Merger of rail departments: Anatomical changes to cure bureaucratic ailments

Official circles at Railway Board are deliberating on the matter, but there is little doubt that this time it can be avoided.

Written by Avishek G Dastidar | New Delhi | Published:September 6, 2016 2:18 am
indian railways, suresh prabhu, group a cadre, railway board, indian express news On the table right now is a solution to end, once and for all, the infamous, barely-secret rivalry between its two engineering departments — Electrical and Mechanical.

Behind all the publicity hoopla about new trains, new services and its myriad social media activities, the country’s largest commercial utility employer, Indian Railways, is quietly institutionalising some permanent changes in the way it governs itself.

On the table right now is a solution to end, once and for all, the infamous, barely-secret rivalry between its two engineering departments — Electrical and Mechanical. The top offices of Railways, headed by railway minister Suresh Prabhu, wants to merge the two — a move considered so radical that time and again it has been thwarted from within over the past few decades. But not this time.

Official circles at Railway Board are deliberating on the matter, but there is little doubt that this time it can be avoided.

This comes soon after Railways got the PMO and other relevant offices like the Appointments Committee of the Cabinet and Department of Personnel and Training to agree on a creation of a new Adviser post. This post of Adviser (Resource Mobilisation) would be open to the Central Staffing Scheme. While the need and merit of the move can be debated, the fact remains, “outsiders” like IAS officers can also be in contention for the post — a first, mega move for such an entry point into what has always been known as a “parochial” organisation.

The move was so quiet that not a single instance of resistance was recorded from within as the proposal went to the higher echelons of government earlier this year and came back approved by July-August.

Two-three decades ago the rail bureaucracy could resist such interventions since it had performance to show, and could dismiss such moves as unnecessary. With performance and financial health of the organisation sliding, thanks to Railways being used as a political tool by subsequent dispensations, the rail bureaucracy’s ability to assert itself before the government also declined.

According to the present government, the rot, so to speak, has been setting in for long in the form of an oft-repeated expression within rail bureaucracy — departmentalism. It is the reason why Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2014 formed a high-level panel under economist Bibek Debroy to bring out a roadmap to “restructure” Indian Railways.

A number of expert committees for decades have been telling railways that the various functional departments in the organisation often work to further the interests of the respective cadres or departments and more often than not at the cost of railways’ own interests. Historically, there have been many instances of one department grounding proposals moved by the other.

The latest to flag this was the Debroy-led committee in June 2015, much before the latest set of interventions started to take shape.

“As pointed out by many previous Committees, over the years the IR organisation has grown into an overly centralised and hierarchical organisation. The feeling of ‘departmentalism’ adversely affects the working culture and has resulted in actions and decisions based on narrow departmental goals instead of on organisational objectives or benefits,” it said in its final report.

The guiding philosophy behind the changes, as per the proponents of these processes, is rearranging rail governance on functional lines and an end to departmentalism. “It was in the railway minister’s (budget) speech to reorganise the railway board on business lines as opposed to departmental lines. That is what we are doing,” chairman Railway Board AK Mital told The Indian Express. The Electrical department, which traditionally looked after electrification of tracks, electric engines and airconditioning and allied jobs in coaches, is a small yet old service manned by officers from Indian Railway Service of Electrical Engineers. Its head, Member (Electrical) was a post, however, created in the late eighties as prior to that, it functioned under the Member (Mechanical) as a minor department.

The Mechanical department, manned by officers from the Indian Railway Service of mechanical engineers, traditionally looked after diesel engines, and management and production of coaches and wagons under the leadership of the Member (Mechanical).

In the beginning of August, Railways changed the allocation of responsibilities in these two Board members, thereby turning the turfs controlled by the two departments upside down. Member (Electrical) was rechristened as Member (Traction). He is now to look after all traction-related works be it diesel or electrical, including the production and management of the engines. Member (Mechanical) was renamed as Member (Rolling Stock), which means he is now to look after production and management of coaches, including to-be-inducted electrical train sets, Electrical Multiple Units and the like. As a result, officers down the rank, who reported to one member started reporting to the other by virtue of the responsibilities they handled. Mechanical officers looking after Traction, for instance, now started reporting to the Member (Traction) and so on.

