Another committee on the Railways, to ‘restructure’, headed by economist Bibek Debroy, has been formed. A similar one in 2001 by Rakesh Mohan had recommended ‘corporatisation’ as a panacea for all its ills. He had also suggested creating an arm’s length relation between the Railways and the government, which perhaps was not palatable to the netas.
Vital for any organisation is the chief executive officer (CEO), who calls the shots and also takes the rap if things go wrong, a role all along assumed by the chairman, Railway Board (CRB). Though first among equals in a seven-member board, he is responsible for the smooth functioning of 1.4-million-strong behemoth. The task of selecting candidates to man the posts of managers for the 67 divisions, general managers for the 16 zones, five for the production units and seven other posts of equivalent rank is the CRB’s prerogative, though he may consult other members in the matter.
Drawn from almost all departments, these are officers with hands-on experience and outstanding managerial expertise, as they are tasked with the vital task of translating policies into action, ensuring that all departments under their command work as a cohesive team. Perhaps Madhavrao Scindia was the last rail minister who understood and made full use of the unique strengths of this organisation, seldom interfering with the Railways’ day-to-day working unless he had strong enough reasons to do so.
Jaffer Sharief, who followed Scindia a few years later, after inducting a railway officer as his private secretary (PS), soon established himself as de facto CEO.
Over the last two decades, successive rail ministers have continued to usurp the role of CEO, with their respective PSs often issuing orders on behalf of the minister, riding roughshod over not only the board but the entire organisation. Lobbies of powerful vendors also moved in and established easy access to the minister, who, aided by a clever PS, managed to over-rule board members’ objections to purchase sub-standard goods or hardware of dubious value.
‘Departmentalism’ soon became the order of the day, mostly at the board level, where the stakes are high and providing rail transport at the lowest possible unit cost became a lost cause. The latest fiasco of ‘cash for posts’ during Pawan Kumar Bansal’s tenure was one such example of a vendor trying to influence not just the outcome of a tender, but slotting a key purchaser who would be favourable to their overtures.
Hopefully the Debroy committee will squarely address the issue of providing authority with accountability, and restore the powers of the CRB.
RC Acharya is a former member of the Railway Board
The views expressed by the author are personal