Bibek Debroy, Chairman, Prime Minister’s Economic Advisory Council, led the committee that in 2015 recommended major reform in the Railways. His report is being cited by the government and all stakeholders to argue both in favour of and against the recent controversial move to unify all eight Group A services into one Indian Railways Management Service. In an interview with Avishek G Dastidar, Debroy explained what the report meant and what he thinks about the move.
In your report, why didn’t you prescribe merger of all services into one?
We said that we would not get into the merger with retrospective treatment because we have no particular expertise in that. We did not say anything on that because we said the Railways should do that, and remember there will be legal cases and things like that.
Did you foresee that it will end up being a messy affair?
Right, it is messy… We did not have a complete picture of the age profile the Railway employee. We had a sense that recruitment is not always linear over time… there was a bunching together… I mean we knew that the hump would be crossed at around 24 years of age but then there is the General category and the SC and ST category etc… so as far as that is concerned, we left it to the wisdom of Railways.
Why did you recommend two services, one technical and one logistics, instead of just one service?
In the final report, there is an important sentence where we have recommended two services. We said that if there are two separate (recruitment) exams then you need to have two services. That is the important caveat… Today, on the one side you have the Civil Services Exam and on the other, the Engineering Services Exam. In that case, you have two services.
Why is that?
In the report we had an interesting graph that showed that as you climbed up the ladder, the less important the functional specialisation becomes, and you go more and more towards management. Someone who enters to the technical side is an engineer. The person is entering the service when he or she is about 22 years old. On the other side, the person entering the service is may be 25 years old or thereabouts. So there is a disadvantage in terms of vertical mobility. Now if you unified the exams, this difference would go.
How would you ensure multi-disciplinary efficiency in that case?
Because the core functioning of the Railways is of running trains, so most of them would be engineers. But there would also be the Personnel Service, Accounts Service and Traffic Service. So you recruit them also, and then obviously you’re not going to get the person who has a History background to run the trains. So, what we had contemplated was that after you join, maybe 13, 14 years down the line, you get a choice — do you want to switch, regardless of your background? Like if you are an engineer, do you now want to switch to the management side, in which case you aspire to become, eventually, a Member of the Railway Board, even Chairman. Or do you want to continue with running trains, then you aspire to become GM and then the rank of a GM is equalised with the rank of a Railway Board Member.
When you studied departmental rivalries in Railways, did you see it prevailing between the Engineering services or did you see it between civil services and the engineers?
It was across the board.
How did you seek to find a solution?
As a committee, we had wide consultations. I don’t think any other committee has had as wide a consultation process and, if I recall correctly, most of the ideas that we have had came from the people from the Railways themsleves. We just put them in a structure. In the course of this we had discussions with the employees associations, like the Federation of Railway Officers’ Association (FROA). We said this in the Interim report and final report also, FROA strongly recommended one service. The Prakash Tandon Committee (1994) recommended one service.
Why didn’t you recommend it then?
We had this dilemma. We thought that a lot of things go in favour of one single service, but the problem was the entry-age differential, and the problems that the two sides would face thereafter… That is the reason we put that caveat. So all the messages on social media are missing this point, which is that if you have two entry exams, then please have two services.
But now the demand is: Why can’t the reform be about two services, considering there are about 8,000 serving officers involved?
To the extent that I have been able to track social media is that one issue is, “What happens to us?”. I have read reports that the Chairman, Railway Board made a statement that your position and seniority will be preserved, just wait for the alternate mechanism to do its work. This is one issue. The other issue which they (protesting officers) are not mentioning on social media that much is what happens to their vertical growth? Because departmentalism encadres posts. Now that is being broken down, so if I am X then I am not just worried about my seniority being protected, I am now also worried about my vertical mobility. That, they are not voicing very strongly, but I think in the heart of their hearts the main issue is that. I think the actual reservation is about the fact that my vertical mobility will be affected because posts reserved for certain cadres are going to end. And suddenly, the total number of posts is also being pruned. And then there is also the threat of lateral entry, which also we have mentioned in our report.