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Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Article in Economic Times of 30th November 2017

It is time for the Indian Railways to tear up old tracks

Updated: Nov 30, 2017, 11.39 PM IST

At many places where accidents have taken place due to rail fractures, corrosion at the foot of the rail has been found to have been the cause.
At many places where accidents have taken place due to rail fractures, corrosion at the foot of the rail has been found to have been the cause.
By Ashwani Lohani

The derailment of 13 coaches of the Patna-bound Vasco Da Gama Express near Manikpur railway station, Uttar Pradesh, on November 24 that killed three and injured at least 12 people reinforces one thesis: over a long time, the railway system in India has accumulated a massive infrastructural deficit that is behind most Indian Railways (IR) accidents

The rapid increase in the number of trains and passengers has far outpaced the small strides that IR has been making towards improving and developing infrastructure. As a result, we now have reached a stage where finding a balance between train operations and maintenance of infrastructure — especially those directly related to the running of trains, such as tracks, signalling systems, stations and yards — is becoming increasingly difficult.

The horrific incident of the rushhour stampede at the overbridge at Mumbai’s Elphinstone railway station on September 29 that killed 29 people is a classic case in point. Most stations and associated infrastructure are creaking under the load of far more traffic than they were originally designed to safely and efficiently handle.

Yet, the fact remains that the railways handles almost 23 million passengers and over three million tonnes of freight every day. This is possible only due to the commitment of its employees and the sturdiness of its operational processes. IR can, however, do far better if it is not hampered by the complexity of its administrative processes and management structures, both of which are proving to be major hurdles in consolidation as well as growth.

Regularly bowing to populist demands for introducing new trains without commensurate inputs towards creation and maintenance of infrastructure has led to a scenario where the state of the fixed infrastructure, including tracks, at many places, is cause for serious concern.

Tracks at many places, especially in yards and stations, are in a caked condition, the result of years of not being deep-screened (cleaned). The condition of the rolling stock also is abysmal with the infrastructure and automation at maintenance units not having kept pace with the rapid increase in workload. A stage has now arrived when the accumulation of such conditions can’t be merely wished away.

Directed corrective action is needed and has been initiated. For some time, however, a price may have to be paid by way of delays in train schedules, drastically reduced number of new trains, cancelling some trains, etc. At many places where accidents have taken place due to rail fractures, corrosion at the foot of the rail has been found to have been the cause.

This also leads to the premature destruction of rails and increases the cost of overall maintenance. Tracks in platform areas are especially vulnerable due to accumulation of dirt and muck from water and human faeces from passenger trains.

Ideally, these tracks should be on a washable concrete apron. This, however, hasn’t happened even in the New Delhi Railway Station thanks to divergent opinions of the IR’s departmental silos. In the absence of boundary walls, rampant encroachments and settlements — especially adjoining railway tracks in urban areas — also contribute to this malaise.

At the root of the rot lie the archaic processes and outdated structures of the administrative machinery. Complex rules have dampened efficiency and restricted growth. They have also blurred the distinction between delivery and processes, bringing with it attendant consequences.

IR’s focus on human resources (HR) has been rather dim. Petty corruption has also come to rule the roost, and motivation levels are low. Decisionmaking has also generally been conspicuous by its absence.

That a government institution, the Indian Railways, has to manage corporate-style delivery, operations and structure while remaining within the confines of codes, procedures and general financial rules (GFRs) makes the working much more difficult than any other service organisation. So, in the long run, simplification of processes and greater empowerment will need to be looked at seriously.

The magnitude of the problem is as massive as it is real. Sustained focused efforts supported by political will and bureaucratic commitment over a considerable period to transform the system and bring about organisational reforms is the only way out of the mess. After all, we are talking about neglect accumulated over decades.

Reforms will have to remain the keyword for the railways. Cultural, process and structural reforms shall have to be taken to their logical conclusion. A direction that this monolith has already taken.

Article in Indian Express of 29th November 2017

Article in Indian Express of 29th November 2017

One giant leap for all - Misgivings around high-speed railway are unwarranted. It will boost the economy and provide safe travel to the masses.

