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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. 

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