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Tuesday, February 12, 2019

The kings shall rule........

………..always over the hearts and the subjects would happily do all that the kings desire.

One rules only with the heart and keeps the mind safely tucked away as that is how a successful reign would always be. And this advice is not only for the real kings, but for all those who command men and through them need to give results.

This holds good for all sectors, governmental and private.

Yes, as Gandhi said, it would always remain a mystery as to how someone could belittle his subordinates and feel good about it; practice this belittling daily and thereby achieving perfection in the art of disseminating unhappiness all around. You see such practitioners every day, cutting across sectors and state boundaries, practicing this art to the chagrin of many, and fortunately or unfortunately being easily identified by unhappy faces all around. They are mere bosses, not kings, and do not realize that bosses, people detest and kings they love.   

Even a raised eyebrow of a boss hurts, whereas a raised sword of someone we regard as king is calmly accepted, for the king rules from the heart and the boss, bosses from the mind. The heart is always superior to the mind, yet very few of us realize this fundamental and pass our lives in a state of perpetual unhappiness.

Life is to be led to its fullest and to its fullest it can be led only with happiness all around. Only a king lives this way and one need not be born to a royal family to be a king. He only needs to have a heart that he invariably turns to for advice and rules with, with the mind generally remaining oblivious to whatever is happening in the environment all around.

The quest of heart over mind shall continue and one who places the mind over the heart shall generally remain an unhappy soul, creating more unhappy souls whenever and wherever he interacts with others.

The finest and the most successful top guns have been those who have genuine love and affection for the men working under them. Such officials treat their men as their own men, with respect and compassion. The vagaries of rank are not allowed to come up in their relationship that they really cherish and would not allow to be wasted on petty issues. Ego is farthest from their persona, yet they can take a stand on the right issue, a stand that they would never compromise even at the cost of all that they cherish and hold dear. And they take full responsibility for all that is happening in their domain, without making any attempt to pass even an iota of responsibility to those who work for them. Such officials are kings in the real sense, their domain remains their kingdom. 

Bosses invariably fret over mundane issues, while the kings never miss the larger picture, even while appearing to be engrossed in the routine. And the perpetual attempt of the bosses to please their masters shall never be the style of a king for while a king may have a superior but never a master, nor does he regard someone as one.

How we miss kings in the environment we work, for it is there that we need them the most. The rank inability to get the best out of our men is a situation created by a lineage of bosses, who never had the gumption to be kings. Bosses, who aspired for a position for that is all that identified them, and who only regarded a position as a means of bringing about a positive change in their lives as well as that of their families, not the organization they work for and for whom a position was not a means to an end, but was an end in itself.

How we miss kings who can take a stand for what is right and not acquiesce to unholy demands just to avoid a fleeting inconvenience. How we miss kings who would not sell their soul for petty personal gains and realize that such deals are not really worth it. And how we miss kings who always flaunt their pen and never their tongue, a phenomenon witnessed far more often than desirable.

Where have we gone wrong, perhaps in the grooming of the youngsters in general and our own men in particular. We need to course correct and put value systems and the need to place the heart over mind at the forefront of the norms of the society and organizations.

It is time that the thoughts and deeds of great men like Vivekananda and Gandhi are widely disseminated so that they can be imbibed by a large section of the society.

Bringing such changes takes the toil and patience of decades. Are we ready, yes we have to be, for we need our officials to be kings, not a mere instrument for bossing over subordinates.

Saturday, February 2, 2019

Signing Off

It is all the same everywhere

India Tourism Development Corporation, Madhya Pradesh State Tourism Development Corporation, Air India and now Railways – what a journey it was that despite my constrained capabilities placed me as the head honcho of these great organizations.On the 31st last, I departed the hallowed portals of the Rail Bhawan, a satisfied soul ready to relax in the sun and bask in the reflected glory that head honcho’s generally get regardless of their contribution. And the only thought at the moment of departure was gratitude for the mercy of the almighty who gave me different ways of serving this great nation of ours.

I feel forty, have the physical fitness of twenty and am actually sixty. Maybe I still have many years of slogging left in me, yet the intense desire to contribute to this wonderful nation of ours, and god willing and health permitting, this desire would keep me working regardless.

