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Thursday, June 26, 2014

Accidents linger on - The rail way

Beginning with the bomb blasts at the Chennai railway station on the 1st of May 2014, there have been four tragedies classified as accidents on the Indian Railway system in the last two months. The bomb blast incident was followed by the 4th May accident on the Konkan railway system wherein twenty died, 26th May collision of the Gorakhdham Express killing twenty five and the 25th June derailment involving the Dibrugarh Rajdhani wherein four persons breathed their last. Yet it is much more than mere numbers game as road accidents alone account for over a lakh and thirty five thousand deaths per annum in the country. A major railway accident irrespective of the number of people that lose their life is a national catastrophe that shakes the collective psyche of the nation and conveys an impression that all is not well with the country.

Such accidents are invariably followed by compensation and a CRS enquiry that goes into the basic causes leading to the incident. Platitudes are mouthed in the silent backdrop of a hectic blame game being played amongst different railway departments. Yet it is certain that the railway brass is shaken to the core by the spate of accidents else how without even a preliminary enquiry, railways proclaimed Maoists as the perpetrators of the accident, a charge promptly and vehemently denied by the federal home ministry and the state government.

Railways being a human centric organization, human failures are bound to happen, howsoever much we may like to decry the same. Six Sigma, theoretically the best possible performance talks of a one in a million rate of failure and yet in almost all areas of our operations, the railway employees are consistently performing much better than that. The employees at the cutting edge level therefore should ideally remain above reproach, yet that does not happen. In the eagerness to apportion blame and inflict punishments and in the process close the file till the next calamity strikes, railway staff and also officers at the base levels are severely taken up as if they have by their acts of commission caused the accident to happen. This in my view is not the right way to go about things.

Until the realization that accidents and consequently the safety environment on the railways or for that matter any other organization is merely a symptom and not the malaise, sinks in, rhetoric shall continue to preside over rational thought. Perhaps it is all about how organizations are run, how leadership roles play their part in bringing about quantum improvements in performance including the operational and safety scenarios that has not yet appeared in the radar of those who matter yet do not matter in the running of monoliths like the railways.

An archaic, feudal and complicated organization headed not by leaders but by satraps cannot be expected to meet the expectations of the twenty first century India, and therefore it is failing with amazing regularity in almost all fields of its operations, except perhaps taking good care of the bureaucratic and political masters. The ivory tower approach that is at the core of the managerial thought process ensures a total disconnect from the field and therefore witnesses emergence of ideas that appear good on paper and in discussions yet do not exactly matter in the long run. We invariably remain where we started.

The arrival of Modi on the national scene has aroused tremendous expectations in the masses and there is absolutely no doubt even in the minds of the worst of the skeptics that the nation is indeed in for a rapid improvement in the scenario. Yes that is what one man is capable of that a collective can never ensure. Unfortunately till the recent change of guard at the center, railways lacked that one man, both at the political as well as bureaucratic leadership levels.

Mammoth organizations that are operational in nature are meant to be led by a leadership that is proactive, decisive and honest besides having a vision for the future. Unfortunately the forever practiced strategy of fumbling in the dark in search of a miracle cure may be a remunerative exercise for the bureaucratic leadership but not for the teeming millions for whom the railways is the only means of going places. 

Friday, June 20, 2014


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.


Thursday, June 12, 2014

Political Will Alone Can Contain Graft


Monday, 16 June 2014 | Ashwani Lohani | in Oped
Prime Minister Modi’s June 11 address in Parliament was sincere and simple, which is why it impressed millions and re-affirmed their faith in his leadership
Prime Minister Narendra Modi's address in Parliament on June 11 was magnificent. Never before in the history of the republic have we witnessed a Prime Minister touching the chords in the hearts of the people of his nation to the extent witnessed that day. His words aroused emotions and his simple strategies made people identify with them.
Amongst other issues, he focussed on rampant corruption that has earned the tag of a scam-ridden nation for the country. Mr Modi promised pro-active action against corruption, transparent policies that reduced the scope for discretion and extensive use of information technology for curbing this menace. Mr Modi has hit the nail on the head. Corruption is indeed the biggest malaise facing the nation. It is so deep-rooted that almost every interaction of the commoner with the Government machinery is invariably laced with graft and, therefore, he suffers every time he gets his property registered, gets an electric connection, applies for a driving licence, and so on. The plight of those running businesses is worse. For example, with over a 100 clearances needed for running a hotel, an entrepreneur is forced to satisfy the desires of the Government babus before starting his venture and continue to do so in perpetuity for the sake of his survival. It is this petty corruption that is indeed killing the denizens of this nation many times more than the scams that have been hitting the nation.
Reducing discretion would indeed reduce the scope for corruption, but the corrupt thrives not out of wavering from the set path for illegal gratification, but for doing the right thing. It is his price for not lolling in inaction, for not delaying files or partaking of a cheque for genuine work done. Masters in the art of corruption would vouch that they also made money not by doing the wrong things but by forcing their subordinates to do so for fear of retribution in the form of transfers, bad confidential reports and other harassment. It is this corruption that would indeed be the most difficult to tackle for there would be no direct evidence against the masters anywhere on the files.
Deterrent punishment would indeed be the answer. Unless fear is instilled in the hearts of the corrupt that detection of any wrongdoing on their part or on the part of their subordinates on their instance would lead to very heavy punishment, those in the services of the Government would never give up acts that gives them a luxurious lifestyle that mere salaries would never ensure. Simplification is the answer. In the generally prevalent scheme of things, the plethora of thumb impressions that adorn every single act of commission or omission successfully camouflage the corrupt as well as the incompetent. It is indeed time that archaic rules and processes — many of which have been further tweaked to the extent of appearing ridiculous — be shown the door.
Time-bound decisions and acts is the call of the day. Delays are generally spurred by inefficiency, corruption and at times merely sloth, yet laying the finger on the exact cause is more often than not extremely difficult. Laying down stringent timelines may help, yet would need to be followed up with extensive monitoring and severe punishments in cases of violations. It however needs appreciation that in the already complex maze of official systems and procedures one more process and monitoring machinery thereof would only give temporary results unless of course a massive simplification exercise reduces the burden and in the process improves efficiency.
The address by Mr Modi is a milestone, for it is perhaps for the first time in the history of independent India that its chief executive has on the floor of Parliament displayed his resolve to eradicate corruption from the everyday lives of the common man. A major cause for celebration indeed!