The Mumbai-Ahmedabad High-Speed Rail (MAHSR) project is the most ambitious and largest rail project envisaged in India. It will propel India to the elite league of nations that run high-speed trains and is, therefore, also a project that would symbolise and instil national pride. At over 300 kmph, it would also mark a paradigm shift for the Indian Railways (IR), which still has average speeds in the range of 50 and 23 kmph for passenger and goods trains respectively. It would indeed dramatically change the way people in India look at travel as hitherto overnight distances between major cities would get compressed to 2-3 hours, often lower than the total time while travelling by air.
High Speed Rail (HSR), which is defined in terms of speeds above 250 kmph (MAHSR is designed for maximum speed of 350 kmph and operational speed of 320 kmph), does not represent an incremental improvement over conventional systems, but combines technologies to take rail travel to new dimensions. Presently, only 15 countries have HSR. In all these countries, it has brought about profound development over corridors in terms of economic opportunities, employment and environment-friendly transport. In all cases, a massive shift away from air travel and automobiles has also been noticed.
MAHSR went into the implementation phase with the ground-breaking ceremony in Gandhinagar on September 14 in the presence of the prime ministers of India and Japan. Unfortunately, however, as happens with all big projects that propel major changes, the lack of a thorough appreciation has resulted in unfounded misgivings. These need to be dispelled in the overall interest of the nation. Some of these misgivings are that the HSR is only for the elite; traffic projections are inflated; the project, by going in for Japanese technology on nomination basis, will consume substantial financial resources; India has locked itself into a high-cost model and whether IR will be able to manage HSR safely.
MAHSR is a futuristic project. Can we remain satisfied with average speeds of 50 kmph for passenger trains forever? Should IR not look at a leap of technology?
It should indeed be a matter of satisfaction that the railways is looking at both consolidation and growth and development at the same time, as one is not at the cost of the other. The way our country’s economy is growing, 10-15 years later our GDP levels would be much higher and that would necessitate extending the HSR network over the high-density golden quadrilateral (almost 10,000 km). It would also drive economies of scale and make HSRs uniquely Indian and frugal in construction cost and affordability.
The project aims at moving the masses. The traffic projection for the project has been arrived at by using normal econometric models and it is often true that once trains start running and people get used to the easy availability of fast travel, the ridership will exceed the projections. Our assessment is that there shall be a major exodus from road and air travel between the two cities in favour of the high-speed train. An offshoot would be the decongestion of the highway and airports.
IR is alive to the need for the modernisation. Major upgradation efforts comprising of two dedicated freight corridors, improvements to signalling, new coaching and freight stock and over 20,000 km of doubling, quadrupling, gauge conversion, etc, are in the offing. Capital expenditure over the last 10 years — at almost Rs 87,000 crore per annum — is 90 per cent higher on a year-to-year basis compared to 2009-14. To improve safety, a Rashtriya Rail Sanraksha Kosh, with a corpus of Rs 1 lakh crore to be spent over in five years, has been set up with a focus on asset renewal and elimination of unmanned level crossings. This has already started showing encouraging results. The existing railway network would also benefit immensely from the learnings that would emerge from the technology of HSR.
The safety record of the existing railway system is affected by a number of factors such as surface crossings, habitations close to tracks and the low margin for maintenance. All these factors are fully addressed in the HSR. In fact one of the reasons for choosing Shinkansen is that since its inception in 1964 there has been no fatal accidents.
HSR does not entail just fast travel for the passenger. Covering 500 km in 2-3 hours will obviously give an enormous boost to economic activities along the corridor. Closer economic linkages will convert the entire corridor into an economic cluster. Other benefits that would come with the project are generation of employment of about 40,000 persons during the construction phase, skill upgradation of local residents who will engage with the project and that of railway personnel who would be trained at the state-or-the-art High-speed Training Centre at Vadodara and the transformation of station terminals. The project would require about two million tonnes of cement and five lakh tonnes of steel per year during the construction phase. This would itself generate demand for transport and warehousing. The modal shift from air and automobiles to HSR will improve also air quality.
Government-to-government cooperation with Japan has not mandated the award of projects on a nomination basis. All the contract packages in the project will be bid out competitively within the framework of the Memorandum of Cooperation, except for about 18 per cent of the value of the contract which would be reserved for competition among Japanese companies.
The project is being managed efficiently and that gives confidence that it can be delivered at a competitive cost and to international standards. In the next 5-6 years, by when the high-speed trains would start running, the project will more than prove itself even to its wildest of detractors. The nation will be eagerly awaiting this giant leap in technology.

