Amid efforts to overhaul its internal governance by unifying several cadres and ending ‘departmentalism’, the Ministry of Railways has been unable to carry out the exercise of creating a credible seniority list for 276 officers of its Railway Board Secretariat Service (RBSS).
For the past six months, the ministry has been sitting on a judgement by the Central Administrative Tribunal (CAT), which found massive irregularities in the way the Railway Board has been promoting or denying promotions to Section Officers (Group B, Gazetted Officers) of the RBSS and directed that the entire seniority list of this cadre be recast from the time the service came into being in 1970.
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This is after the railway ministry in May this year lost a 10-year legal battle over the fixing of seniority for this cadre. Now, instead of implementing the judgement, it has filed for a review of the judgement, much to the bewilderment of the bureaucracy that stands to be impacted by the order. Internally, allegations of ‘delaying tactics’ and ‘favouritism’ is flying thick and fast even as promotions in the RBSS has remained stalled for the past two years.
After the application was filed on November 24, the first date for review was December 8 for which no one reportedly appeared and the next date is fixed for first week of January. This has fuelled internal resentment further. Ideally review of judgments are to be filed within 30 days of the order. Railways took around six months. “We want to make sure that we do not walk into the realm of contempt if we implement the judgement in a certain manner. That’s why we need to approach the honourable CAT again,” said RK Verma, secretary, Railway Board.
The CAT’s final judgement, spelled out in a 133-page order, is damning for the Railway Board at many levels. It termed the Railway Board’s actions as ‘audacious’ in trying to function as an independent government within the government. In fact scrutinising the data on promotions in the past decades, CAT observed that seniority was accorded and promotions were given to officials in such a manner that one officer would have had to be actually ‘five-six’ years of age to enjoy the seniority.
It also called the actions of the Railway Board secretary in this whole affair “astounding and shocking”. “The manner in which he (secretary) has wished away the law…as laid down by the Supreme Court…is astounding and shocking,” it remarked. Lashing at the Railway Board, it said it found certain provisions in RBSS Rules as “abhorrent to the law”.
In the May 31 judgement, the CAT had observed that thanks to the way the Railway Board was administrating this cadre, the RBSS remained the only service in the government whose seniority list was shrouded in secrecy and known only to a select few. It in fact functioned without a seniority list — a phenomenon unheard of in any structured service in government — and what it instead followed did not pass the acid test of law. The judgement remarked that the manner in which the railway ministry has been managing the promotions of Section Officers was in ‘violation of the settled principles of law’ and ‘illegal’. In this legal battle, the High Court had earlier ruled that the CAT’s order would be final.
The RBSS Section Officers are recruited via two primary channels. Those recruited through an exam of the civil service are called direct recruits and those who reach the post through internal promotions are called promotees. Internally, the contention was to decide who is senior when the entire pool of officers from both streams is taken as one and “inter-services” seniority list needed to be formed. Of 276 officers to be impacted, around 18 are direct recruits while the rest are promotees. The Section Officer is the first line in supervision of a file by a Gazetted officer.
Why the case assumes significance is that when posts are filled as per a new Seniority List, promotions will have cascading effect impacting around 2,035 people of the RBSS across all levels. At the Railway Board, the epicentre of power in railways, the RBSS manages the vital middle and lower bureaucracy. The RBSS is modelled after the Central Secretariat Service. Internally it calls itself the only neutral cadre in a system manned by nine, often sparring, Group A services. If seniority is fixed as per the final principles laid down by the court order, some people will lose their designation, while some would stand to be promoted in the renewed rankings. This, the Railway Board had pleaded to court, would be a problem. To its contention that the renewed list would cause administrative ‘mayhem’, the court said “Let justice be done though the heavens fall.”
The hold on promotions in the past two years and the subsequent six-month delay has caused many people to even retire with lower benefits than what they are entitled to.
Railway Board Member Staff Pradeep Kumar said that employees should trust the system. “The court has laid down certain principles for making the seniority list. We want to show the court beforehand how we plan to implement it and that certain aspects might require some clarification from the court, which we want to understand. That’s why we are approaching the CAT again,” Kumar told The Indian Express. “Everybody should have trust in the administration.”
On what took Railway Board so long to move court again, Kumar said: “It is about recasting a list since 1970s. Nobody has been sitting on the matter.”