It has been a great learning, almost thirty nine years of it, with the diversity of the federal government, state government, a hotel company, a tourism company, an aviation company and the largest organization of the world, all providing a different and an exciting playfield. All of them were different as well the same. The outputs were different, yet the inputs were almost the same and why not. It is almost always about handling the three M’s within a defined time frame all synchronized to achieve the desired objective.

Air India was indeed the toughest nut to crack, not because it is of the toughness of the nut casing but because of the huge debt it piled up during its attempted nosedive into oblivion, a dive that could be successfully yet temporarily halted by bringing out the best of its men and also its machines. And at the root of the dive was always a management that was as distant from the ground as the moon is to the sun. The stark absence of a ground connect and a decision making process that would put to shame even the word “complexity”, together conspired to pull down an organization that in the past ruled the skies with impunity. I left the glory of the skies convinced that the airline still has in itself a lot that could propel it to emerge as the leader that it had always been till a decade back.

And the stint in the heart of Incredible India was not work but an affair, an emotional one at that. One tends to fall in love with the central indian state of Madhya Pradesh that was indeed crafted by the gods with tourism in mind. Yet the infrastructure and image foisted on me at the time of my arrival was at wide variance with what perhaps was the intent of the gods, who as some publicity campaigns loudly proclaimed had ensconced themselves in the southern state of Kerala as their own country. Realizing the difficulties in changing the place of lodging, we resolved to create a tourism eco-system that would enable the gods to take a holiday whenever they wished to. And so “the heart of incredible India was born” with the state grabbing the bulk of national tourism awards since then. And again it was all and only about getting the best out of the men who manned tourism.

Running ITDC, the largest hospitality and tourism company of its time, provided a thrill of another kind. Competing against highly successful chains like the Taj and ITC that too in the aftermath of the 9/11 and in the process attempting to pull the company out of the abyss it found itself in, was an immense challenge. The glamour of the hotels shadowed their real poverty borne out of years of losses and the long faces of the men manning the desks in the company reflected the tremendous amount of focus that the human resource had been craving for. Yet the company, especially the iconic Ashok Hotel slowly turned around despite being put on block and the downturn that the tourism sector had been witnessing those days. To the chagrin of many, the men pulled the company out of the pits and started walking erect once again.

And till recently the railways. It was a ballgame of another kind. The largest organization in the world that has a great attached to its name has been a victim of its own creation, its own highly capable but control centric bureaucracy almost choked the organization leading to unfortunate incidents, infrastructure deficit and a low public image. Its highly capable men were constricted by a machinery that made delivery, other than the routine of course, impossible. And the panacea was transformation, transforming the culture, processes and structure, a no mean task by any standards. Yet a beginning could be made by bringing focus and concern for the human resource, delegating authority and beginning to de-complicate the over complex machinery. Reinforcing the supremacy of deliverance over processes and that of the human resource over the other M’s, while at the same time stressing the need for honesty in all our dealings started making the difference, and hopefully this shall continue in the overall national interest.

I savored the journey as much as the fruits of it. Despite treacherously long work hours, the tremendous love and affection showered by employees of almost all strata kept me going right through.

My biggest learning during the journey has been that life is much bigger than everything else – a human soul is not to be wasted, discarded or pulled down. Getting the best out of your men is the only strategy that the top management should follow, rest the men would find out and implement. The established supremacy of the human resource over all other resources needs to be accepted.

That impeccable integrity is the most powerful ingredient that any organization aspiring for success should ingrain itself with was a thought that got reinforced repeatedly, with the realization that integrity cannot be a strategy, but has to become a way of life for the organization as a whole and also its constituents.

I learnt that it is not merely bad decisions that kill organizations, indecision is the most powerful sure and silent killer.

I realized that morale of the men and the pride they have in the organization is everything.

And the inability of the top management to stand up for what is right and correct what is wrong, is invariably the biggest malaise that organizations generally have.

It has been a tremendous journey and now as it comes to a close, my head bows down to all my men who indeed madeliving itselfworth the while.

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Reforms is the Key

The widely prevalent belief that many organizations lack focus on delivery and need to work harder to bring about major improvements is borne out of the simple age old philosophy that hard work leads to higher output. The philosophy is not totally off the mark, except for the fact that it does not really differentiate between remaining busy and deliverance.

