Merger of Railway cadres will hurt safety

Indra Ghosh | Updated on January 01, 2020 Published on January 01, 2020

The problem is basically one of incompetence at the top — and of a promotions system where age alone matters

The recent government decision to merge all eight services of the Indian Railways (IR) into a single ‘management service’ has resulted in heated discussion, both ‘for’ and ‘against’ the move. This decision has been taken basically to end departmentalism in IR; but that is the least of IR’s problems.

At the divisional level, departmentalism affects barely 5 per cent of the IR’s working, and at the zonal level it affects maybe 15 per cent of its working. It is at the level of the Railway Board members that departmentalism is rampant, when every Board member tries to get the maximum for his department.

Departmentalism exists in every organisation, including the defence services, it’s only a matter of degree. But even in the army, despite departmentalism, it works towards the common organisational goal.

Organisational working

I feel that the top bureaucrats who advised the political leadership for taking the above decision are clueless as to what is it that ails IR; leave alone suggesting a solution to the problem. Over the last 30-odd years, IR has been suffering from a serious crisis of leadership, whereby the top posts of general managers (GMs) and above are filled up by officers primarily on the basis of their age profile, and less on merits. The younger an officer is at the time of joining service, better are his chances of reaching the top.

Let me elaborate. After the Gaisal accident (in which over 280 people were killed), a safety committee was set up under Justice HR Khanna in 1999. Apart from interacting with all stakeholders, they also sent a questionnaire containing 40 questions to the Railway Board. A meeting was held in the committee room under the then Chairman Railway Board (CRB) to draft out a reply to the questionnaire.

As Executive Director (ED)-Safety, I was the convener of the meeting. I read out each question and after discussions, the Board decided the reply which was to be sent. One of the committee’s questions was, “Is the Railway Board satisfied that the present system ensures that the best people get to the top?”

The chairman said ‘yes’, and looked for support at six Board members sitting on his two sides, but all of them kept quiet. One ED said that the present system may not ensure that the best people get to the top as it is heavily weighed in favour of the age factor. Another ED echoed that an officer may be the most outstanding by any yardstick, but if he was not well placed age-wise, then he would not even become departmental head, leave alone anything higher. Since nobody else ventured to speak out, the CRB finally asked me for my opinion.

I told the assembled officers: “I hope all of you agree that over the past 10 years, IR has been steadily going downhill.” All of them replied ‘yes’ in unison. Next I told them, “I hope all of you also agree that on a one-to-one basis, IR officers are more competent, more hard working, more capable and efficient than their counterparts in any other organisation, ministry, public sector unit or private sector.”

All of them again replied ‘yes’. Lastly I told them, “I hope all of you also agree that on a one-to-one basis, IR supervisors and staff are more dedicated, more loyal, more hard working than their counterparts anywhere else.” This time also, all of them replied, ‘yes’. Finally, I told the assembled gathering that IR’s officers are better, and our supervisors and staff are better, but despite that, if the organisation is steadily going downhill, then obviously it’s a failure of leadership; be it at the divisional railway manager (DRM)-level or at the GM-level or at the Board level. There was stunned silence for over a minute, before anybody could say anything.

Leadership matters

In 2012, I had made a similar point to the Kakodkar Committee on Safety during a one-on-one interaction, which went on for over seven-and half hours, against the half an hour originally assigned. I told the committee that when I joined as DRM, Waltair, a file was brought to me that required sanctioning of ₹3,000 to the Andhra Pradesh State Electricity Board. After sanctioning the amount, I noticed that the branch officer’s note was dated seven months earlier.

On being questioned, he replied that he had brought the file to my predecessor, thrice, but each time it was returned to him without anything written.

I asked the Kakodkar committee, “Sir, an officer who does not have the guts to sanction ₹3,000 to the State government, will he ever touch a tender file?” All of them emphatically replied ‘no’. I told the committee that “today, that officer is also the GM of a Zonal Railway.”

In 1976, when I joined the Railways, only a hand-picked few were made DSs (the earlier designation of the DRM). If they didn’t perform, they were thrown out within two months. If they did well, they continued as DSs on three or four divisions for 10-12 years, and out of that lot of DSs (which more or less became an informal management cadre), the GMs were picked up.

Sometimes, in the late 1970s, IR reduced the DRMs’ tenure to two years in order to enable more officers to become DRMs. Since two years is barely enough to make your mark, most DRMs decide to play it safe, placate the unions, and avoid taking any hard decision so as not to rock the boat.

A young officer, when posted on field, learns from his superiors. If he sees his superiors avoiding signing files, or taking hard decisions, and merely trying the keep the unions and senior officers happy, then that is what he learns.

Right placement

The merging of cadres will adversely effect the safety of passengers. Railway-working is very technical, and even after 30 years service, officers are required to fulfil their stipulated quota of inspections pertaining to their department. Even at that level, 40 per cent of the job content is managerial and 60 per cent is technical.

In the army, would anybody even think of merging the infantry, artillery and the armoured corps into one single service? Similarly, if we put a signal engineer to take care of the track, it’s bound to impact safety in the long run.

Whether we merge all services into a single service, two services or retain the present system, unless we resolve the basic issue of crisis of leadership, there is no solution to the ills of IR.

(As told to Mamuni Das)

Ghosh was ED-Safety, Railway Board, for five years, and retired as GM-East Coast Railway. During his tenure, ECoR became the top performing zone

Published on January 01, 2020
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