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Friday 10 July 2020

Prabhu: NaMo’s Krishna Menon?

In the wee hours of 20 November, tragedy struck in Pokhrayan near Kanpur on the Jhansi-Kanpur section of North Central Railway. Fourteen coaches of Indore-Patna express derailed killing more than 120 passengers, with the body count sadly climbing. This was followed in quick succession with a derailment in Western Railway and another at South East Central Railway. Of these 3, 2 were blamed prima facie on “rail fracture”.

A fractured rail from the Bikaner division, which led to an accident just a few days before Pokhrayan
A fractured rail from the Bikaner division, which led to an accident just a few days before Pokhrayan

From 18 to 20 November, the entire top railway leadership was at Surajkund to brainstorm over existential issues faced by Railways. In the same retreat, Minister of Railways Suresh Prabhu conveyed his exasperation on the state of affairs in Railways to the effect that he was running out of ideas. Insiders say that the retreat was marked with chaos and confusion, which is unfortunately becoming the hallmark of railway working.

For the past several months, insiders share that the entire railway network was drawn into a massive crowd-sourcing exercise for ideas that were coordinated by management consultant Mckenzie, which claimed that they were working pro bono. Insiders say that such pro bono efforts are usually followed by some contracts to square up the ‘pro bono’ efforts.

After the Pokhrayan accident, some of the railwaymen who were spoken to had startling information to offer: The entire machinery of Railways had been hijacked by the coterie of Minister Prabhu to create what they referred to variously as a charade or a spectacle — all DRMs, GMs and senior officers were forced to focus on the spectacle of Rail Shivir with the entire machinery ‘ordered’ to give ideas. What pained them was the difference between the commitment and energy of Prime Minister Narendra Modi when he addressed them and its translation on ground, leading one to wonder why Suresh Prabhu has been failing so miserably despite such a solid backing by his boss at both personal and political level. Was he not the minister who delivered power sector reforms during NDA 1? We will explore these questions and analyse the accident.

Run up to Pokhrayan

Railwaymen dread the onset of cold weather. This is the time when rails develop cracks because they contract as the temperature dips. Also, this is the season when the coaches are loaded the most; hence the revenue after lean monsoons. The staff then brace for the crippling fog season. In this season, the department forces its crew to run trains in heavy fog to earn money and try not to meet with accidents. It is a massive exercise as every signal has to be physically attended and the supply of detonators, reflective paint, men, etc needed for special patrols organised. All drivers are put through special counselling sessions, locomotives given special attention, every air-conditioned coach given special attention to prevent fires from heaters, and the running rooms spruced up for winters and the list goes on. The people who were supposed to officiate over this entire exercise were, this season, drawn in to the Surajkund ‘brainstorm’.

Railways, though, is highly system oriented like the armed forces, it can’t manage without quality leadership as in the armed forces — which was absent during the most critical months. Still, criticism can be answered by giving platitudes on the need of bringing everyone on board and getting ‘the connect’. This does not add up. If this were so, why were the employees never taken on board before making basic structural and organisational changes? Mid-way through the tenure, the NDA government has delivered on all aspects of infrastructure barring Railways!

Is Prabhu getting anxious as his colleagues in power and surface transport successfully deliver fundamental change while he is slipping? He ought to be. Indian Railways has been the engine of employment and commerce. The current dispensation has failed to come up with path-breaking ideas that the prime minister is famous for. In fact, people wonder why NDA-II went ahead with Madhepura and Marhaura locomotive factories, which threatens to become Indian Railways’ Enron.

Not just this, if more than 90% of tracks are to be electrified in another 5-10 years, what would the massive diesel fleet of more than 5,000 locomotives do? The question as to why these issues were not looked into exposes the shallow advice the minister has access to. NDA-II has delivered to Lalu Yadav what UPA-II could not.