Remaining busy does not always imply delivery though delivery would invariably necessitate remaining busy. The fine line between the two needs appreciation borne out of experience.

All the organizations that I have been associated with in the capacity of a head honcho had people, almost the majority of them, who remained busy like hell and also took pride in that. They were, with exceptions of course, generally all good people with good intentions. Yet in their obsession with remaining or appearing to remain busy, the bigger picture was lost sight of and delving in the mundane occupied centre stage. Blaming peers, superiors, subordinates and also the constraints of the external environment for failures to adequately deliver, without realizing that an honest peek within, as Gautam Buddha said, would provide the real answers.

And therefore I often peeked within, looked for and fairly regularly found the right answers within easy reach and also easily implementable. And answers were generally the same regardless of the sector and its intrinsic technical or administrative complexities. And organizations in general behaved similarly to external stimuli.   

One of the biggest follies of organizations is adapting to an aggressive cycle of management, a cycle during which reprimands and extensive monitoring at various levels occupies centre stage almost all the time. A frenetic activity unfortunately and also incorrectly gets regarded as synonymous with delivery. This cycle assumes that subordinates do not know their jobs, are not to be trusted and are to be always kept on their toes for them to be able to deliver, in case deliverance is really aspired for, with trust being the biggest casualty, almost always.

Lack of clarity in how to please superiors remains another area of concern. Employees generally desire that superiors, as they have the maximum impact on the environment of the subordinates, should be happy and therefore they look for ways and means to keep them so. Kowtowing to whatever the superior says or does, generally appears to be the safest bet and therefore almost everyone at all times looks for opportunities to agree with superiors, even at the cost of what is right, or right for the organization. Rarely does one witness people having an opinion and standing up for what they think is right. 

The ridiculous extent to which the processes have been generally complicated even for mundane activities is sad and also damaging for organizations. And therefore the never ending quest for super outstanding people who can bend, twist or subvert the processes in order to deliver. This is at far variance with what one witnesses in developing countries where systems are based on trust and processes are simple enough to be handled by almost everyone.

Reforms therefore need to address all these basic issues.

Organisational culture is the first area to be looked at. Is it a culture built on sycophantic behaviour with frills being at the core of almost all our activities? Are people concerned about pleasing superiors or they are bothered about doing the right thing and delivering? Are the men happy or are the faces drooping? These are questions that need to be answered and then addressed. A no frills environment devoid of petty ego’s that encourages a fearless working environment indeed brings out the best in the human resource. We need to create an environment where our men can stand erect with pride and at the same time have humility and compassion towards their fellow human beings.

Reforms should also address the core issue of deliverance. The supremacy of deliverance over everything else except perhaps the human values needs to be grilled down the organisation. That men being mere mortals would make mistakes in the process of work needs to be appreciated. And the organisation should be invariably able to differentiate between a genuine mistake and a malafide. The men need to be proactively supported and cared for.

The processes need to be simplified, ideally to the level of one thumb impression per decision, but that may not be always possible. Yet a lot of simplifications is possible, almost always in every single organisation. And the easiest way to simplify is to delegate authority to the lowest functional levels. Yet letting go of authority is easier said than done and resistance and road blocks to this effort in the guise of concern for malpractices that may erupt if people are trusted, needs to be handled with an iron hand.

Reforming the structures should indeed come the last for what is a structure but a physical manifestation of the process. The structure exists for the processes and not the other way round. Ideal structures are like pyramids with a clearly defined apex in whom the supreme power vests, and the apex is not meant to personally exercise powers for everything under the sun, for that would bring the organisation to a grinding halt, but should liberally sprinkle power over the various tiers of functional authorities.

And lastly choosing the guy at the apex level. While a lot of requirements apparently come to mind, the one quality that really encompasses everything else is the courage to stand up, at the right time for what is right. Fearlessness needs to be at the core for the guy occupying the hottest seat.

Organisations shall flourish with a liberal sprinkling of reforms and a courageous guy at the apex level.

