Hajipuritis: A Cancer Facing Indian Rlys!

Updated: Jul 25 2002, 05:30am hrs
Hedrick Smith in his best selling book The Power Game has laid bare the political shenanigans in the US, describing in detail as to how Washington works. According to him, “many (politicians) make it a career, running almost constantly to keep themselves in office while they are there. The record shows that since mid-1960s 91 per cent of House incumbents who sought re-election were successful.”

Describing the secret of re-election, Mr Smith notes, the traditional way that American politician has kept in good favour with the home folks is to obtain slices of federal ‘pork’ for their districts: money from the federal pork barrel for dams, sewage plants, mass transit, military bases, and defence contracts. The cost of campaigning has become so great that there is declining number of serious challengers who can mount the necessary effort. The result is that the techniques of survival politics, mostly financed at tax payers expense, allow many members in the House to insulate themselves from the swings of political pendulum in presidential elections.

Sounds quite familiar For, politicians back home in their effort to ensure re-election never lose an opportunity to hand out ‘pork’ to their constituents.

In this demanding business Railway ministry tops the charts and perhaps explains why it has been a much sought after charge! ‘Pork’ ranges from stoppage of Rajdhani or any other super-fast express at a wayside station, awarding a lucrative contract for a food stall, starting a new train, to constructing a new rail line, gauge conversion, and of course now handing out a brand new railway zone. All this and more is blatantly carried out in the name of serving the masses and meeting aspirations of the people, never mind if in the process the Railways’ finances are pushed deeper into a mess!

The last decade has been an unmitigated disaster for this Rs 1.7 million behemoth. Starting with the indomitable Jaffer Sharief putting the Railways firmly on a path of financial bankruptcy with the Project Unigauge which has already cost over Rs 10,000 crore with the end nowhere in sight! While in itself the idea may not have been bad the execution was flawed as political considerations became a priority with operational needs taking the back seat. After his ignominious exit Suresh Kalmadi, who followed in his brief tenure, was quite happy with the creation of a new division at Pune and left the Railway Board much to itself to run things as they thought fit.

However, things took a turn for the worse when an illustrious citizen of Hajipur took charge in 1996. Within three weeks he had determined that IR’s working efficiency would get a boost if a new railway zone was created at Hajipur. With an expertise no better than of the trillion passengers that IR carries, his premise was based purely on a report of 1985 by HC Sarin in which creation of 4 new zones had been recommended.

Conversion of meter to broad gauge of large sections of the Western and Northern Railway, which was to form one of the new zones, has now made this exercise somewhat redundant. Moreover, the advent of IT age has made creation of new ‘Command and Control’ centres, ostensibly to improve efficiency, is now an infructous exercise. Yet unfazed, trying to get the maximum political mileage of his new found mantra for improving administrative efficiency, Paswan boldly opted for 6 new zones, all formed on regional basis, something which HC Sarin report had pointedly tried to avoid.

Like cancer, which can lie dormant for years and surface later, the proposed 6 new zones remained buried while Mamata Banerjee and later Nitish Kumar were in command. Until last month, when for reasons best known to him Nitish decided to give the proposals — now increased to 7 zones — a concrete shape before he bows out in 2004!

This cancer of regionalism and political expediency will not only be difficult to contain unless totally excised, but has a distinct possibility of growing into the entire fabric of this vast organisation struggling to stay afloat.

Gujarat, Punjab, Haryana, Kerala, Jharkhand, are all waiting in the wings to stake their own respective claims for a brand new zonal headquarter which promises to bring them a windfall of jobs, contracts, and a piece of the financial cake!

Railways is a dynamic organisation and for trains to run smoothly and efficiently ‘Operations’ enjoy a pre-eminence over all its other activities. The existing 9 zones have stood the test of time for the last half a century and breaking them into smaller units for purely political gains would perhaps be a death sentence for IR, affecting not only its financial viability but operational efficiency. It would also make a mockery of a decade-long effort by IR to downsize its bloated work force.

In an open letter entitled ‘Hajipurisation of Indian Railways’ addressed to the Prime Minister and Dy Prime Minister, half a dozen retired chairmen of Railway Board have pointed out, “Kolkata-Delhi and Mumbai-Delhi corridors of both Central and Western Railways command the maximum relevance not only for the economic and industrial well being of the country but have a predominant strategic importance. The two Mumbai-Delhi routes connect the country’s financial capital with the nation’s capital. These time tested network are now sought to be ruptured by creation of new zones.”

They have added, “the decision to create new zones, starting with the dubious Hajipur experiment, is in our considered judgment clearly a populist, parochial and political overture. We are convinced that the creation of new zones will be an operational debacle, a financial disaster, and an administrative blunder. In our considered opinion, purely from consideration of sound management and operational efficiency, there is a case for reduction in the number of zonal railway headquarters!”

Strong words indeed from gentlemen in their twilight years who have toiled their life time in trying to make Indians proud of having the world’s biggest railway, not only delivering the goods, but never being in the red doing the gigantic task.

e author is a former member (mechanical), Railway Board)