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Saturday, January 11, 2020

Moving ahead with merger

The newspapers in recent times have carried reports about many railway officers representing against the merger of cadres.

It is a fact that any change in its wake brings about a slew of concerns and apprehensions. And if the change was given the go by just to alleviate the concerns, the world would not have witnessed the positive changes that have come about with time more so in the twentieth century. And the biggest phenomenon of recent times is that the pace of change is growing at a very fast rate.

Since almost the past two decades, restructuring of railway cadres has been a much debated subject as it has been visualized as a move that would synergise the railways into delivering better and meeting the expectations of a nation on the move. And why not, railway has always been a major factor in driving the economy and the better it becomes, the better it would be for the nation.

While the present decision to merge various railway cadres into one is a bold step, it is definitely not a panacea of the ills plaguing railways. The main issues with railway have been almost static passenger fares, highly bureaucratized processes, the mismatch between authority and accountability, lack of a long term vision and often taking commercial decisions on political considerations all of which together make moving forward a very difficult proposition.  

There is a need to settle these basic fundamental issues and there is no rocket science about that. These are issues that can easily be settled internally if mandated.  

Over the years various committees have also been set up to deliberate on issues plaguing railways and almost all have spoken about the need to restructure the various cadres and a few years back the Debroy committee had recommended merger of the officer cadres into two verticals – technical and non-technical.

Whenever mergers are discussed, the talk invariably veers to the ill-fated merger of Air India and Indian Airlines. These two airlines merged and in the process, officers and staff of various similar departments merged. It was not like railways wherein the merger of dissimilar cadres of officers would take place and to that extent, the railway merger may bring more complexities in its wake than the Air India one.

During my tenure with the Board, often the issue of departmental silos was discussed and various possible solutions were debated. While it is true that the current structure has flaws that hamper the exploitation of the full potential of the organization, the fact also remains that railway despite its inner contradictions has delivered uninterruptedly. However keeping in view all aspects including the fact that even at higher administrative grade levels the technical content of the job cannot be merely wished away, the best the Board could then visualize (not finalize) was permitting general managers to laterally move HAG level officers across departments after considering all aspects of the decision.

What makes mergers a serious business?

Mergers are all about merging two or more seniority groups into one. And seniority groups are all about promotional avenues and promotional avenues are all about aspirations and hence have a direct bearing on the productivity of individuals and consequently the output of organizations. Any act that can adversely affect the aspirations of a large section of employees can affect motivational levels, commitment, and pride in the organization and hence impact the organization itself. This exactly is what happened at Air India where each department even after almost a decade since the merger has a big chunk of disgruntled employees. In the case of the railway, there are eight separate cadres drawn from two different streams and differences in age profiles may lead to permanent scars due to issues related to career progression.    

The decision to merge eight cadres into one also overlooks the need for specializations. And organizations, railways are more of a transport company than a mere policymaking ministry, need specializations. After the merger of seniority groups into one, promotions and postings have to logically and legally be based on that list leading to officers occupying posts often at times without regard to the expertise and experience required for handling that assignment, with attendant ramifications.  

There is no denying that the decision to merge the eight cadres is a bold move considering the restraints that departmental biases have been placing on the organization. We should definitely move forward and the bold decision enables that, yet there is a need to appreciate that the twin issues relating to aspirations and specialization can lead to serious problems that cannot be merely wished away and would necessarily need to be suitably addressed.

We also need to appreciate that it is not possible to alleviate all concerns and major changes are painful exercises, yet having been a railwayman all my life, it pains to see the organization in turmoil.

While there is no doubt that the railway needs to transform, we need to tread with concern, care, and sensitivity to ensure sustainable success.

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