Monday, December 4, 2017

Article in Outlook magazine 30th October 2017

Article in Outlook magazine 30th October 2017

The  cover story Outlook carried in its October 16, 2017, edition reflects only a one-sided picture. While to some extent it is true that the unfortunate accidents in recent days have led to an environment of concern about safety on the railway system, the fact remains that Indian Railways is easily one of the safest modes of public transport in the country. This is also substantiated by the ground reality of a continuous reduction in the number of accidents over the last three years. In fact, the first half of the current financial year clocked marginally over half the figure of that in the corresponding period of the last fiscal. And it also needs to be stressed that the entire railway realises the necessity of evolving into an almost accident-­free system and the efforts of this government are very much in this direction.

That the new railway minister convened a meeting of the full board and all major officials of the Central and Western Railways the very next day after the September 29 Elphinstone tragedy says it all about the intent and commitment of the present government. The meeting took many landmark decisions, both systemic and executive, all of which are poised to make a tremendous positive impact in enhancing a safe working environment within the railway system in the foreseeable future.

Indian Railways is indeed the lifeline of the nat­ion. With almost 12,500 trains a day carrying over 22 million passengers, besides 9,000 goods trains carrying almost 3 million tonnes of freight a day, a disciplined and committed workforce of almost 1.3 million and over 8,000 stations in its network, the work done by this monolith is alm­ost gigantic in proportion compared to what most of the other organisations do.

Before passing a value judgement on the performance of the railways, one needs to look at the ground realities with a discerning eye. Even a cursory look at the railway infrastructure that is already bursting at its seams would reveal the glaring shortcomings that have accumulated over decades. The penchant to pander to popular demands without commensurate inputs has over the years led to a scenario where unsafe conditions have been created unmindfully, albeit in pockets of course. We need to ponder over a few points. Are our stations actually designed or equipped to handle the dense load of passengers they witness everyday? Are Elphinstone and similar railway stations with narrow platforms and equally narrow foot overbridges capable of handling on a day-to-day basis the massive footfalls they encounter? Is the system indeed running more trains than what the infrastructure or the processes are really designed for? The tremendous infra­structural constraints that the national carrier is challenged with and is now trying to address; shortcomings acc­umulated over decades to be addressed in matter of months and years is indeed a tall order! This reality, however, does not alter our avowed responsibility towards our constituents, a reality that all railwaymen are aware of and committed to address. After all, the acceptance of a problem is indeed the first step towards its resolution.

An HR-centric organisation like the Indian Railways with over 1.3 million employees has to have its fundamentals firmly rooted in the welfare of its men, men who are contented, committed and alert. Unfortunately, as has happened in many organisations including the flying national carrier, the focus of the railways has with passage of time shifted from the core concern to peripherals. It is not without a deep under­standing of this universal reality that Richard Branson, the founder of Virgin airlines, coined the well-known slogan ‘Employees First’. We at the nati­onal carrier also remain committed to restoring in the workmen a feeling of pride and motivation and in the process extract the best out of them, as a continuing measure leading to improvement in passenger services.

There are also major structural and process-­related issues that have plagued the organisation for far too long. Deeply rooted in very strong and complex processes, the organisation has not been able to itself quickly adapt to the needs of a rapi­dly emerging nation. Decision-making has been slow and contractual mechanisms a bit tardy and these have had a major impact on our ability to keep up with the times. To meet the demands and expectations placed on the railway system, it is necessary to bring about a quantum change in all our structures and processes and a beginning has already been made in this direction. The need is also to overhaul and modernise the administrative machinery and that too at a rapid pace.

The travelling public should rest assured that safe and comfortable travel is and shall always remain the highest priority of the national carrier. A headline like To Kill a Passenger, as part of your cover story, unfortunately portrays a very wrong picture of the organisation. The death of even a single passenger is deeply saddening for all the men (and women) who run the nat­ional carrier. And it is also not true that staff have not been punished for their follies in cases of accidents, in fact railways stands heads and shoulders above others, unfortunately so, in so far as punishing its own men is concerned.

