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Saturday, December 28, 2019

Indian Railways bites the bullet


The recent decisions on railway reforms including the one to merge eight different cadres of officers into one vertical are a belated yet a bold move and in the right direction, if handled well. Bold because different governments at different points in time appointed different committees to look into issues related to reforming the railways and several ideas emerged, yet no government bit the bullet. Bold also because while most of the committees spoke about merger on functional lines, but  only one, the Debroy committee gave a specific recommendation, that of merger of cadres into two verticals – one technical and one non-technical.  

Indian Railways is a solid institution by itself. It has survived and regularly reinvented itself over the last 167 years of its existence. Running over 22000 trains a day passing over 7000 stations and piloted by a workforce of over thirteen lakhs, the gigantic railway system of our nation, the largest organization in the planet despite being a fine symbol of deliverance, can and also needs to do much better. Improvement in services and expansion of infrastructure, both need to fast keep pace with the aspirations of a nation on the move.

The recent decision is a continuation of the transformational reforms being actively pursued on the railways since the last two years and need to be viewed in the above context.

Railway officers are often accused of rabid departmentalism. It is true that railway is organized on departmental lines with each department having a cadre of its own. While having departmental bias in an organization that has more than one department is but natural and acceptable but only to the extent where departmental priorities and loyalties do not overshadow those of the organization.

On the other hand there is also a need to appreciate that railways being primarily a technical organization needs specially qualified and trained personnel in officers cadres for manning various facets of its operational necessities.

Efficiently meeting the gamut of specialized requirements without its constituents losing sight of the bigger picture is indeed the need of the hour.

And we have a scenario where the vast majority of officers of all cadres spend their lives within the confines of the department itself without being able to appreciate the bigger picture of the railways. Only those limited number of officers who occupy Divisional Railway Manager and then General Manager level positions, are exposed to the working of the entire railway system, and that too for brief periods. The proposed merger logically should address this anomaly.

The fundamental issue with the railways is not the multiplicity of departments. Different departments are needed for focussed and specialized attention to technical and other issues like HR and Finance. The problem however lies in having officers generally remaining confined to one particular department throughout the career perhaps on the earlier premise that even at higher levels, the technical and specialized content vastly override the managerial one. Staying lifelong in one department may strengthen technical expertise but not managerial and leadership qualities while also resulting in a narrow constricted vision even at higher levels where awareness of the bigger picture, openness to new ideas and thoughts and leadership qualities are required.

Railways had been mulling over reforming itself since the last two and a half decades. A number of committees set up by different governments in the past, namely the Prakash Tandon Committee of 1994, Rakesh Mohan committee of 2002, Sam Pitroda committee of 2012, Sreedharan committee of 2014 and the Debroy committee of 2015, talked about the pressing need to reform the railway structures and processes including possible merger of cadres. They also recommended elevating the Chairman Railway Board from the present status of first amongst equals to a clearly defined Chief Executive Officer, and also about reorganizing the Board on functional lines.  

The scenario where this largest organization on planet earth did not have a clearly identified Chief Executive Officer would now change thereby changing the tenor of the organization.

And a board drawn on functional lines, not departmental would ensure that while the Board members remain focussed towards functional responsibilities, they also have a much better appreciation of the overall picture that helps them to perform better in the assigned role. 

While the carving out of the railway budget from the general budget in 1924 was a clear indication of the then government’s resolve to run railways on commercial lines, however over the decades babugiri caught up in right earnest and brought the organization to a stage where railwaymen always found themselves tied in knots even for performing simple activities, till large scale simplifications and delegations of 2018 kicked in. Inability of the officers of different cadres to align themselves with the organizational objectives simply because of the lack of awareness of the bigger picture resulted in a complex web of knots.  

Merger of cadres is necessary for eliminating departmental bias and encouraging a hitherto unexplored open thought process. It would also open the gates for achieving excellence and encouraging innovation, provided the exercise is handled well, and definitely not like the ill-fated merger of Air India and Indian Airlines, merger that pushed the merged Air India into the abyss.

Mergers are all about amalgamation of seniority groups, in this case about amalgamation of eight different seniority groups into one, an exercise easier said than done. It is also about affecting the aspirations of individuals, most of them bright in the case of railways, aspirations that if not handled well would lead to grouses that can last the entire service career and in the process seriously dent the organization. This is what happened at Air India and we are still suffering.

While the intent is good, the proof of the pudding shall always be in the eating. The implementation of these decisions especially the one relating to merger of cadres would have to be taken forward very carefully in an extremely mature manner duly taking sensitivities and job requirements into full consideration. The framing of guidelines and rules for implementing the merger should be finalized through a consultative process and not rushed through. And the CEO should be given a fixed term of atleast three years for effectively implementing measures for improvements and growth.
Change we must for change should be the only constant in the twenty first century. However every major change leads to concerns, apprehensions and fear among the constituents and therefore often attracts resistance in the initial stages. These would need to be handled with sensitivity. We also need to ensure that the change ushered results in achieving the desired objectives without getting derailed.

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