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Modi dares to Dream

Modi dares to dream in a nation that so far has witnessed a plethora of shattered dreams, not of its leaders who have done fairly well for themselves but of the common man.  His arrival after over six decades of existence as a free nation gives hope - the nation appears poised to emerge and occupy its place in the big league, albeit many years later than it should have actually done so.

How does the common man perceive the nation and its ruling class? Despite the inherent faults and there are many, the rapid advent of the multiplicity of channels on the idiot box has opened the vistas for the common man, who till then was totally oblivious of the developments that were taking place elsewhere and not in his own motherland. Now he is aware what civic infrastructure is ought to be and what is meant by service delivery; he also realizes that there is a better life beyond the shores of the country and that if he is asked to lay his finger on the biggest single ailment that the nation is seized of – he will unhesitatingly lay it on the pie of corruption. The idiot box has thus succeeded in changing the awareness levels of the common man living in way off towns and villages.

It is another matter that the common man perceives political leaders and government servants generally in the same league – kings of the present times. Continued existence of shortages and differentiation in social hierarchies has indeed shown him his place – at the mercy of the powers that be. Sadly the common man has abdicated his rights in the favour of the rulers whom he always learnt to fear. And therefore the question of his demanding good governance never arose; he neither expected good governance nor good conduct from those at the helm of affairs, yet within his heart he always castigated them!

It is this perception of the ruling classes, the entire tantra, in the eyes of the common man that needs to change if real change is to be brought about. The widely prevalent yet true perception that all government functionaries are corrupt needs to change, by the emergence of an environment in which interaction between the common man and the sarkar is not laced with graft. The general feeling that India is not for Indians – that it is a country only for the powerful or the rich needs to change for the big change to be really worth its while.

Our biggest misfortune has been the continuance of the british raj in the garb of swaraj. A system of governance based on mistrust and therefore warranting sanctions and approvals for almost anything under the sun is being continued even when the color of the rulers changed from fair to brown.  Our laws, our rules and our processes that the machinery of governance still follows are mostly as intact as they were when inherited from the empire and have miserably failed to meet aspirations.

Changing rules, processes and systems therefore has to be a major focus area. Simplification has to be the buzzword as this perhaps is the only way to achieve quantum growth that can reduce the chasm of difference between the developed world and ours.  

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Do we need bullet trains?

The answer is yes with a but, the but being that running more trains as well as longer trains so that all those desirous of traveling can get a confirmed seat should have a higher priority over mere speed. The constraint in increasing the number of trains to suit the demand stems from the reality that major trunk routes are now saturated due to the yearly addition of new trains with scant regards to the infrastructural bottlenecks and much warranted systemic improvements.

Nevertheless, even considering that saving a few hours is to be pegged at a higher pedestal than meeting the basic expectations of the traveling public, the fact remains that the existing tracks even on the golden quadrilateral would not suffice as running a couple of bullet trains would drastically reduce the train carrying capacity of the lines, thereby increasing shortages even further. Moreover With airfares almost matching upper class fares on the track, those wanting to save time or forgoing the hassles of long distance invariably travel by air. This category would continue to do so even if the travel time is reduced to half unless of course the experience itself makes up for the extra time spent.

This brings us to the fundamental reality that quadrupling of important tracks is indeed an essential prerequisite before a path breaking exercise like bullet trains or even large scale increase in the existing trains can be considered. Considering the mess that the railways find itself in, it is apparent that time has come when the private sector and private funding should be involved in the building and operation of new tracks, new overhead equipment, new rolling stock and new terminals through the PPP route, for besides the money, it would also be many times faster than the existing methodology. 

Sometime back it was reported that a high level delegation went beyond the shores of the country to scout for suitable technology for bullet trains. Unfortunately it is not only about technology, it is about running an organization well, it is about vision, it is about being responsive to the changing environment, it is about connectedness of the organization to the clients and the men who run the show. It saddens me that an organization, a commercial one at that continues to perform miserably even in the best possible business scenario – monopoly, sellers-market and a burgeoning middle class.

Yet dream we must for only those who dream, dare and railways has indeed been waiting for big ticket improvements and reforms. If our clients want bullet trains give it to them, but at the same time also give them the other things in their well justified wish list, like the ability to travel when they like, clean trains and stations and above all a better managed railway that can compete with railway networks in the developed world.  

There is a lot to learn from history. Is it not amazing that in the nineteenth century it took a mere two decades and a half for the four major cities to be linked regardless of the absence of technology and planning tools that we have today? The pace at which the hill railways were built, all five of them is also equally amazing for after over a hundred years of technological advancements and breakthroughs we feel exasperated that mere paper work takes more time than what our ancestors took to build. 

For the nation to indeed live the big ticket dreams in the railway sector, a totally out of the box thinking and execution methodology would have to be resorted to. Unfortunately the monolith being mired in its own archaic thinking and processes would resist change, yet would have to come around if it has to emerge as the engine of economic growth in a now resurgent India.