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Thursday, May 13, 2021

Silos in railway services have to be broken, though it’s a complicated task

Unification has been recommended by several committees. The Prakash Tandon Committee recommended a single service. The Gupta-Narain Committee (1994), set up to examine feasibility of implementing this single service idea, questioned whether this could be done.

Written by Bibek Debroy |
Updated: January 16, 2020 10:22:35 am
Railway traffic officers: Cadre merger decision not unanimous, will create 'conflict of interest'  Departmentalism and functioning in silos are not caused by this alphabet soup of eight services alone, but multiple services certainly contributes.(File photo/Representational)

Today, there is an alphabet soup of services in Indian Railways (IR) — IRPS (Indian Railway Personnel Service), IRTS (Indian Railway Traffic Service), IRSS (Indian Railway Stores Service), IRSME (Indian Railway Service of Mechanical Engineers), IRSEE (Indian Railway Service of Electrical Engineers), IRSSE (Indian Railway Service of Signal Engineers), IRSE (Indian Railway Service of Engineers) and IRAS (Indian Railway Accounts Service). There are eight Group A services. Five — IRSME, IRSEE, IRSSE, IRSS and IRSE — are so-called technical services, recruited through an engineering service examination conducted by UPSC. Three — IRPS, IRTS and IRAS — are non-technical, recruited through the civil service examination conducted by the UPSC.

There are 8,401 officers in the Railways, not evenly distributed across the eight services. The IRSE has 1,958 officers, IRSME 1,349, IRTS 1,099, IRSEE 1,074, IRSSE 971, IRAS 822, IRSS 650 and IRPS 478 officers. Departmentalism and functioning in silos are not caused by this alphabet soup of eight services alone, but multiple services certainly contributes. Unification has been recommended by several committees — Prakash Tandon Committee (1994), Khanna Committee (1998), Rakesh Mohan Committee (2001), Sam Pitroda Committee (2012) and Bibek Debroy committee (2015). The Prakash Tandon Committee recommended a single service. The Gupta-Narain Committee (1994), set up to examine feasibility of implementing this single service idea, questioned whether this could be done.

The Debroy Committee found that the reservations of the Gupta-Narain Committee were unwarranted. It recommended two distinct services, technical versus non-technical, if there were two separate modes of entry, resulting in a non-homogeneous group of officers. But in a presentation to the committee, the FROA (Federation of Railway Officers’ Associations) argued for a single service and entry examination, and suggested a method that could be used. “The Railway Board will place an indent on UPSC specifying the number of recruits needed for each discipline such as civil/mechanical/electrical engineers or simple graduates in any subject… After selection of pre-decided numbers from each specialisation/general subjects, they will be merged into a single IRLS (Indian Railway Service) by UPSC itself through a pre-decided formula of inter-se seniority.” This is akin to what happens with the Indian Foreign Service, and there can be a new examination conducted by the UPSC.

An Indian Railway Management Service (IRMS) has now been announced (IRLS of the quote becomes IRMS), breaking down departmentalism and silos. For new entrants, IRMS constitutes no great problem. The details will be worked out between the IR, UPSC and DOPT. But the FROA’s suggestion, incorporated into Debroy Committee’s Report, suggests one way of doing this. Nor is there any great issue with vertical mobility of Indian Railway Management System. To cite one method, there can be a bifurcation mid-career, say in the 14th year of service. Irrespective of educational background, officers can opt for a general management cadre and aspire to be members of the board, even the CRB. With an engineering background, officers can aspire to become GMs. With parity between GMs and members, this becomes a conscious career choice. In any event, the further up one moves on the ladder, the importance of functional specialisation, vis-a-vis management skills, declines.

The knottier problem is that of retrospectively integrating those 8,401 officers into the Indian Railway Management System. Note that, with decentralisation, the Railway Board has been pruned and if vertical mobility is interpreted as a position in the Rail Bhawan, that opportunity is limited, irrespective of whether the Indian Railway Management System is constituted or not. Since posts have historically been reserved for specific services, vertical mobility has been uneven across those eight services. For instance, consider promotion to the higher administrative grade (HAG). IRTS, IRAS and IRPS have moved up the most (1987 batch promoted), while IRSME, IRSEE and IRSS have lagged (1985 batch promoted) behind. Posts becoming ex-cadre (no longer reserved for specific services) increases a sense of insecurity, especially because the average entrant through the present civil service examination is older than the average entrant through the present engineering service examination. Reservation for specific services is inherently inefficient. Therefore, despite retrospective integration being a knotty issue, making posts ex-cadre should be welcomed. The Debroy Committee suggested two methods for retrospective integration. Let me quote one of these. “This methodology involves interpolation of officers of various services in a combined list, arranged in proportion to total strength of each service. The service with the largest number of officers will form the base. At the top of the combined list, toppers of all services will be placed in order of their date of birth — those born earlier being assigned higher seniority. Thereafter, officers of various services will be interpolated in between the officers of the base service in the ratio of the number of officers in that service vis-à-vis the number of officers in the base service.”

This sounds complicated and yes, it is a complicated exercise, irrespective of which method is used. We will have to wait to see what method is evolved by the Group of Secretaries, IR, DOPT and UPSC. There is a phenomenon one can’t get away from and this has nothing to do with engineers performing a core function in the IR. Engineers qualify for civil service examinations at an average age lower than that of other aspirants. This may be one reason why there is such a high percentage of engineers within something like the IAS (even MBA programmes). There will be a high percentage of engineers in Indian Railway Management System too, though there will be an “indent” for those with non-engineering backgrounds. But because engineers will be younger, they will be promoted faster, irrespective of the method used.

This article first appeared in the print edition on January 16, 2020 under the title ‘One railway’. The author is Chairman, Economic Advisory Council to the PM. Views are personal.

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