Saturday, August 25, 2018

Indian Railways - on the cusp of transformation

Working in the Modi government is definitely a different experience. There are no undue pressures or threats, no expectations of anything other than work and no requests to favor companies or individuals. On the other hand, there is tremendous premium on integrity and pressure on deliverance and also high expectations towards meeting targets relating to infrastructure development. Clearly the focus is on delivery, not frills and this has indeed been a welcome change – like a whiff of fresh air.

Certainly this is not the way the system has been conducting itself in the past in this country, yet it appears that the change in the way of working is going to be permanent, for having tasted it once, the nation and its constituents would not find comfort in the ways of the past, regardless of the political shade of governance.

Indian Railways, the lifeline of the nation, is also feeling fresh and rejuvenated. With tremendous emphasis on consolidation of the existing network and growth in infrastructure, and single minded focus on reforms, the lifeline of the nation is perhaps on the right trajectory.

Yet the fact remains that over the last few decades, addition of many times more trains that infrastructure  has led to a scenario where massive congestion on the tracks critically affects punctuality, maintenance and also safety, with the tragic accidents in recent years bearing testimony to the same. Since the fifties while the track infrastructure has grown a measly thirty percent, the traffic, both passenger and freight has jumped over sixteen times and this widening chasm has led to a scenario where there is a constant tussle between those who operate and those who build and maintain.

And the almost static passenger tariff, for a long time now is affecting railway revenues with its attendant consequences and symptoms and impacting almost all aspects of working of this great organization. A corporate, and railways is definitely one, has to be run professionally with real concern for the bottom line if it is to succeed and succeed it must for that is the only way it can truly serve the society for which it was built in the first place.  

Despite all good intentions and many improvements, the massive railway system has not been able to fully live up to the expectations of the masses – inadequacy of line capacity has led to shortages of berths to travel on and freight trains to lift and transport what needs to be lifted and transported. There is a perpetual contradiction, whether the railways is a sarkar (government) or vyapar (business) and therefore the business of fast track deliverance that entails quick decision making has always been an exercise that has been regarded as a risky affair.

Yes it is true that the inherent contradictions that this organization finds itself engulfed in, have emerged over decades. Complexity of processes has shrouded almost every facet of the organization, the structures have not kept pace with the changing environment and needs, and culturally, we have deteriorated.

Sustained adhocism is the best way to pull organizations down. An organization of over thirteen lakh employees, covering the entire nation has to have its fundamentals steeped in good governance. Unfortunately railways was always viewed as an organization that could be forever sustained without commensurate inputs. Impromptu decisions to increase passenger trains taken regularly over long periods of time coupled with measures like keeping the fares static have caused sufficient damage. Despite massive checks over expenditure, checks that have started affecting operations, staff welfare as well as safety, we have no surpluses from revenues, despite only token provisioning towards depreciation. And our efforts towards monetization and generating non fare revenues are yet to bear full fruit.

We are also yet to fully overcome the complexity of processes that its complex bureaucracy has taken to ridiculous extremes with processes not designed for efficiency but often at times to guard turf for the satisfaction of individuals. And the perpetuation of a feudal culture till very recently, when we came down with an iron hand.

Where have we gone wrong? Perhaps the answer lies in the way we are structured – a vyapar in the garb of sarkar, a vyapar that needs to be conducted with all the precautions and rigmarole associated with sarkar, a vyapar where the sanctity of processes override that of deliverance and a vyapar that has no clearly defined chief executive, a functionality considered mandatory for any corporate. With these fundamental anomalies perfectly in place, while we can always aspire for and also achieve some modicum of excellence, we may perhaps never be able to fully exploit the potential of this great monolith.

Yet the railway system delivers almost 22000 trains a day carrying 23 million passengers and over one million tonnes of freight across 8000 stations spread through the length and breadth of the country, and that is why one often refers to it as the “Great Indian Railways” for it touches the lives of the entire populace, day in and day out. Its men (and women) keep the wheels moving even under severe constraints and often extreme working conditions and that is what makes them stand tall over all other classes of government servants.