Rooted in archaic processes that still deliver 21,500 trains a day, the HR policies and associated processes have been crying for atte­ntion for a very long time now. Now that the government is seriously at it, I have no qualms in adm­itting that system failure is at the core of most of the unfortunate incidents that we have witnessed and we are not shying away; the ent­ire railway machinery would not rest till these systemic issues are well addressed.

There is great emphasis on maintenance now, reflected in the fact that as many maintenance blocks as called for have been given over for attent­ion to fixed infrastructure. This has tem­porarily affected punctuality, but would be highly beneficial in the long run. We are also moving ahead with simplification of our infrastructure creating mechanism. An example: classifying foot overbridges, platforms and pathways as necessities, not as amenities—as they were earlier classified. Delegation of pow­ers to field-level officials has already begun in right earnest and should be completed very shortly. Ultimately, this would make it simple for them to take and execute decisions. And resolving staff-related issues is being given highest priority, for there is no substitute to a motivated and charged-up staff. Removal of frills and instilling integrity and value systems in the system has also been put centrestage.

How can we really hold our men responsible when we have failed over the years in addressing the gaps in infrastructure, primarily caused due to the complexity of processes and the archaic structures? Making heads roll in bulk, though some heads still roll, is grossly unjust besides being counter-­productive as it creates disenchantment and leads to further issues. In most of the large organisations around the world, cultural issues are regarded as the single factor that have the highest impact on work, yet they remain the most complicated of the issues to handle. Really successful organisations are ones who are able to address cultural issues, are able to enthuse and instil pride in their men, have a clear focus and place overriding priority on delivery. The full railway machinery is geared up to move on this path.

Consolidation and expansion is the name of the game. Therefore, while we remain committed to discipline, reforms, overhauling of structures (including breaking the silos), improving safety and giving better passenger amenities, we remain aware that the growing aspirations of the nat­ion incl­uding its burgeoning middle class also need to be met. Therefore, while temporarily the growth in terms of track kilometres has been given precedence over mere track ren­ewals, railways is also moving forward with creating dedicated freight corridors to meet the ever-growing requirements of goods and also creating a high-speed corridor connecting Ahmedabad with Mumbai. A brand-new high-speed railway that would emerge as a game-changer would indeed be symbolic of a nation aspiring to position itself at its rightful place in the comity of nations. Rapid electrification and planned commercial development of many railway stations will also lead to imp­roved passenger experience. Simultaneously the universal introduction of bio toilets in trains, an exercise targeted to be completed in December 2018 is also indicative of our resolve to further the patriotic Swachh Bharat mission of the government. Besides a slew of measures, elimination of unmanned level crossings and improvement in passenger amenity items like catering and linen shall also continue unabated in our quest towards providing safe and comfortable travel to our esteemed passengers.

The recent flurry of railway accidents has indeed jolted the collective psyche of this great organisation. That the entire railway machinery is treating this as a wake-up call for moving towards a complete transformation needs to be viewed in the right perspective. After all, we are the wheels on which the nation moves!

Jai Hind.
(The writer is chairman of the Railway Board.)

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Moving towards a clean India

One of the best initiatives of recent times has been the “Swacchh Bharat Abhiyan” for cleanliness is always the precursor to all good things. And my recent visit to Indore, the commercial capital of the heart of incredible India that has recently been declared as the cleanest city in the country was indeed an eye opener. What a makeover this city has undergone in recent times with absolutely no litter and an aura of freshness enveloping it. The impact of this abhiyan was evident, nice and proper in this city known for the holkar dynasty and amazing tourist destinations in its vicinity.

Battling with unkempt offices and territories and trying to make them swanky in an effort to improve efficiency and in the process deliverance has always been the hallmark of all those who really are in love with what they do for they have realized that the behaviour of individuals is to a great extent conditioned by the surrounding environment. Disorganized office spaces tattered with broken furniture and paper strewn all around never inspires confidence in those who inhabit it let alone people who have to visit them for getting their work done. Yet the staid scenario continues almost everywhere with the inhabitants aspiring for a clean environment, without their having to contribute of-course.

