The stonewalling of the Railway bureaucrats..

    However, continues unabated even after a change of government

    The rumours of Suresh Prabhu losing his portfolio has been doing rounds of the corridors of Delhi for some time. Yet another Railway Minister is likely to fall to machinations, sloth and obstinacy or Railway Bureaucracy. It was expected that a majority government, which does not have to pander to coalition dharma would provide the much needed vision and continuity to this vital economic ministry of the government.

    But, the railway bureaucracy, which seems to buckle so easily to populist orders of the Minister, displays a surprisingly stiff spine when it comes to opposing reforms. The organisation, which seems to be divided on departmental lines shows amazing solidarity when it comes to stonewalling suggestions of market oriented thinking and reorganisation. Some examples will make it clear even to a lay reader.

    A committee under the Chairmanship of noted economist Bibek Debroy was constituted to suggest reforms to railway’s ways of working and associated reorganisation to achieve it. Not only was the committee set up at the behest of the Prime Minister, the person to head it was also the PM’s personal choice. Yet, the comprehensive report of Bibek Debroy has been trashed without so much as by your leave.

    Not only has the Railway Board dismissed the report without any detailed and coherent examination at the top level, they seem to be enjoying the tacit support that trade unions of Railways have provided by an outright rejection of the report. It is rather surprising that neither the Minister nor the PMO has asked the senior management of Railways what their logical objections to the recommendations are. They ought to have also been asked what alternatives they offer if Bibek Debroy’s report was unacceptable to them.

    The Prime Minister had made Railways a major election issue in the 2014 General Elections. He also spoke about the importance of Indian Railways and his mission to reform it on international platforms. One of his promises in his election speeches was to introduce Bullet Trains in India. Yet, his dreams of Bullet Trains, which are defined as those that run at speeds over 250 kmph have been given a quiet burial. Railways, on the other hand have decided to import Train Sets at costs similar to those of Bullet Trains, but with a difference – these trainsets are to run at 160 kmph. The PM should have been advised by his men that technology for 180kmph already existed indigenously with Indian Railways.

    This technology has not yet been exploited beyond 130kmph. Yet, Indian Railways have decided to import trainsets at five to seven times the price of existing designs, only to run at 160kmph. To justify the decision to import high cost rolling stock, the procurement has been given the tag of a Make in India project. It is surprising that IR has decided to ignore the indigenously available technology and is resorting to imports, all in the name of Make in India!

    The PM is set to be disappointed when he will be told that a five times costlier imported train cannot run at speeds above 130 kmph because the tracks, bridges and signals do not permit any higher speeds. The correct decision would have been to invest in an integrated manner in tracks, bridges and signalling and use the existing rolling stock to first achieve the 180kmph that is possible without any imports. This import is likely to turn into the first major scandal of the NDA government.

    A third dream of the PM, of opening four Railway Universities in four corners of the country, too seems to have been turned on its head. The century old Special Class Railway Apprentices Scheme of Jamalpur has been ordered to be shut down. With the concept of catch-em-young gaining ground and the University Grants Commission’s recent thrust on producing industry-ready graduates, it seems odd that a prestigious education system that did precisely the same has been discontinued.

    The SCRA system of sandwich education was set up in the year 1927 and has attracted bright young minds ever since. Its alumni have risen to top positions not only in Indian Railways, but in Pakistan Railways as well. The bonhomie across the border still exists among the “Jamalpur Boys”. The SCRAs have gone as heads of several public and private companies, won many Padma awards and even military honours. Indira Gandhi, as the Prime Minister in 1982, had personally assured the MPs of Bihar that the SCRA scheme would continue, when a similar such attempt was made.

    It is being said by old boys of Jamalpur that the SCRA route of entry has been discontinued due to interdepartmental rivalries and jealousies. This seems to be true since the decision to do so is said to have been take in utmost secrecy without even consulting the cadre controlling Board Member. That such a major decision has been taken without a Board resolution, consultations with the Ministry of Law and Justice, Ministry of HRD and the Cabinet raises doubts about the motives behind such a move. Nitish Kumar has raised this matter with the Railway Minister through letters and has tweeted about it during his election campaigns. Yet, the Railway Ministry seems unmoved.

    It is not known whether these steps of the Ministry of Railways have explicit approval of the Railway Minister or if they are in the knowledge of the Prime Minister. The stonewalling of the Railway bureaucrats, however, continues unabated even after a change of government.

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