Despite legacy issues, it is indeed gratifying that the efforts of the recent past have started showing. Safety scenario has improved, cleanliness levels have climbed a few notches, passenger amenities have improved, new landmarks have been achieved in doubling, electrification and other works, stations are being beautified, dedicated freight corridors have started emerging, construction of high speed line between Ahmedabad and Mumbai is on track and the first ever rail university of the country has started functioning. And this is not all; major strides are in the offing, in improving security levels through use of video cameras, in giving entertainment through provision of wi-fi at stations and trains, in improving safety through better signalling, development of stations through private participation, using artificial intelligence for enhancing security, digital measures etc. The intent of the present government in improving railways so that it can live up to the expectations of an emerging nation is fairly evident.

Railway Reforms is a key focus area of the government. Abolition of frills, matching accountability with authority, simplification of systems and processes, concern and sensitivity for the human resource, stress on integrity and ethical conduct are indeed measures that the national carrier is increasingly identifying itself with, and why not – these are the crucial building blocks of any great organization. Sensitivity towards our clients and employees alike, something that we were rapidly losing sight of, is also fast getting restored.

Indian Railways is indeed one of the the largest organizations on planet earth. Sustained efforts over a long period of time with reforms being at its core, is the only way to make a lasting difference.

God willing, we shall.

Jai Hind

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Article in Economic Times of 30th November 2017

It is time for the Indian Railways to tear up old tracks

Updated: Nov 30, 2017, 11.39 PM IST

At many places where accidents have taken place due to rail fractures, corrosion at the foot of the rail has been found to have been the cause.
At many places where accidents have taken place due to rail fractures, corrosion at the foot of the rail has been found to have been the cause.
By Ashwani Lohani

The derailment of 13 coaches of the Patna-bound Vasco Da Gama Express near Manikpur railway station, Uttar Pradesh, on November 24 that killed three and injured at least 12 people reinforces one thesis: over a long time, the railway system in India has accumulated a massive infrastructural deficit that is behind most Indian Railways (IR) accidents

The rapid increase in the number of trains and passengers has far outpaced the small strides that IR has been making towards improving and developing infrastructure. As a result, we now have reached a stage where finding a balance between train operations and maintenance of infrastructure — especially those directly related to the running of trains, such as tracks, signalling systems, stations and yards — is becoming increasingly difficult.

The horrific incident of the rushhour stampede at the overbridge at Mumbai’s Elphinstone railway station on September 29 that killed 29 people is a classic case in point. Most stations and associated infrastructure are creaking under the load of far more traffic than they were originally designed to safely and efficiently handle.

Yet, the fact remains that the railways handles almost 23 million passengers and over three million tonnes of freight every day. This is possible only due to the commitment of its employees and the sturdiness of its operational processes. IR can, however, do far better if it is not hampered by the complexity of its administrative processes and management structures, both of which are proving to be major hurdles in consolidation as well as growth.

Regularly bowing to populist demands for introducing new trains without commensurate inputs towards creation and maintenance of infrastructure has led to a scenario where the state of the fixed infrastructure, including tracks, at many places, is cause for serious concern.

Tracks at many places, especially in yards and stations, are in a caked condition, the result of years of not being deep-screened (cleaned). The condition of the rolling stock also is abysmal with the infrastructure and automation at maintenance units not having kept pace with the rapid increase in workload. A stage has now arrived when the accumulation of such conditions can’t be merely wished away.

Directed corrective action is needed and has been initiated. For some time, however, a price may have to be paid by way of delays in train schedules, drastically reduced number of new trains, cancelling some trains, etc. At many places where accidents have taken place due to rail fractures, corrosion at the foot of the rail has been found to have been the cause.

This also leads to the premature destruction of rails and increases the cost of overall maintenance. Tracks in platform areas are especially vulnerable due to accumulation of dirt and muck from water and human faeces from passenger trains.

Ideally, these tracks should be on a washable concrete apron. This, however, hasn’t happened even in the New Delhi Railway Station thanks to divergent opinions of the IR’s departmental silos. In the absence of boundary walls, rampant encroachments and settlements — especially adjoining railway tracks in urban areas — also contribute to this malaise.

At the root of the rot lie the archaic processes and outdated structures of the administrative machinery. Complex rules have dampened efficiency and restricted growth. They have also blurred the distinction between delivery and processes, bringing with it attendant consequences.

IR’s focus on human resources (HR) has been rather dim. Petty corruption has also come to rule the roost, and motivation levels are low. Decisionmaking has also generally been conspicuous by its absence.

