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Friday, June 20, 2014

THE RAIL "WAY"

It is generally accepted yet never practiced that unless we call a spade a spade and accept and also project the reality as it is, progress in the real sense would never materialize. After all the welfare of the nation needs to be at the core of all our actions always.

Modi’s thumping arrival on the national scene has heralded rapidly changing times and hope in the hearts of the common man and the honest bureaucrat. It is my fervent hope and desire that the reasons behind the railways continuously performing much below par and also with amazing regularity failing to meet the expectations of a nation on the move would now find suitable redressal.

It is sad that apparently there is no other way or forum in the railways where even an officer with over thirty four years of service can place his point of view with the hope that the powers that be would bring about changes, for the better. Unfortunately the communication is always downwards, never upwards and therefore the existence of the ivory towers far removed from ground realities.

Is it not surprising that I have never witnessed or partaken of a meeting or a conference in the railways where the welfare of the men who actually run railways and matters relating to ethics and probity in public life are discussed threadbare. Perhaps our inability to accept the realities and remaining in a denial mode forever has been spurred by the feudal and sycophantic culture that this organization now finds itself deeply enmeshed in.
The tragedy of railways has been that despite always being in the best possible business scenario, monopoly in a sellers-market in a nation as populous as ours, it has always found itself in a deep mess unable to meet the rising aspirations of a nation on the move. Perhaps now the time has come when this organization would overcome mere rhetoric and emerge as the economic lifeline of the nation provided it accepts its follies with an open mind and then boldly gets over them.

While initially after inception the railways grew rapidly, the growth post-independence has not been commensurate with the requirements of a developing and populous  nation. The reason lies not in lack of capability, but the slow yet regular injection of complexities in processes, both in decision making and contracting that have led to a scenario where paperwork takes more time than execution and the quality also suffers.  

Perhaps we need to revisit railways history. It took less than two decades and a half for the quadrilateral connecting the four metros to be built, and the hill railways, each one of them took less than a decade to be commissioned and this happened in an era when both technology and transportation was highly primitive. That 80% of the route we have at present was built in the first ninety four years with 20% taking the next sixty seven indeed says it all. 

The solution lies in simplifying the maze of complex rules, procedures and processes that this monolith is mired in, spurred primarily by a feeling of mistrust that pervades like mist. The answer also lies in the huge rudderless bureaucracy that infests this organization and is busy devising new restrictive procedures and rules every day. The deeply entrenched culture of feudalism and sycophancy also makes its valuable contribution in ensuring that the mess continues unabated.

The famous Railgate incident of merely a year ago was the tip of the iceberg, a symptom of a much bigger malaise that has been simmering ever since railways started going down the hill. Sadly even an incident of this magnitude has not led to a cleaning up exercise that was expected. Sometime back the railway was positioned as the most corrupt organization in the country. While the magnitude may be comparatively small, the spread of corruption in railways is wide and deeply entrenched. Today it is almost impossible for a commoner or a corporate to deal with the railways without the conventional greasing of palms and also incurring tremendous wasted effort. That the lower echelons of the railways also face similar music when dealing with the monolith dawned on me during my recent tenures in the northern railway where official vision was restricted to punctuality and expenditure figures with absolutely no concern for basic human values. How can an organization the biggest employer in the globe shy away from fundamental administrative and HR related issues and core value systems, yet talk about much bigger things?

It hurts when even the apex levels display taint, disregard for ethics and a dismal conduct, for it is then that hopes start receding into the abyss. And this scenario is borne out of the complexity of processes that shield both the inefficient as well as corrupt. A system designed for britishers to rule over natives, tweaked time and again spurred by mistrust has now emerged as the paradise for the corrupt and the shirker.   

We now have a rule for everything under the sun, and also the “tod” for each of these rules. Show me the man and show me the rule has emerged as the style of working of the railway bureaucracy. And we have a vigilance set up that treats even a deviation from a rule or procedure as malafide and in the process many suffer often for no fault of their won. The rationale behind keeping a sword hanging over the executives almost always, in an organization that often calls itself commercial is beyond understanding.   

Is this the way an organization that has a commercial department in tow, should function? An organization that regards a difference of opinion as dissent, is mired in archaic processes and is deeply entrenched in feudal practices will never really deliver in the long run. An organization that does not do anything to bring out the best in its men shall have to either abandon its archaic cloak or continue to function, albeit at the bottom of the scale.

Perhaps it is all about leadership, bureaucratic leadership that I am talking about. The system corrupted by total lack of objectivity as well as meritocracy is on expected lines abjectly failing in shoring up the best and consequently the results that we are saddled with. Imagine an organization where petty issues that impinge upon personal comfort are regarded more important than caring about the men who run the railways or the travelling public for whom the railways is run. The feudal trait is also amply reflected in the existence of saloons, the luxury apartments on wheels utilized for travelling by senior bureaucratic levels that would actually never blend with the scenario of dense crush load in trains or a developing yet poor nation like ours! Yet these mighty symbols of feudalism continue to roll on.

Even after thirty four years of service, I am clueless about the vision of this organization for none has ever been communicated and indulgence in sheer routine takes the better part of the working day of almost everyone. I am equally clueless about the grounds on which annual assessments are made – whether on delivery or sycophancy and invariably it is the latter. Fortunately the bulk of the functional staff is committed and it is they who are keeping the wheels moving. The senior officers on the other hand at almost all levels have been miserably failing in their role of providing vision & direction and making things easier for the field level functionaries.

The absence of even a single railway services officer is also a major issue. The Rakesh Mohan committee had recommended the abolition or merger of most of the nine services and creation of an Indian Railway Service. Unfortunately like all good reports this too was confined to the dustbin and the railways, continues to chug along with departmental officers who lack an overview of the entire organization with inter service rivalry playing its role in maximizing the damage. 

The solution lies in abolishing the bulk of the rules and simplification of almost all its processes. The presence of a pragmatic, honest and simple bureaucratic leadership that gives the go by to feudal practices and sycophants is the need of the hour. The solution also lies in drastically reducing the officialdom and questioning the existence of a three tier structure when we need only two. While the railway board with over four thousand on its rolls needs to be made lighter, the zonal headquarters that hardly have any substantive work and thrive only on controls have no rationale to exist. Clarity also needs to be brought in the functioning of the board, whether it is a policy making body or plain executive. Perhaps hiving off the policy making function to a ministry with the board remaining confined to routine executive functions would be the right way. 

Increasing route kilometres with quadrupling of the golden quadrilateral to begin with, creating the much needed new passenger and freight terminals and ushering in an era of real high speed travel amongst other dreams would necessitate a radically different approach that is evidently beyond the capabilities of the existing structure. Basic improvements in the existing structure may need to be followed up by corporatization and subsequent privatization for the nation cannot be held to ransom forever by an organization that fails to get its act together despite being in a dream business scenario.

Amen!