Piyush Goyal, then minister of railways, had announced the Centre's intent to shut down all the printing presses owned by the ministry and outsource its printing service to third-party vendors -- a move which had sent tremors through the labour unions affiliated with the national transporter.
After several rounds of deliberations, the ministry had then decided to close nine of its 14 operational printing presses and retain the remaining five, which were modernised to meet the ever rising passenger demand.
However, despite four years of deferment and resistance from various stakeholders, the Railway Board has finally ordered closing its last five printing presses, Business Standard has learnt.
'The closure of five printing presses located at -- Byculla-Mumbai, Howrah, Shakurbasti-Delhi, Royapuram-Chennai, and Secunderabad -- as communicated vide letter dated 04.06.2019 was deferred... It has now been decided to close these printing presses,' the Railway Board said in an order issued last month.
The order has been reviewed by Business Standard.
Printing tickets and money value items, which these presses did, will be outsourced to third-party vendors, which comprise security printers approved by the Reserve Bank of India.
The move is in line with the railways' mission to digitise all ticketing services, moving to paperless ticketing mechanisms. In its order, the Railway Board has sought 'action to digitise all the ticketing systems including PRS (passenger reservation system) and UTS (unreserved ticketing system) tickets and also all money value documents in a time-bound manner.'
Another objective behind the move is the national transporter exiting all non-core functions.
"Currently, 81 per cent of all reserved tickets are booked through e-ticketing. Moreover, in March 275,000 unreserved tickets were booked through the unreserved ticketing system. While this is a small proportion of all unreserved tickets, the pace of adoption is increasing rapidly with time," a railway official said.
"We do not foresee a complete elimination of ticket counters, but the closure is a step forward in trimming physical ticketing to its lowest possible number," the official added.
The All India Railwaymen's Federation has opposed the order and has written to the Railway Board to withdraw it immediately.
'Unfortunately, the issue of redeployment of the staff or their retaining has never been discussed with the Organized Labour, which is a deviation from the prevalent practice regarding closure of the Railway Establishments,' the federation alleged in its letter.
The number of employees likely to be affected by the move is 887.
According to estimates of the All India Railwaymen's Federation (2020), as for paper tickets, about 200 million are required for reserved seats, as also more than 3,000 million for unreserved ones every year.
In the UTS, the union has calculated digital tickets to be only 2 per cent of the total.
'So far as the experience of outsourced private printers is concerned, the example of Western Railway can be quoted; where work on printing tickets was assigned to Axis Media, Mumbai, which summarily failed and defaulted in timely printing and supply,' Shiva Gopal Mishra, general secretary of the federation, had told the Railway Board in his letter in 2020.
Western Railway was compelled to request other railway zones on the matter, Mishra had said in the letter.
The disagreements then resulted in halting the closure. The cost of printing in the railway presses works out to 11 paise per ticket, which is below the market price, the union said.
However, the official quoted above said outsourcing would prove to be cheaper for the national transporter. The ministry has ordered the staff of these printing presses will be re-deployed. However, the federation has issues with this.
'The manpower available in these presses, who have long experience of printing, shall also be rendered surplus, resulting in various problems of their proper redeployment for gainful utilisation,' it said.
The federation said the closure of the remaining five printing presses would neither be commercially viable nor in the interests of the railways, particularly because paperless offices were still some time away.