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Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Reforming Railways

There is absolutely no doubt that what we are staring at right now is a mess of an absolute order in the mammoth railway system of the nation, a mess that is also experienced with amazing regularity by the rank and file of the nation. Yet in the perception of a rank outsider the primary issue with the railways remains to be undue political interference by its own very minister.  Surprisingly this perception can at best be only marginally true.

It is a fact that the Indian Railways, a commercial (sic) organization in monopoly in a sellers market in an overpopulated nation has no justification to be in the state of affairs it is in right now. It is also a fact that despite its apparent negatives, the railways remains the most visible symbol of dynamic delivery in a nation where almost anything associated with the sarkari machinery is perceived as a symbol of sloth and inefficiency. In this backdrop, it is indeed a matter of concern that even a dream business scenario has failed in inspiring the railway system to strive for excellence and inadequate facilities and services in unhygienic and overcrowded stations and trains has over time emerged as its hallmark. This dichotomy in the environment and the performance apparently defies logic and needs to be appreciated before contemplating solutions.

Bashing of politicos has unfortunately emerged as the favorite pastime of the nation. Even the great Indian Railways has not been left unscathed in this regard, perhaps because this appears to be the easiest option that also appeals to the masses.  That the fundamental issues with the railways are an offshoot of its burgeoning bureaucracy that is heavy, complex, feudal and archaic yet well looked after has unfortunately remained under cover.

The separation of the rail budget from that of the general exchequer in 1924 had its genesis in the deep rooted philosophy of the then federal government that the operations of the railways being commercial in nature would flourish in a financial environment that is free of the controls normally inherent in government budgeting and expenditure systems. Notwithstanding this fine appreciation of commercial needs that the then powers to be displayed in abundance, considerable distortions in the last few decades have resulted in a total reversal of the entire scenario including the mindsets.  

Railways took root in India in 1853 and by 1947 it had extended to over 53500 kms, while the next sixty five years witnessed an addition of a mere 11000 kms despite advancements in technology and processes. At this juncture in the life of the railways, it is almost impossible to fathom that in a span of a mere twenty odd years that too almost a century and a half back, the entire golden quadrilateral was built. That all the five hill railways that are icons of engineering excellence could be built from scratch in around a decade each, around the turn of the nineteenth century also defies present day logic in times when even completion of petty works is regarded as a laudable achievement. The railways in the first hundred odd years were identified with rapid building of quality infrastructure and providing immaculate services to its clients. 

Where have we stalled?

In tune with the railway systems in the developed world where the railways arrived only marginally earlier our railway system was initially structured along departmental lines. While other railway systems changed/evolved with the passage of time, our railway system still continues with an archaic management and operational structure, the continuance of which defies commercial sense. Moreover the system has been considerably complicated and distorted to the extent that there is now a total mismatch between authority and accountability in all verticals at almost all levels. The situation is further aggravated by the presence of as many services as there are departments resulting in a scenario that the entire system has only departmental officers and not true railway officers. An overall view therefore almost never gets taken.

What needs to be done?

The absolute lack of clarity on whether railway is a commercial organization or a body like other ministries of the nation has always been a core concern. Logically however, its expenses being met by its own earnings convey an impression that railway is a commercial organization, an impression substantiated by the rising public expectations from its services. Unfortunately however its absolutely non commercial way of working has expectedly failed in living upto the expectations of the burgeoning middle class. Restoring commercial sense in its operations is necessary and merely having a commercial department is at best tokenism. This however would necessitate a concerted effort taken with clear short and long term perspectives in view.

In the short term, the ridiculous complexities and distortions in the decision making and contractual mechanisms would need to be addressed, besides putting in place a mechanism for a periodic rationalization of the fare structure that puts an end to the adhoc handling of fares. Simplification of procedures and empowerment of the almost disempowered functionaries at all levels is an obvious natural corollary.    

Concurrently long term measures that handle major structural and operational anamolies would need to be undertaken.

It is also true that the middle tier in the railways structure, the zonal headquarters have ceased to be of any positive relevance. Highly overstaffed with focus only on control and conformance, the headquarters offices should be the first bastion to be demolished in the interest of efficiency. For operational matters there needs to be one policy making body, a trim and efficient Railway Board and a single functional tier of divisional offices. The infrastructure and manpower vested in zonal offices at present can be put to better use.

We also need to pay an immediate heed to the oft recommended step of doing away with the plethora of services that presently exist and creating a single Indian Railway Service on the pattern of other services of the union.  The crying need to organize the entire structure on business lines after demolishing the present departmental structure would also need to be addressed. 

After ages we see light at the end of the tunnel, yet sunshine would engulf us only if we move forward.

1 comment:

  1. Rly. is so much treasured by the Rly. bureacrats that though almost all of them enjoy the fruits outside Rly.s on deputation however, not even a single non-rly. bureacrat is permitted inside.

    How so ever strange it may look but it seems that even the political bosses have also been unable to usurp this tradition. This reflects both the power n the mindset aka true picture of what rly.s is in the minds of who manage it.

    It sometimes seems that it is also the true reflection of our country, how rich but unbelievingly poor. How much is there to share but, how it is being shared. Also by whom the rules for sharing are drawn. I remember a quote, if you cannot win, change the rules.This is so true of our inherent tradition. We are so afraid of anything fresh that before any gain or loss, the mindset guides of the future lost ground.
    how to overcome the fear ingrained is the question to be answered.
    If we are able to understand us, the assessment of any gain/loss will not arise. for the fearless, nothing is certain than self belief.
    pl. comment.