Opinion Columnists 20 Oct 2017 To reform Railways, ...
The writer is a public policy analyst.

To reform Railways, think out of the box

Published Oct 20, 2017, 3:02 am IST
Updated Oct 20, 2017, 3:02 am IST
Although 5,000 Class I officers are employed in the IR, very few of them are designated to carry out policymaking and dev initiatives.
Indian Railways (Photo: PTI)
 Indian Railways (Photo: PTI)

The decision to bring back about 30,000 trackmen to track maintenance who have been working as domestic helps for about 7,000 Class I officers of the Indian Railways (IR) is not an easy step to envisage, as the Class I officers have been enjoying this unaccounted privilege for many decades. The decision that there is no need for general managers and DRMs to be available at the arrival and departure of the Railway Board chairman and members when they visit the respective zones is also a good move. In IR, invariably the tenure of Railway Board members and chairman is considered more of a reward for the services rendered by Class I officers to IR for about 30-plus years and the associated pride, privilege and prestige, and less associated with what they could contribute to IR. Given the availability of low-cost carriers connecting different cities and considering that most of the officers have the eligibility to travel by air, the order asking senior officers to shun saloons and travel by AC and sleeper classes along with passengers while travelling by train may not make any difference.

There is no second opinion that this is a good beginning. However, the administrative reforms should be more broad-based and revolutionary to have a telling effect on existing rail services and development of new projects with cutting-edge technology and best business practices. At present, the chairman and members of the Railway Board are appointed to the respective posts a few years before their tenure ends. For instance, the tenure of incumbent Railway Board chairman Ashwani Lohani is about 16 months as he is about to retire on December 31, 2018. This has been the case with most of the previous Railway Board chairmen and board members.

 

Giving an extension for a year or two on the retirement day neither augurs well for the upkeep and development of the IR nor help the individual, as he cannot contribute with a clear-cut plan for his entire tenure. The extension of the tenure of Mr Lohani’s immediate predecessor, A.K. Mital, by two years and asking him to resign midway is a classic example of the perils of extending the tenure in a piecemeal approach.

The tenure of the Railway Board chairman and board members should be five years and should preferably coincide with the Union government’s tenure. They should be recruited after the scrutiny and evaluation of their past achievements and the written plans and commitment they give to bring about a substantial improvement in the existing system during their tenure. For a Class I officer, who worked for a long time in IR, it is not at all difficult to assess what lacks in IR and how much he can do realistically in the given tenure and accordingly give his plans and commitment before the recruiters. A review of the top brass, at regular intervals, would enable to check whether the commitment given by the top brass before recruitment is met reasonably well or not. In fact, the recruitment for cadres from selection grade officers (director-cadre offices in Railway Board) onwards should be based on the above model to empower the Class I officers to perform and simultaneously make them accountable in their roles.

 

Except for few who are deputed to the Metro or ministry of urban development or agencies like the International Union of Railways, Class I officers of IR by and large work in IR throughout their career, that too in a department allotted to them till they reach the level of DRM (joint secretary cadre), which takes about 20 years from joining the service. Till that time, they look at IR from the prism of their department and the associated job description, let alone as one mode of transportation among the various modes available.

However, the reality is that 88 per cent of the passenger and 65 per cent of the freight transport is done by road and the CAGR of domestic air passenger traffic has been increasing at about 15 per cent since 2004. With no larger understanding of how passengers and freight has been carried out by other transport modes like road (trucks, buses and personal cars), air traffic, ports and even pipelines, these Class I officers of IR are not able to conclude where they should pitch their services, so that it could function synergistically with other modes.

 

Many of the railway officers are not even aware that the luxury bus segment adopted some of the features of conventional rail system like smooth ride (high-end multi-axle Volvo and Mercedes-Benz buses), sleeper facility, etc, and thereby occupy the huge space created due to inadequate night train services. These inter-city Volvo buses operate non-stop services based on the origin-destination matrix and at the same time offer multiple pickup and drop points in the origin and destination locations.

Had IR officers looked at the functioning of luxury buses closely, they would have converted a sizeable number of mail/express trains into non-stop trains based on the origin-destination pair data. With no stint in other organisations that operate transport modes, it is extremely difficult for a Class I officer of IR to overcome the myopic view of transport. IR should encourage its Class I officers to take up stints in public and private organisations on deputation in areas like transport, logistics, infrastructure and bordering areas like tourism to get a larger insight into the multiple dimensions of transport, so that when they come back to their parental organisations, they will bring new lease of ideas.

 

The major asset for the present chairman of the Railway Board is not his four engineering degrees but his stint as chief of Madhya Pradesh Tourism Development Corporation, the India Tourism Development Corporation and Air India.

Although 5,000 Class I officers (leaving aside 2,000 officers in medical services) are employed in the IR, very few of them are designated to carry out policymaking and development initiatives. Even among the Class I officers who are employed in day-to-day operations, hardly any time is spent on development work. An organisation, which employs most of its “change agents” in day-to-day operations, cannot think of conceiving and implementing big transformations. IR should mandate that at least one-third of its Class I officers’ time is spent on policy and development work and the performance measurement system and the result framework document should reflect this.

 

What is being mentioned here are some suggestions on how to make the IR bureaucracy efficacious. Let us hope what Piyush Goyal did is just the beginning, and many more administrative reforms in IR would follow.

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