Before explaining the veracity of the December 24 cabinet decision of restructuring the Indian Railways Board and merger of all the cadres of the world’s fifth largest railway service, let us begin with an anecdote. It took 25 years for the railways to make a simple decision about installing hot cases to keep food warm for passengers. The member (electrical) had one view, while the member (traffic) had another. The Indian Railways had become a mammoth centralised organisation with hierarchical decision-making and a culture of operating in silos. The departments were vertically separated from top to bottom and were headed by a secretary level official or a member of the railway board. If implemented, the cabinet decision would mean the end of business as usual for the world’s fourth largest railway network.
In 2016-the year the railways finally got their hot cases– then Railways Minister Suresh Prabhu attempted to break these silos, changing the work profiles of all eight members; rechristening them to member (rolling stock), member (traction), member (traffic), member (engineering), member (staff), member (material management), members (signal & telecom) and financial commissioner. To achieve this he merged departments & reshuffled works etc. Before this there were more divisions, such as civil, mechanical, electrical, signal and telecom, stores, personnel and accounts, among others. This movement, too, was significant. The effort might not have broken the shackles, but it shook the system. Since its inception in 1951, the railway board was altered just once, in 1986, when Madhavrao Scindia as railways minister implemented Rajiv Gandhi’s idea of moving towards electrification and member (electrical) was introduced. Four committees over the last 25 years have suggestd unifying services-the Prakash Tandon Committee (1994), Rakesh Mohan Committee (2001), Sam Pitroda Committee (2012) and Bibek Debroy Committee (2015), has suggested unification of services. The railway ministry has not acted on these recommendations.
Minister for Railways Piyush Goyal
This is what makes Piyush Goyal’s move to unify all eight cadres into one Indian Railways Management Service, so historic. Goyal has also convinced the cabinet to
to reduce the number of members to four–infrastructure, operations and business development, rolling stock and finance. This will make operations simpler, easy to execute and help avoid confusion. In the matter of the hot cases, another reason why the railways couldn’t decide was that the chairman of the board had no veto rights. The cabinet cleared a proposal for the chairman to be a CEO style figure and also a cadre controlling authority with a stronger say in matters.
Why did it take so long ?
Prabhu’s attempt at unifying the services is a case in point. He faced resistance from the officers’ associations since it would impact their seniority and chances to reach the apex board. It is not easy to keep everyone happy, if you have to merge eight cadres and eight services for various departments–Indian Railway Traffic Service (IRTS), Indian Railway Accounts Service (IRAS), Indian Railway Personnel Service (IRPS), Indian Railway Service of Engineers (IRSE), Indian Railway Stores Service (IRSS), Indian Railway Service of Electrical Engineers (IRSEE), Indian Railway Service of Signal Engineers (IRSSE), and Indian Railway Service of Mechanical Engineers (IRSME)–into one. The present reorganisation will be as complicated. A top railway official, who wished to not be named, told India Today that, “the new system will take seniority and performance into account”, the reorganisation will still be met with resistance.
It will take roughly a year for the officials at the Railway Ministry and the Department of Personnel and Training to work out the alternative mechanisms and several more years for the results to show. But if the railways need to run on time with enhanced speed, have better infrastructure, allow for predictability, and run as an effective freight carrier, a corporate work culture will need to be introduced like it has been in railway systems across the world through timely reforms. The government-run department still lags behind.
In the past five years; the railway budget has been merged with the general budget, the production units are carved out as corporate entities to explore markets for funds, the cheaper capital was roped in from the pension funds and LIC instead of looking for budget allocations for capital expansions. To bring in private capital for operations, the Tejas Train between Delhi-Lucknow started in July this year with operations managed by IRCTC and not Indian Railways. The railway, though, continues to be a government department and not a PSU with a profit and loss statement. The movement on reforms is slow and gradual whereas it needs rapid acceleration. The hope is that this bold step will lead the railways back on the reform track.
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