The Pokhrayan accident site
The Pokhrayan accident site

It was widely known that Madhepura-Marhaura-Rae Bareli announced by Lalu and Dankuni and Kanchrapara factories announced by Mamata Banerjee were sited without any mandated site selection committee. The NDA government could have got the need of these factories reassessed and got them sited at better locales. It is instructive to note that the Kapurthala Rail Coach Factory was recommended to be constructed at Bareilly. However, then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi recorded on the site selection report file that, in view of militancy in Punjab, situating the factory in that State would act as salve; he overruled the recommendation of Bareilly following due diligence. However, by choosing to overlook the basic requirements of constructing factories, the government gave up its basic right.

In hushed tones, the internal circles of Railways were dreading an accident of this magnitude for some time as the organisational confusion hit out at the morale of the leaders on line and mid career officers.

Organisation structure

Railways is a strict hierarchical organisation. This is a historical legacy that got enforced over the years as Railways had to operate in constrained resources. At every level, lack of resources was met with sweat: ever more intensive inspections, on board escorting, etc. Young officers get baptised by intense line training, which makes them work for days without even a break to sleep. This is a key component of their grooming so that they can plan in moments of peace, and can offer hands-on leadership in times of crisis like the Pokhrayan incident.

During NDA-1, economist Rakesh Mohan had given a fundamental recommendation: Improve the teeth-to-tail ratio of Railways. This report was inset in the financial crisis Railways was in. the Mohan committee also talked of reorganisation of the department and reduction of non-value adding layers. Unfortunately, the report was trashed by the rail bureaucracy, and change of government meant a return to the old ways.

Railways have a large number of organised services — 5 technical services, 4 of which manage all railway assets and one is for stores function. The staff are recruited from the Engineering Services Examination conducted by the UPSC and traffic, personnel, RPF and accounts come from Civil Services Examination conducted by UPSC (loosely known as allied services). Railways have its own medical service, which is also filled by UPSC recruits.

Services that get their youngsters baptised in the trenches are those from Civil, Electrical, Mechanical, Signals of Engineering Services and Traffic from allied services. All the services internally compete for resources and asset base, which gets balanced when Railways gets a good political leadership. What is interesting is that Accounts, Personnel and Stores do not ever face the heat of daily operations; however, they get the same benefits in promotion and status. Whereas in similar organisations, people who work in trenches get to man senior positions, this intact is also a motivation for hard work. So, though the nursing officers can get officer ranks, they are not granted privileges like that of salute, which combat officers are given. Also, even engineers, despite being first to go in battle, don’t rise to become generals. In Railways, the current dispensation has upset this delicate balance.

This brings one to a very interesting and unprecedented development. On 29 July, on the last working day of the incumbent Chairman of the Railway Board AK Mital was granted a 2-year extension. Mital is from the stores service, which is tasked only for procurement of stores that Railways need for its day-today work — giving him an unprecedented 43 months of tenure — practically to span the entire NDA-II term. In fact, recruits who fail medical fitness of eyesight historically have been given stores and not the core engineering services.

The elevation of a stores officer as chairman was highly contentious; railwaymen resented, but submitted as usual to orders from the political leadership. What rubbed salt on the wound was the appointment of a true blue railway man, replacing an IAS officer as head of the ailing Air India a month later. So, a railway man from trenches is sent to turn around Air India, but the Indian Railways get an officer who spent a major part of his tenure without ever venturing out, after office hours or on weekends!

In the past, Railways had had highly ‘safe’ officers at the helm who never carried a pen, lest they should be asked to sign a paper, but the organisation ran due to its functional orientation. However, due to structural changes brought in the past one year, the chairman usurped to his office all the powers of the chief executive, subverting the traditional role of board members and becoming the sole point of feedback to the minister and the prime minister. As he lacked a basic understanding of how the organisation worked at the track, cab and cabin level, he found ready partners in the OSD to the minister, a greenhorn from McKenzie, and a Joint Secretary-level officer from Personnel Service of Railways (IRPS), Anant Swarup, who had spend most of his career in deputational postings possibly due to his political connects (he is rumoured to be the son-in-law of a senior margdarshak of the BJP). This completes the triumvirate that forms the inner coterie of Prabhu.