But the going wisdom in the powers that be is that the age-old turf war would end only if their separate entities ceased to exist.

So the current idea is to merge the two services down to the level of recruitment through Union Public Service Commission. That leaves the question: what to do with the present officers? How to merge the two into a common seniority list? One of the ideas offered as solution is the same formula by which the general managers seniority list is prepared through inter-services seniority. This is because Railways is an amalgamation of eight main Group A services — Traffic, Engineering, Electrical, Mechanical, Accounts, Personnel, Signalling and Stores. There are other services like RPF as well but they are not in contention for the GM’s or DRM’s posts.

So far, the move has faced some murmurs of criticism from the bureaucracy for being superficial and without any bearing on the ultimate performance indicators of railways — internal generation of revenues. It is also said that these moves are too little, too haphazard. Those who back the moves, mostly a section of the top level bureaucracy, however, maintain that these interventions constitute a work in progress. The Debroy panel’s report, prepared after consultations with all stakeholders, lay down a roadmap within five years for a positive overhaul of Railways. One of the pillars of the roadmap was the unification of all the services in the entry point to create an Indian Railway Service, which would then fork out into two services in the higher level — Technical and Administration. Not much has happened in that direction.

“We had recommended that this be done in prospective basis, which meant that future recruitment should be done to this effect. We realised that merging the services on retrospective basis would take time, but nothing stopped Railways from doing it for future recruits. That has not been done yet,” Debroy told The Indian Express.

There are other changes, at the level of the Railway Board. For instance, the entire Signalling and Telecommunications organisation was taken away from the Electrical department and placed under Civil Engineering headed by Member (Engineering) — the largest department in charge of laying and maintaining tracks and bridges. The logic was that a track is not usable unless signalling systems are in place, so the two verticals needed to report to a single head. This new unified vertical is to be called “Infrastructure”.

Lately, the performance appraisal of general managers and divisional railway managers have also been linked to earning of revenue and execution of projects, a move aimed at infusing thrust in bureaucratic functioning. The PMO, on the other hand, is deliberating on changes in norms that post DRMs and GMs to align them with its “360-degree approach” of picking the right officer for the right job. Amid all this, observers who have served Railways for decades say the roots of the problems have been left untouched so far.

“For 160 years various departments contributed to the growth and welfare of railways in their own ways. They have their strengths and weaknesses. But problem started when resource became more and more scarce. Then every department started vying for the limited resources at hand. That was the seed of so called departmental considerations,” said Arunendra Kumar, former chairman Railway Board. “So the solution does not lie in merging departments but in earning more revenues to increase resources.” The moves has also been termed “superficial” in some circles.

“How would merging of departments and creation of myriad posts help railways?,” asked Devi Prasad Pande, former Railway Board Member Traffic. “These are superficial moves so far because if the cadre-controlling authorities of each cadre are not changed then the loyalties of officials remain not with the functional heads but with the heads of their respective services. Besides, the same departments worked together and delivered not so long ago. So the problem is not departments, the problem is that amid all this, no one is talking about earning more money to justify the existence of the way Railways governs itself,” he said. Pande says that departments existed to reduce input cost and increase output. The presents moves would not have a positive impact to that end.

Then there is one section of the organisation, that feels the moves so far amount to nothing in particular — the unions. The largest union, All India Railwaymen’s Federation, has written to the Railway Board and the minister expressing its protest against the various moves of restructuring. They claim that the changes mean nothing in the face of falling performance indicators of the organisation. “We have lodged our protests because changing of designations of Board Members and merging of certain departments ultimately do not benefit railways. Because now is the time to work towards repayment of the huge loans the organisation is coming under. There is ‘over-capitalisation’ which is also not good,” said Shiv Gopal Mishra, secretary general of the federation. One thing is for certain, the changes have been a long time coming. Except that for long, no government was backed by a mandate as strong as NDA-II, to initiate these changes in areas of Rail governance in past 20 years. And backed by the Prime Minister himself, they are here to stay.