The Long Overdue Shake-Up of the Indian Railways Has Begun

The minister of railways has commenced the restructuring and recasting process. But recalcitrance will soon rear its head  if vested interests of departments, petty suppliers, contractors and their local Mafiosi are not nipped.

Passengers travel on an overcrowded train at Loni town in Uttar Pradesh. Credit: Reuters

Passengers travel on an overcrowded train at Loni town in Uttar Pradesh. Credit: Reuters

Financial commissioner Sanjoy Mukherji, who has a fine, distinguished record has put in his papers (leave preparatory to retirement, perhaps). The Indian Railways (IR) budget is being merged with the general budget.  The chairman of Railway Board has been given an extension of two years. The board’s structure is being reconstituted service-wise (infrastructure, rolling stock etc.) instead of department-wise. The lateral induction of an expert for suggesting ways of resource mobilization has been initiated. All this is according to news reports.

It looks as if the minister for railways has started the long overdue shake-up of IR. He will not find many supporters among railway officials understandably for they will be afraid of any change, not knowing how it will affect them. My unsolicited advice to the minister therefore is to openly involve (giving wide media coverage) all stakeholders, unions, officers, suppliers, contractors, customers, political parties, chambers of commerce etc., leaving out none. The seminal change of IR, as the above initiatives indicate, demands it. Each stakeholder must see her gains from the redesign of IR being undertaken only then it will succeed, else it will be sabotaged.

But first it is necessary to delineate, at least broadly, what future shape, size and look of the organisation is envisioned. IR now is a centralised, monolithic, convoluted structure hobbled with red-tape. Seventy years after independence it does need to be redesigned to answer to the future needs of a fast developing economy and society. This much is fully appreciated by all stakeholders and has been talked about, discussed and experts have time and again submitted detailed reports about what needs to be done. Presumably IR is now seriously regarded as infrastructure of critical significance to development and modernisation in contrast with earlier regimes, when it was not so highly regarded. It led to IR’s underfunding for far too long, forcing it to depend upon shoddy supplies, shoddier civil constructions aggravated by leakages, wastages, inefficiency and corruption. Those who can have switched to the sexier mode of air travel because it is faster, more comfortable and aesthetic; therefore deemed worth the extra cost. Top officials of IR have also long given up rail travel. As one senior IR official observed sardonically, ‘how can we know the agonies of Indian rail travelling public when we ourselves don’t travel by it anymore?’

IR is a monopoly that never faced competition, remained isolated and its officials, basking in past glory, failed to caution their political masters of the fast deterioration of IR. They were taken in by their own delusion of running a superb organisation of immense historical and economic significance even as it was falling on every significant measure such as profit, expansion, modernisation, safety, maintenance, cleanliness and so on. It became a ministerial portfolio for the coalition ally of the GOP in UPA. No more attention was paid to it. Its chosen minister of the day would play the populist independently and not increase fares, yet give away jobs to his/ her thugs who ran the minister’s constituency – though this attempt did not succeed thankfully. Success in the sale of reservation quota by minister’s lackeys made only a little headway when it was exposed. But the final tender awardees of big tenders in board were made to contribute to the party’s fund ostensibly but no one knows for sure. All this speaks of the high probity of top IR officials by far.

Colonial feudal airs

These relentless assaults and many more, too many to be listed here, however have eroded IR to the point it cannot be fixed now. The colonially designed, baroque structure of IR that the socialist, feudalistic masters inherited has retained its colonial feudal airs. Officials have all along proudly, unashamedly espoused exercise of authority (termed ‘power’ to denote its essential character of irresponsibility whereas ‘authority’ connotes responsibility) at the political and bureaucratic levels down to the lowest. This is regarded increasingly repugnant for a modern democracy of conscious, empowered citizens. It is outdated even by Indian standards by nearly three decades when India began to liberalise and modernise ratcheting up competition to woo customers in sectors like telecom, airways, highways, even inviting global players. The top brass of IR bureaucracy still largely swears by authority, lamenting its erosion to the point where, like the Cheshire cat, only the smile (of senior bureaucrats recalling its past glory) remains but not authority or fear of it. Poor quality, inefficiency and consumer dissatisfaction were alien concepts to the feudal minded that admired its ‘power’ through which they did some good condescendingly. The whole bureaucracy, indeed the whole society, is to be blamed for this anachronistic, repugnant belief in power which has now effectively devolved to thugs in the pay of politicians, their favorite bureaucrats, family and friends.

Hence much of existing structure and philosophy of IR has to be cast aside urgently and a modern structure based on modern philosophy raised in its stead from ground-up. It has to be done with such skill that no one particularly much notices it, except in a positive sense, in her life and all stakeholders fully, willingly co-operate. It should be so designed (IT designed) as to remove possibility of delay and violation of rule and procedure based on equity, safety and efficiency framed by the highest authorities.

The simple fact is IR’s importance cannot be gainsaid. It is eco-friendly, cheap, safe and most efficient in land use. For India it is indispensable. Indeed, so for whole world. The minister of railways has commenced the process of shake-up hesitantly which is good. But recalcitrance will soon rear its head particularly if vested interests of departments, petty suppliers and contractors, their local Mafiosi are not nipped in time. This can be done if the minister’s initiative is soon followed with full and transparent backing of the prime minister.

It should be remembered that repeated attempts in past have been reduced to tokenisms in this regard. Ad-hoc measures have instead been undertaken countless times at all levels starting with sub-divisional to the board level. All of them fell by wayside because everybody in the game knew that the existing boss is temporary. Practically every officer of every department has been cajoled and beguiled into changing her predecessor’s order and everyone has complied.

Consequently, nothing short of a root-and-branch change of existing philosophy will bring about any real improvement. The shake-up of the Indian Railways is in fact a measure no less than the passage of the GST bill.  The restructuring and reshaping  needs to be announced upfront; that its aim  is to make it the leading Railway system of the world, a national pride. In this gargantuan enterprise, competition from wherever and to whatever extent necessary should be welcomed. Resistance will come for sure. Where it is based on legitimate fears it has to be addressed fully, where it is of the corrupt lobby it has to be broken completely.          

C S Rao is a former Director Finance/ Centre for Railway Information Systems (CRIS)

  • Suresh Bhardwaj

    Mr Rao has correctly pointed out that the Road Ahead for the Minister in terms of further restructuring is tough and tricky. Freight and passenger management needs separation urgently. But the major difficulty in that is that on Indian Railways, track is shared by both freight and passenger traffic. The technical requirements for the two segments are divergent. Unless freight corridors become a reality, separation of management of the two streams will be difficult. Anyway the Minister deserves Kudos for having made a good beginning.