That a government institution, the Indian Railways, has to manage corporate-style delivery, operations and structure while remaining within the confines of codes, procedures and general financial rules (GFRs) makes the working much more difficult than any other service organisation. So, in the long run, simplification of processes and greater empowerment will need to be looked at seriously.

The magnitude of the problem is as massive as it is real. Sustained focused efforts supported by political will and bureaucratic commitment over a considerable period to transform the system and bring about organisational reforms is the only way out of the mess. After all, we are talking about neglect accumulated over decades.

Reforms will have to remain the keyword for the railways. Cultural, process and structural reforms shall have to be taken to their logical conclusion. A direction that this monolith has already taken.

Article in Indian Express of 29th November 2017

Article in Indian Express of 29th November 2017

One giant leap for all - Misgivings around high-speed railway are unwarranted. It will boost the economy and provide safe travel to the masses.

The Mumbai-Ahmedabad High-Speed Rail (MAHSR) project is the most ambitious and largest rail project envisaged in India. It will propel India to the elite league of nations that run high-speed trains and is, therefore, also a project that would symbolise and instil national pride. At over 300 kmph, it would also mark a paradigm shift for the Indian Railways (IR), which still has average speeds in the range of 50 and 23 kmph for passenger and goods trains respectively. It would indeed dramatically change the way people in India look at travel as hitherto overnight distances between major cities would get compressed to 2-3 hours, often lower than the total time while travelling by air.
High Speed Rail (HSR), which is defined in terms of speeds above 250 kmph (MAHSR is designed for maximum speed of 350 kmph and operational speed of 320 kmph), does not represent an incremental improvement over conventional systems, but combines technologies to take rail travel to new dimensions. Presently, only 15 countries have HSR. In all these countries, it has brought about profound development over corridors in terms of economic opportunities, employment and environment-friendly transport. In all cases, a massive shift away from air travel and automobiles has also been noticed.
MAHSR went into the implementation phase with the ground-breaking ceremony in Gandhinagar on September 14 in the presence of the prime ministers of India and Japan. Unfortunately, however, as happens with all big projects that propel major changes, the lack of a thorough appreciation has resulted in unfounded misgivings. These need to be dispelled in the overall interest of the nation. Some of these misgivings are that the HSR is only for the elite; traffic projections are inflated; the project, by going in for Japanese technology on nomination basis, will consume substantial financial resources; India has locked itself into a high-cost model and whether IR will be able to manage HSR safely.
MAHSR is a futuristic project. Can we remain satisfied with average speeds of 50 kmph for passenger trains forever? Should IR not look at a leap of technology?
It should indeed be a matter of satisfaction that the railways is looking at both consolidation and growth and development at the same time, as one is not at the cost of the other. The way our country’s economy is growing, 10-15 years later our GDP levels would be much higher and that would necessitate extending the HSR network over the high-density golden quadrilateral (almost 10,000 km). It would also drive economies of scale and make HSRs uniquely Indian and frugal in construction cost and affordability.
The project aims at moving the masses. The traffic projection for the project has been arrived at by using normal econometric models and it is often true that once trains start running and people get used to the easy availability of fast travel, the ridership will exceed the projections. Our assessment is that there shall be a major exodus from road and air travel between the two cities in favour of the high-speed train. An offshoot would be the decongestion of the highway and airports.
IR is alive to the need for the modernisation. Major upgradation efforts comprising of two dedicated freight corridors, improvements to signalling, new coaching and freight stock and over 20,000 km of doubling, quadrupling, gauge conversion, etc, are in the offing. Capital expenditure over the last 10 years — at almost Rs 87,000 crore per annum — is 90 per cent higher on a year-to-year basis compared to 2009-14. To improve safety, a Rashtriya Rail Sanraksha Kosh, with a corpus of Rs 1 lakh crore to be spent over in five years, has been set up with a focus on asset renewal and elimination of unmanned level crossings. This has already started showing encouraging results. The existing railway network would also benefit immensely from the learnings that would emerge from the technology of HSR.
The safety record of the existing railway system is affected by a number of factors such as surface crossings, habitations close to tracks and the low margin for maintenance. All these factors are fully addressed in the HSR. In fact one of the reasons for choosing Shinkansen is that since its inception in 1964 there has been no fatal accidents.
HSR does not entail just fast travel for the passenger. Covering 500 km in 2-3 hours will obviously give an enormous boost to economic activities along the corridor. Closer economic linkages will convert the entire corridor into an economic cluster. Other benefits that would come with the project are generation of employment of about 40,000 persons during the construction phase, skill upgradation of local residents who will engage with the project and that of railway personnel who would be trained at the state-or-the-art High-speed Training Centre at Vadodara and the transformation of station terminals. The project would require about two million tonnes of cement and five lakh tonnes of steel per year during the construction phase. This would itself generate demand for transport and warehousing. The modal shift from air and automobiles to HSR will improve also air quality.
Government-to-government cooperation with Japan has not mandated the award of projects on a nomination basis. All the contract packages in the project will be bid out competitively within the framework of the Memorandum of Cooperation, except for about 18 per cent of the value of the contract which would be reserved for competition among Japanese companies.
The project is being managed efficiently and that gives confidence that it can be delivered at a competitive cost and to international standards. In the next 5-6 years, by when the high-speed trains would start running, the project will more than prove itself even to its wildest of detractors. The nation will be eagerly awaiting this giant leap in technology.

