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Tuesday, June 16, 2015

The lifeline chugs along!

The economic lifeline of the nation, the Indian Railways is a great organization. For almost over a hundred and sixty years it has been carrying the bulk of the passengers and freight of the nation and thereby emerged as an acknowledged symbol of growth, delivery and consistency in a nation that has often been witness to inadequate performance by various public utilities.

Railways indeed has a glorious history. In the initial decades its inception, it grew at a phenomenal pace, pace that is incomprehensible even in the present age of technology and managerial systems. Connecting the golden quadrilateral in less than twenty five and completing each of the hill railways in two to three years are achievements of tremendous stature even now, Such were and perhaps are the capabilities of this great organization. The very fact that the national railways moves over a thousand million tonnes of freight a year and passengers almost equal to the population of Australia every day, displays its inherent strength, commitment, focus on delivery and resilience.

Yet despite operating in a monopolistic situation in a huge sellers market, this great organization finds itself at the receiving end with amazing regularity. The huge ever increasing gap between demand and supply shows a massive lost opportunity that despite being in the best possible business scenario is neither fathomable, nor appreciable. Any business enterprise, and perhaps the railways is also one of them, would encash such a dream scenario to its fullest, in the interest of the organization and also people at large.

And that leads one to wonder, what has really gone wrong along the way? Why an almost vertical growth that businesses generally achieve in a scenario of monopoly and sellers market is not coming our way? Another thing that worries all those who love this monolith is the general situation of drift and helplessness prevailing even at the senior management levels. Apparently an overdose of rules, procedures and processes that has no doubt helped this organization run despite what may, has also been the major cause behind its rank inability to widen our horizons and progress in tune with the needs of a rapidly emerging nation.

Why this grand failure to succeed even in the best possible business scenario, is what really bothers me and perhaps not seeing a silver lining bothers me further?

Yet, the very fact that reforms, both structural and procedural are now on the anvil gives cause for solace. And the new minister like a whiff of fresh air has provided a ray of hope for this monolith mired in red tape. The setting up of a committee, headed by the eminent Mr. Debroy, mandated with the charge of recommending structural and process reforms is also a move in the right direction. Yet keeping in view the enormity of the issues involved and past experiences, hopes shall continue to remain at a low ebb till such time actual changes, not merely intentions, emerge at the ground level.

While railways is still regarded as a symbol of delivery, there is ample scope for improvement all around. A visit to a public institution or a city or a town, with rare exceptions ofcourse lays bare our rank failure in exploiting the potential that exists.

            Why is it so? Why is it that in our country, the word “public” in a public institution or a program often conveys an image of “sloth”, “inefficiency” or “corruption”. How is it that ownership by the most powerful institutions in the country, the governments, is more often than not regarded as a negative, even though ideally it should be otherwise? Where have we gone wrong, where have we slipped, are points to ponder?

            I like almost everyone else grew up with a popular belief that in a democratic system, the government is of the people, for the people and by the people. This belief evaporated with passage of time and more so during my service with the group of ruling elite in various capacities, cutting across sectors and states. Almost always, the tantra has been busy, serving itself or otherwise, without much concern about delivery and this to me appears to be the main reason why the nation even after almost seven decades of self rule continues to remain almost at the bottom of the list of nations in many development related indices.

            Sadly performance rarely matters within the system and the definition of merit also often appears warped. Yes there are exceptional bureaucrats and politicians, but they are far and few and can be counted on fingertips with a couple of fingers to spare. The tantra being perpetually blamed for the ills of governance even by its constituents who do not appreciate that it is they who make up the system, is indeed a hilarious scenario. 

            So what went wrong along the way? Perhaps we were not mature enough for self rule when we had our tryst with destiny, or the economic model forged in earlier years was not the right way or perhaps we never changed with the times while the world did and allowed archaic structures and processes get the better of us. 

            The national penchant for process rather than delivery is in my opinion the biggest hurdle in our march towards progress. That the sum total of goods and services produced in the country is the sole deciding factor on whether we are a rich or a poor nation has not yet sunk in into the national psyche. And therefore almost everywhere we have a fleet of pen pushers who fail to look beyond the file, for whom, not delivery but the file remains the ultimate objective. Yet these pen pushers share only a minor portion of the blame for the national debacle. Our archaic structures and processes, commonly known as the system remains the main culprit. This system marked by its ridiculous complexities also works as a highly efficient shield for the shirkers, inefficient and the corrupt – both of the financial and professional variety.

            This lack of concern for deliverance is so firmly enshrined in the minds of those who form the bulk of the servants of the government that almost everyone believes taking organizations or nations forward is the job of someone else. This general perception needs to change and that is possible only by changing structures and processes so radically that responsibility for all acts of omission or commission starts getting affixed, without the shroud that was available earlier.

            Simplification of structures and processes is the need of the hour. Our decision making and contractual processes that are presently mired in mistrust need to be simplified so that they become efficient and whenever required, direct accountability can be affixed.

            And we need to look at the human resource – for one witnesses that remaining engrossed in the maze of great dreams, lofty ideals and lofty budgets yet remaining totally oblivious of the most precious resource of all times – the human resource is not going to take us anywhere. Genuine concern for men and genuine efforts towards their development and growth is one singular thing that would propel organizations and nations forward. “Kundalini Jagran” is basically a hindu concept, but to some extent meets with my ingrained beliefs. All of us possess tremendous latent potential, yet remain blissfully unaware of it throughout our lives. Every single one of us is capable of superhuman achievements without getting physically tired, if the environment is positive, vibrant and encouraging.

            And the rampant corruption, often hidden under the table hurts. Yet officially its presence is never accepted for want of a habit to tackle inconvenient. Also absent are value systems and ethics in the entire governance machinery. In my over thirty five years of service, I am yet to attend a meeting called by my superior wherein issues relating to integrity, ethics or value systems are discussed and this inability of ours to bring these issues out in the open is the root cause behind the downfall in moral values within the governance machinery. Yet it is possible to correct things – despite the extent to which the rot has set in, if only one starts.

            My personal experiences in the railways, federal and state governments and national and state run public sector undertakings has left me convinced that a turnaround is possible, that it is still possible to bring about major changes for the better provided we believe in the need for deliverance, the latent potential of the human resource and the crying need to inject ethics and value systems in the entire governance machinery.

            It is never too late to wake up…………………….

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