Stirred by a few recent train accidents resulting in loss of life and injuries to passengers, railway minister Suresh Prabhu typically summoned the network-wide senior managers to chart out a remedial action plan. Following their deliberations, the rail ministry has pleaded for a special fund of Rs 1 lakh crore from general exchequer, like the Indian Railways (IR) was able to secure a special safety fund of Rs 17,000 crore from the NDA-1 to resuscitate its worn down infrastructure.
IR needs to ponder why must an entity, essentially commercial, of the size and potential of IR, looks for an intermittent infusion of government funds for as basic an output as safe operations. It has immense possibilities to earn far more; it also has huge scope to trim its fat, and pare expenses. But IR remains caught in a time warp. Four years ago the Kakodkar Safety Committee made 106 recommendations, with a projected implementation cost of Rs 1,03,110 crore. In essence, it underscored the salience of good governance, the lack of which, it bemoaned, pushed IR to “the brink of collapse”. Little of substance appears to have happened for things to change in IR. A ceaseless number of expert panels keep diagnosing the ailments; the patient manages to dodge all medication.
By clairvoyance, the committee had rued the “non-implementation bug”, which bites the entire system, not IR alone. Take the casualties from level crossing accidents that accounted for 65% of all deaths and 38% of injuries arising from all consequential accidents on IR; unmanned crossings alone accounted for 59% deaths and 32% injuries. It was a high priority area to target. IR was advised to eliminate, in a bold, swift move, within five years, all its 32,735 surface crossings, including 14,896 unmanned. The measure would entail an estimated expense of Rs 50,000 crore, which, the committee suggested, could be raised by way of Rs 20,000 crore annually towards the creation of a non-fungible non-lapsable safety fund, inter alia, through a safety cess on passengers. IR realises the paramount need to initiate action but, true to bureaucratic pusillanimity, it wavers and dithers.
IR’s finances remain perilous. The Kakodkar panel brought home how, on one hand, a precarious financial state adversely impacted renewal of assets while, on the other hand, the emaciated patient was being flogged to carry more load on its back, already bent, by adding more and more passenger trains on the overloaded infrastructure. What the committee recommended would help improve throughput and efficiency on the system, besides enhancing safety.
Symptomatic of operational efficiency, safety is indeed integral to all operations; an accident signifies a breakdown in efficiency, a flaw or failure in the system. Traditional analysts hold that accidents occur in any activity involving movement, and that railways is a transport enterprise in which accidents have been happening ever since the day Stephenson’s Rocket mortally injured William Huskisson, a Member of British Parliament, and the broadsides the Punch fired in the Death And His Brother Sleep. Modern technologies and systems help ensure risk-free rail operation. For example, Shinkansen bullet trains in Japan (or the TGV in France) running at 250 kmph and higher have had no fatality over the last 50 years.
Technical and technological remedies can help IR, only up to a point; it needs managerial transformation. The Kakodkar committee report echoed the public perception of IR steadily sliding into a wan and moribund entity, and focused on its “grim picture of inadequate performance and resources”, also highlighting creeping infirmities, namely, “lack of empowerment at the functional level”, the organisation remaining “centralised, top-heavy and hierarchical along departmental lines”.
Among several observations made by the safety committee included those stressed by the Mohan and Debroy committees recently; for example, IR’s organisational set-up on departmental lines giving rise to inter-departmental rivalry, losing sight of the overall organisational goals including safety; and the management set-up becoming top-heavy not only in terms of numbers but also over-centralised executive powers adversely affecting output.
IR needs to right-size. It is over-staffed, heavily so, with inevitable drag effect on its efficiency, economy and accountability. The Debroy committee revealed how IR departments build sectarian “empires”, such as a mammoth 23,325 personnel strong construction organisation and over 6,000 “work-charged” officers’ posts continuing decades after the “works” are completed. Evidently, this could not happen without the connivance of finance and accounts as they themselves eke a lion’s share. Strangely, some of IR’s echelons are reported to be still speciously inflating their cadre strengths for an exponential increase in the number of top level posts, sequel to, what euphemistically passes, a periodical restructuring exercise. This will exacerbate the departmental malaise and chasm inimical to inter-departmental cohesion. As if IR’s role is predominantly project execution, the engineering cadres seem to be engrossed in the subterfuge of proliferating “work-charged” posts for new connectivity and capacity-enhancing projects, which at any rate get delivered by vendors and contractors.
There have been too many routine and mundane functions taken up by the board/ministry, with a staggering over 140 joint secretary-and-above level incumbents crowding in the Rail Bhavan. These numbers need to be pruned. Technical departments have inducted newer, costlier technologies; they have done little to optimise the yield, to rationalise workshops, sheds, depots. Many services and activities are outsourced, but permanent cadres show no shrinking.
There has been much talk of IR board structure being sub-optimal, doing policy-making and implementation. IR must not feel shy to bring out the value and wisdom of its dual-function top management structure that ensures realism in planning and accountability in implementation. IR’s resistance to many softer aspects of change affects its resilience and credibility. Its departmental managerial cadres fuelled by separate induction streams breed a pernicious silo culture with debilitating impact. As suggested by Debroy, recruitment of officers can be through only two streams—technical and non-technical, instead of the current eight individual cadre-specific induction streams.
The Kakodkar panel recommended for the status quo ante to be restored for key posts of general managers and divisional railway managers being manned only by operating and technical officers, well versed with nuances of train operations. It would be like the army where the division, corps, army commands are led only by the fighting arms—infantry, armoured and artillery. Likewise, senior general management posts on IR be manned only by those who go through the rigours of action in the field, in commercial, marketing, coordinating and operating responsibilities, to deliver services that is IR’s primary task. A railway operations manager is akin to the jockey who rides the steed to the winning post, while others help maintain the turf and the stable. There was a time when, with a well deliberated decision at the highest level in government, a general manager of a manufacturing/construction unit, who had not worked in an “open line”, i.e. actual activity, was not eligible for posting as a member of the board.
The author was the first MD of the Container Corporation of India Ltd