Monday, December 4, 2017

Article in Outlook magazine 30th October 2017

Article in Outlook magazine 30th October 2017

The  cover story Outlook carried in its October 16, 2017, edition reflects only a one-sided picture. While to some extent it is true that the unfortunate accidents in recent days have led to an environment of concern about safety on the railway system, the fact remains that Indian Railways is easily one of the safest modes of public transport in the country. This is also substantiated by the ground reality of a continuous reduction in the number of accidents over the last three years. In fact, the first half of the current financial year clocked marginally over half the figure of that in the corresponding period of the last fiscal. And it also needs to be stressed that the entire railway realises the necessity of evolving into an almost accident-­free system and the efforts of this government are very much in this direction.

That the new railway minister convened a meeting of the full board and all major officials of the Central and Western Railways the very next day after the September 29 Elphinstone tragedy says it all about the intent and commitment of the present government. The meeting took many landmark decisions, both systemic and executive, all of which are poised to make a tremendous positive impact in enhancing a safe working environment within the railway system in the foreseeable future.

Indian Railways is indeed the lifeline of the nat­ion. With almost 12,500 trains a day carrying over 22 million passengers, besides 9,000 goods trains carrying almost 3 million tonnes of freight a day, a disciplined and committed workforce of almost 1.3 million and over 8,000 stations in its network, the work done by this monolith is alm­ost gigantic in proportion compared to what most of the other organisations do.

Before passing a value judgement on the performance of the railways, one needs to look at the ground realities with a discerning eye. Even a cursory look at the railway infrastructure that is already bursting at its seams would reveal the glaring shortcomings that have accumulated over decades. The penchant to pander to popular demands without commensurate inputs has over the years led to a scenario where unsafe conditions have been created unmindfully, albeit in pockets of course. We need to ponder over a few points. Are our stations actually designed or equipped to handle the dense load of passengers they witness everyday? Are Elphinstone and similar railway stations with narrow platforms and equally narrow foot overbridges capable of handling on a day-to-day basis the massive footfalls they encounter? Is the system indeed running more trains than what the infrastructure or the processes are really designed for? The tremendous infra­structural constraints that the national carrier is challenged with and is now trying to address; shortcomings acc­umulated over decades to be addressed in matter of months and years is indeed a tall order! This reality, however, does not alter our avowed responsibility towards our constituents, a reality that all railwaymen are aware of and committed to address. After all, the acceptance of a problem is indeed the first step towards its resolution.

An HR-centric organisation like the Indian Railways with over 1.3 million employees has to have its fundamentals firmly rooted in the welfare of its men, men who are contented, committed and alert. Unfortunately, as has happened in many organisations including the flying national carrier, the focus of the railways has with passage of time shifted from the core concern to peripherals. It is not without a deep under­standing of this universal reality that Richard Branson, the founder of Virgin airlines, coined the well-known slogan ‘Employees First’. We at the nati­onal carrier also remain committed to restoring in the workmen a feeling of pride and motivation and in the process extract the best out of them, as a continuing measure leading to improvement in passenger services.

