The decision of the Narendra Modi government to revamp the Railway Board (RB) and merge the existing eight services into one service, the Indian Railway Management Service (IRMS), has been long overdue but came at the right time.
Instead of having eight members from eight cadres for engineering, rolling stock, traffic, traction, signal and telecommunications, finance, material management and staff, apart from Railway Board chairman, the Centre has now decided to make it four members, one member each for infrastructure, operations and business development, rolling stock and finance. There will be a few additional members from outside the Indian Railways (IR) to provide strategic thinking and fresh ideas for the development of the Indian Railways.
The engineering cadres (IRSE, IRSME, IRSEE, IRSSE and IRSS) get through the Engineering Services Examination (except those who joined through Special Class Railway Apprentice Programme into IRSME, which is abandoned now) and non-engineering officers (IRTS, IRPS and IRAS) get through the Civil Services Examination, all conducted by the UPSC. In that sense, 8,401 Group 1 officers of IR are some of the best of the lot in India individually, but even then the growth of IR either in terms of technological upgradation, expansion of infrastructure or service orientation has not been even one-tenth of road and air transport that India achieved since 2000.
The question then arises is that “Is it right to put the blame entirely on Group 1 officers when the decision-making has been essentially vested with the government and the minister for railways (MR)?” It is true that the government and MR should take the major portion of the blame only in tenures when the government was indifferent, and the MR served his political interests at the cost of the larger good of the Railways. Till 2014, the erstwhile railway ministers used the IR as their fiefdom to satisfy their political interests and their party’s political interests. Till 2014, in order to calm down other political representatives, they threw titbits of announcements to them in the form of additional stops for trains in their respective constituencies, announcing new trains when there were not enough tracks to run those trains, thereby increasing congestion and accidents, extending the trains to new destinations despite not having enough passengers, announcing the development of new routes without bothering a
bout funding for such projects and introducing more divisions and zones, all using the Railway Budget as a political tool. None of them were in the interests of IR or the majority of the users of IR.
But things changed significantly after 2014. During Suresh Prabhu’s tenure, the Railway Budget was merged with the Union Budget to stop future railway ministers to use the Railway Budget as a tool to serve his or her political constituencies. New trains were introduced only if there was enough track capacity, no additional stops for trains were entertained, electricity has been purchased from private players at Rs 5 per unit in lieu of Rs 8 per unit from state electricity boards and above all, track construction was doubled, all after 2014. Between 2014-15 and 2017-18, IR added an average of 1,204 km of tracks annually, almost twice the average of 620 km of tracks annually between 2000-01 and 2013-14. With the transformation initiatives speeding up construction of western and eastern dedicated freight corridors, which was in limbo during UPA-2’s tenure, incentivising contractors and railway employees for earlier completion of railway projects, stopping the manufacturing of killer ICF coaches, thereby paving the way for the manufacturing of LHB coaches only and refurbishment of existing ICF coaches into safe LHB coaches and the foundation for reforms were all laid during Mr Prabhu’s tenure.
When Piyush Goyal took over, he continued the reforms aggressively by bringing back 25,000 trackmen to railway maintenance work, who had been otherwise working in the capacity of “orderlies” in the homes of senior railway officers. He also brought about design and development of Train-18, the first indigenously manufactured train set for long-distance travel, sending back the officers from RB back to zones and divisions to develop IR on the ground, conversion of all unmanned level crossings in the broad gauge network into manned level crossings on a war footing, faster replacement of old assets with new assets for ensuring safety and earmarking time and resources for maintenance of tracks, to list a few. These measures made rail travel a lot safer, as there were zero passenger deaths in FY 2019-20, till now, for the first time in the history of IR.
Prior to 2014, when the governments and MRs were protecting their fiefdoms, it was convenient for them to allow each cadre of officers to protect their fiefdoms, even if it meant jeopardising the growth of the Indian Railways. The Modi 1.0’s tenure did not allow any fiefdom for the BJP or its allies or the MR; the next logical step in Modi 2.0 is to dismantle the fiefdom of various cadres of IR. So the revamp of the board and creating a single service of IRMS has been on the anvil to achieve the same.
The fact that there is no mutual respect and trust between various cadres of Group 1 services of IR cannot be buried under the tracks, but of course with exceptions. The lack of mutual respect and trust essentially emanates from the notion that one department is more important than other departments, which is wrong. Although this is more acute between the engineering and non-engineering departments, it exists even between engineering departments. Rail transport itself is a marvel and is an engineering-driven transport sector. However, the service seekers by and large appreciate and value rail transport only from the non-engineering dimensions, be it availability of seats, safety, shorter travel time, smooth rides, comfort during travel, punctuality or cleanliness, courtesy, delivery of cargo on time and value for money. IR can fulfil such expectations only when all the departments of IR work cohesively and seamlessly.
To reduce the fierce competition by various cadres in trying to protect their fiefdoms, the government decided to revamp the Railway Board and merge the cadres into one. The message from Modi 2.0 is loud and clear: “The government respects the domain expertise of each cadre of IR and will continue to do so. But the government wants that the domain expertise of Group 1 officers should be channelised towards achieving leapfrogging growth of IR rather than wasting time on petty quarrels.”...