Prabhu had earned his spurs when he was the power minister due to the able support of RV Shahi (brought from the private sector as Secretary – Power) and Gajendra Haldea, a highly respected IAS officer. Prabhu, more than a decade later, is surrounded by people who are high on optics but with fused lamps of ideas inside. No wonder, the top 4 decision makers and influencers look rudderless except for issuing pro forma statements.

1962The long-term agenda of the services to which chairman and Anant Swarup belong, got promoted, with guaranteed slots of a Divisional Railway Manager (DRM) and a General Manager made available. This, despite the fact that the services they belonged to are not required to spend even a night in the trenches in the first 18-20 years of their jobs.

This period is a sad reminder of the 1962 debacle, which has been so well dwelt recently by Kunal Verma; the quote of Gen VK Singh, MoS at the External Affairs Ministry sums up the predicament staring at Railways.

Tail just got fatter

However, now, instead of adding to the teeth, the tail just got some additional fat with 4 more positions of Director Generals being created at the Railway Ministry. What is even more intriguing is that the Stores department got an immense boost with the DG Stores reporting to the chairman, a position which is now the most powerful ever in the history of Railways, and not to the departments that deliver services using materials procured through stores. Is the chairman more concerned of paying back to the service he belongs to? Incidentally, he also has the DG Signal report to him. The Signal department was earlier reporting to Member – Electrical; since early this year, the department was moved under Member – Engineering. Such has been the state of ad hocism. Can one think of the Infantry being restructured by someone who has spent all his life in the Supply core? Well, come to Railways! How could Prabhu forget his basic lessons of the reasons for his spectacular success as power minister?

The Rail Vikas Shivir, which was capped by more than 120 deaths, was a McKenzie affair with the consultancy firm giving the prepared presentations in hands of the general managers to present them to the prime minister as if they were prepared by the presenters. That these were not prepared by railwaymen has made many people wonder if the minister knows what is happening.

The jury is still out if it was a rail fracture or a mechanical failure of the coaching stock. If conventional coaches of Indian Railways derail, the deficiently designed coach is a moving coffin. The number of deaths really then is a matter of luck — people would die and die in numbers so long as this coach runs.

Acute shortage of revenue funds for maintenance has made divisional leadership wary. Several large divisions are today running on fumes as there is hardly any money for maintenance. How can wearing surfaces like rail, bridges and vehicles be maintained without money?

A very wrong signal was sent when the whole reorganisation exercise was reduced to bringing electrical and mechanical departments together while strengthening non-value creation organisations like stores and personnel.

What is needed

indian-railway-minister-suresh-prabhu
An accident that had baptised NDA-II ironically brought in a triumvirate that lacked basic exposure to core rail working

It is time the prime minister and rail minister joined heads and do something about the triumvirate of the coterie of the latter. It is a matter of grave concern that core technical services, which were aspirational for the country’s engineers, have stopped attracting top talent and is now choosing ‘safe’ Stores service personnel instead. Also, for civil engineers, the first choice is now MES and CPWD, a development which should have set alarm bells ringing. Unfortunately, no one seems to be even bothered.

Prime Minister Modi brought talent even at the risk of upsetting his key political ally, namely Shiv Sena to lead Railways. Can’t such motivated leaders be found? A key refrain in the Rail Shivir, attendees share, was how the leadership groomed in trenches has been subverted while running Railways on steroids, ad hocism and lack of acknowledgement of talent. No wonder, when the prime minister at his level acknowledged the commitment of railwaymen rising above personal grief during the Bhuj earthquake, he got a rapturous applause. Many were touched that there was an acknowledgement of what is taken for granted by the triumvirate.

Would the rail minister end up doing to Railways what Krishna Menon did to the Ministry of Defence?

The writer is an authority on Indian Railways; सिर्फ़ News has withheld his real identity so that this article does not affect his career

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