And the general disdain for cleaning up things is unfortunately omnipresent and I witnessed the same in the variety of postings I did, be it within railways or the state and central public sector undertakings. The cleaning up drive initiated at the new delhi railway station in the run up to the commonwealth games that started with a dialogue with and an exhortation to the safaiwalas to take pride in their work had such a powerful impact that with minor hiccups the station has generally remained clean since then.

It has been almost the same everywhere, broken furniture, dirty files and computers, stinking curtains, betal stained staircases and discarded things strewn everywhere. Public places, especially tourist sites with exceptions ofcourse generally leave much to be desired. The un-swacchh environment also goes a long way in propagating an unhealthy and worse still an unethical work culture besides being acting as a great demotivating factor.

Besides creating a good environment, what the swacchh bharat abhiyan would also ultimately lead to is an ethical conduct in public and private lives. Gandhi rightly said that cleanliness is akin to godliness for god would never truly reside in a place that smacks of an unkempt environment.

How is it that an average countryman who does not think twice before littering his office and roads, behaves impeccably when travelling beyond the shores of the nation whether for work or pleasure? While a clean environment encourages further cleanliness (I did not witness people littering in Indore) the fear of being hauled up by the agencies or being pulled up by the people around also acts as an able deterrence. This fear in course of time leads to habit forming.

Before this swacchh abhiyan kicked in in true earnest, one never found earnestness in similar drives conducted in the past, drives that actually never went beyond mere lip service. Never before in the past cleanliness was taken up as a mission by the nation as a whole and we ended up stacking garbage in every nook and corner.

We can aspire for excellence only when we keep even our own areas of influence clean and well organized? We all therefore need to be a part of this great national cause and make our own contribution in our areas of influence by keeping them sparkingly clean and proper. 

Sunday, February 5, 2017

The scourge of tendering

One word that singularly shares the highest responsibility for not allowing the nation or its constituent organizations to move forward at a fast pace is “tendering”. Least understood yet widely bandied, the curse of tendering has afflicted almost all processes of the governmental sectors leading to widespread inefficiencies and putting brakes on progress.

Unfortunately the origin of the tendering process may have taken root in the mistrust that our erstwhile rulers, the british had for the natives and rightly so, they were the masters and we their minions. But what is really impossible to comprehend are the reasons behind the continuation of this abdominal practice in its crudest form, with a total disregard for the end objective. Under the garb of transparency, the ridiculous continues to rule the roost.

Whether one has to buy potatoes, appoint a consultant, procure aircrafts or acquire a work of art, going through the tendering process is almost sacrosanct, a process that is steeped in mistrust almost as deep as that between our country and its western neighbor. A process that regards the procurer of the goods or services as a proclaimed offender unless proven otherwise, while remaining totally oblivious of the end objective that often conveniently gets sidelined and lost sight of. The process keeps us busy.

And the very fact that the laid down conventional process of tendering that may at best be suitable for procuring potatoes is utilized for acquiring even creativity that is propriety in nature, is leading to ridiculous end results is getting conveniently forgotten.

Before setting out to do anything and often it involves procurement of goods or services, almost always the obvious concern is how to get over or around the tendering system to make things happen for any deviation from the laid down system is viewed as sacrilege enough to condemn the perpetrator to hell for the rest of his life. And there are examples galore of officers known for their integrity having to pay the price for something they never did, but agencies unconcerned with deliverance feel that they did and thoroughly enjoy roasting the innocent.

And that brings us to the fundamental question of whether a vigil by a non-executive over matters he has no clue about can really make an executive or the total system effective? I can never accept a situation in which a non-executive who is less committed, less knowledgeable, less involved and perhaps often less honest than an executive is mandated to keep an eye on the executive and pin him down at the slightest opportunity, not for non-deliverance but for making an inconsequential mistake while doing his job. And if everyone is to be policed, who will police the police.

If I could go back in time, I would like to confront the professor of finance who taught us the canons of financial propriety during the foundation course at staff college, for the first canon was indeed an outrageous statement – use government money as if it is your own. Never in my career spanning almost four decades have I come across a situation in which I would have been allowed to go scot free had I followed the professors advice to the hilt.