There are also major structural and process-­related issues that have plagued the organisation for far too long. Deeply rooted in very strong and complex processes, the organisation has not been able to itself quickly adapt to the needs of a rapi­dly emerging nation. Decision-making has been slow and contractual mechanisms a bit tardy and these have had a major impact on our ability to keep up with the times. To meet the demands and expectations placed on the railway system, it is necessary to bring about a quantum change in all our structures and processes and a beginning has already been made in this direction. The need is also to overhaul and modernise the administrative machinery and that too at a rapid pace.

The travelling public should rest assured that safe and comfortable travel is and shall always remain the highest priority of the national carrier. A headline like To Kill a Passenger, as part of your cover story, unfortunately portrays a very wrong picture of the organisation. The death of even a single passenger is deeply saddening for all the men (and women) who run the nat­ional carrier. And it is also not true that staff have not been punished for their follies in cases of accidents, in fact railways stands heads and shoulders above others, unfortunately so, in so far as punishing its own men is concerned.

Rooted in archaic processes that still deliver 21,500 trains a day, the HR policies and associated processes have been crying for atte­ntion for a very long time now. Now that the government is seriously at it, I have no qualms in adm­itting that system failure is at the core of most of the unfortunate incidents that we have witnessed and we are not shying away; the ent­ire railway machinery would not rest till these systemic issues are well addressed.

There is great emphasis on maintenance now, reflected in the fact that as many maintenance blocks as called for have been given over for attent­ion to fixed infrastructure. This has tem­porarily affected punctuality, but would be highly beneficial in the long run. We are also moving ahead with simplification of our infrastructure creating mechanism. An example: classifying foot overbridges, platforms and pathways as necessities, not as amenities—as they were earlier classified. Delegation of pow­ers to field-level officials has already begun in right earnest and should be completed very shortly. Ultimately, this would make it simple for them to take and execute decisions. And resolving staff-related issues is being given highest priority, for there is no substitute to a motivated and charged-up staff. Removal of frills and instilling integrity and value systems in the system has also been put centrestage.

How can we really hold our men responsible when we have failed over the years in addressing the gaps in infrastructure, primarily caused due to the complexity of processes and the archaic structures? Making heads roll in bulk, though some heads still roll, is grossly unjust besides being counter-­productive as it creates disenchantment and leads to further issues. In most of the large organisations around the world, cultural issues are regarded as the single factor that have the highest impact on work, yet they remain the most complicated of the issues to handle. Really successful organisations are ones who are able to address cultural issues, are able to enthuse and instil pride in their men, have a clear focus and place overriding priority on delivery. The full railway machinery is geared up to move on this path.

Consolidation and expansion is the name of the game. Therefore, while we remain committed to discipline, reforms, overhauling of structures (including breaking the silos), improving safety and giving better passenger amenities, we remain aware that the growing aspirations of the nat­ion incl­uding its burgeoning middle class also need to be met. Therefore, while temporarily the growth in terms of track kilometres has been given precedence over mere track ren­ewals, railways is also moving forward with creating dedicated freight corridors to meet the ever-growing requirements of goods and also creating a high-speed corridor connecting Ahmedabad with Mumbai. A brand-new high-speed railway that would emerge as a game-changer would indeed be symbolic of a nation aspiring to position itself at its rightful place in the comity of nations. Rapid electrification and planned commercial development of many railway stations will also lead to imp­roved passenger experience. Simultaneously the universal introduction of bio toilets in trains, an exercise targeted to be completed in December 2018 is also indicative of our resolve to further the patriotic Swachh Bharat mission of the government. Besides a slew of measures, elimination of unmanned level crossings and improvement in passenger amenity items like catering and linen shall also continue unabated in our quest towards providing safe and comfortable travel to our esteemed passengers.

The recent flurry of railway accidents has indeed jolted the collective psyche of this great organisation. That the entire railway machinery is treating this as a wake-up call for moving towards a complete transformation needs to be viewed in the right perspective. After all, we are the wheels on which the nation moves!

Jai Hind.
(The writer is chairman of the Railway Board.)