Indian Railways (IR) is the government’s largest arm and one of the largest employers in the world. The colonial system of its governance was not shed after independence, and its quasi-feudal culture has continued to this day. The structure of administration has deteriorated further into an inverted pyramid with strong departmental silos working at cross purposes.
That IR needs large-scale structural, human resource-cum- business process and cultural reforms has been talked about for decades. Some processes have been streamlined in recent years making the generation of new revenue streams in freight arena, procurement and contracting etc. more business-friendly.
Though the Railways’ social obligation cannot be denied, but using this excuse for poor business practices must stop. It is learnt that some more transformation in processes, as a part of the National Logistics Policy or otherwise, are on cards with a view to improving IR’s freight share and financial health.
There is a crying need to demolish departmental fiefdoms working in silos for narrow gains. Many committees, notably the ones headed by Rakesh Mohan and Bibek Debroy, have examined the required changes to IR’s management structure, but their recommendations were mostly ignored. The follow-up on reforms had till recently been cosmetic, except installing a ‘so-called’ CEO and downsizing the Railway Board and not much else.
The Railway Ministry’s move to set up the Indian Railways Management Service (IRMS) last year was a big step. Induction of railway executives to form a single IRMS cadre through the Civil Services examination was announced. However, some sections expressed their dismay that this service, open to all graduates, would dilute the capability of the executives for the specialised core engineering work of installing and maintaining railway infrastructure and rolling stock, with serious consequences on performance and safety.
So within a year the Ministry blinked and reversed the order to restrict the induction only to Engineers, Commerce Graduates and Chartered Accountants.
The Minister also deftly pulled out another rabbit out of its hat last year by deciding that senior-most positions of Level 16 and 17 would no longer be restricted to departmental quotas but opened to four batches of senior officers serving in Level 15 from the eight organised Group-A services (Civil, Mechanical, Electrical, Traffic, Accounts, Personnel, Signal and Stores).
These structural reforms’ results would become apparent in coming years but any change from the atrophied system of department-wise induction and promotions to top positions would lead to improvements in professional functioning of the behemoth.
What is making the news is the Minister’s announcements to reform the colonial and feudal culture of the organisation. IR is steeped in an archaic culture, with the hierarchy demanding obeisance and toady supplication to seniors. Bound by straitjacket of protocol and misplaced propriety, there is hardly any space for openness, ideation and healthy interaction between various levels of officers and staff.
As a first, the Ministry has decreed that the age-old system of Annual GM Inspection be discontinued. This inspection is a system devised by the British in which the top executive of a railways visited every section in a special train complete with an entourage of senior officers, supervisors, support inspecting staff, service staff including cooks and peons.
The practice deteriorated into section-wise annual picnics of sorts with lower officials doing their best to please the bosses despite the smaller size of railways zones and communication and digital revolution rendering these inspections meaningless. The Minister has belled this cat and we may hope that many such measures are in the offing to rid IR of its feudal way of functioning.
The writer is a retired General Manager of ICF and Independent Consultant