A system of procuring goods and services that accepts and even applauds mediocrity in deliverance and regards even a deviation in the procedure as an act of malafide sufficient to consign the perpetrator to the fires of hell needs to change. The nation of today requires the executive to work fearlessly as long as he is on the side of right. And to expect mere mortals not to commit mistakes is foolish to say the least for it is only those who idle shall commit no mistakes.


Saturday, January 14, 2017

Pinning the executive down

Those who idle shall commit no mistakes!

The news report reg CBI filing an FIR into alleged improprieties in Air India’s purchase of software in 2011 came as a shock. Shock because ostensibly as per the stand taken by the company as well as its parent ministry, while there may be procedural lacunae, there is no apparent malafide in this case. Perhaps there is more to it than meets the eye.

Regardless of the issue, such an investigation is bound to hit the company hard as besides the pain of digging out old papers, questioning of many including the innocent and the honest and its attendant ramifications, it would further strengthen the belief that following processes is important and deliverance can take a back seat. That process overrides deliverance and merely following the laid down systems guarantees personal safety is sadly becoming the norm in almost all governmental organizations. Air India that has been a victim of gross indecision in recent years and only lately had started to come out of its slumber will also take a hit, I am absolutely certain, as an outcome of the unfortunate turn that this case has now taken.

Whether the variety of watchdogs that the nation has have been able to reduce the levels of corruption is a matter of debate, yet the fact remains that they have been successful in stifling deliverance almost everywhere.

Having maintained highest standards of integrity all my life, I am unable to appreciate the basic premise that we require a non-executive to keep an eye on every single aspect of working of the executive and that we should have checks and balances that are highly tilted in favor of the checks.  I also wonder how mere non-adherence to a rule or process, howsoever silly though it may be, is regarded as an act of malafide, sufficient enough to hound the hapless executive for years, if not decades. And what hurts even more is that one single incident of straying from the path, even if done in the overall interest of the organization or the nation is sufficient to wipe out years of proven deliverance. And then we lament that the organization does not perform!

The public sector is indeed the favorite whipping boy of the media, a media that makes or mars public opinion. A single news item like that of today would have made many think and also perhaps believe that the national carrier is neck deep in corruption, even though that is far from reality. The omnipresent shadow of vigilance and other more powerful investigative agencies over the minutest processes undertaken by the executive is one single factor that has caused the maximum damage to the public sector in our nation. Commercial organizations need to be swift in decision making processes, especially the ones that face competition from the private sector, but how the hell and also why the hell would an executive take a decision if he knows that it would be dissected in hindsight, motives would be ascribed even where there are none and he may even face a life of ignominy for a long time later, if the investigative agencies so desire. Is the risk really worth it ask many, and the universal answer is “No” and mediocre performance therefore continues to rule the roost, with many of those on the sidelines continuing to wonder and also treatise on why we are unable to deliver.

At a time when we have a Prime Minister totally committed to pulling the country out of the morass it has found itself in after almost six decades of failed governance, it is sad that we also have a machinery that believes in an overload of checks and generally regards officials as dishonest unless proven otherwise. Mistrust was indeed at the core of the decision making processes that we inherited from the british and rightly so : they were ruling over a nation other than theirs, but why should the same system continue when men are governing a nation of their own elk, is what is often difficult to comprehend. Mistrust has indeed continued for far too long under the garb of “checks and balances” and transparency, with its attendant damages that are visible almost anywhere.

When errors or mistakes are regarded as a malafide, best is not to commit them. And the only way that is possible is by not taking any decisions. This is the learning that has emerged over time and successfully assimilated by a large majority of those who are a part of the system. And surprisingly many still wonder why progress is not commensurate with the effort and also the desire. Continuing to be fooled by a beehive of activity while remaining oblivious to the fact that remaining busy, is by no stretch of imagination akin to deliverance has also emerged as a hallmark of the rotten system.

Yet the silver lining remains that still there are many who would continue to trod along, regardless of the price they may have to pay later. Perhaps the inner peace and satisfaction that deliverance brings in its wake still finds takers.