Will the unification of railway management services pay off?

Recall how on December 24 last year the Cabinet decided to integrate the Railways’ eight Group ‘A’ services into a single unified Indian Railways Management Service (IRMS) and downsize the Railway Board, re-designating its members on functional basis instead of departments. With alarm bells ringing for the Railways, the government realised how the Railway Board, with its departmental silos sapping its energy and vitality, needed to be drastically restructured.

In view of sensitivities and complexities involved in integrating the cadres, and likely apprehensions of incumbent officers about their career progression, the government directed the whole process of amalgamating the services to be finalised within a year by a Home Minister-led group of ministers assisted by a committee of secretaries. With the nudge now provided by PMO to ensure the process is completed by November, Railway Minister Piyush Goyal has been discussing the nuances with associations representing different departmental services.

Enduring format

It is axiomatic that a successful transition to a new integrated cadre will depend on devising an enduring format for future recruitment and, above all, fair and equitable readjustment of existing 8,400 Group A officers to have their legitimate career progression ensured. First, for the complex issue of suitably and equitably adjusting the existing officers, one way out appears to be that those unwilling to opt for merger with IRMS may be allowed to continue, seeking their prospects in their cadres, while those opting for merger be prepared for a fresh selection by the UPSC to determine inter-se seniority, necessarily done on basis of genuine suitability. Age and seniority based on rank in UPSC test years back alone cannot be a fair measure of suitability.

The other major concern is of serious, and increasing, anomalies and distortions with regard to top general management posts which, no doubt, have fuelled uncertainties and fears. Take, for example, the IRTS cadre engaged in railways’ core business — only 1.6 per cent of the General Manager posts is given for operation and business development compared to 20 per cent for Mechanical (IRSME), 10 per cent for Electrical (IRSEE), and around 8 per cent each for Signals (IRSSE), Civil engineering (IRCE), and Stores (IRSS).

Thus only one among 27 posts of General Manager is currently available for 64 traffic service officers recruited compared to nine posts for 45 recruits in Mechanical, and five posts for 51 electrical engineers.

In government, career prospects mostly depend on date of birth, and rank in UPSC results. How can the administration remain purblind to glaring disadvantage of age encountered by recruits through civil services stream, who generally join service when they are 25-27 years old, against officers from engineering services examination who join technical cadres at 21-24.

There’s a similar age anomaly in the case of Special Class Apprentices, who are able to qualify for active service in the mechanical engineering wing at a much lower age than direct post-graduate recruits. This affects the morale of the staff and, more importantly, the organisation is the major loser, failing to optimally utilise its trained and experienced human capital.

Time-tested framework

Here a reference is relevant to a time-tested framework evolved for selecting top railway managers, and how the procedure, unequivocally approved by stalwarts like Nehru, Pant, and Shastri, got distorted.

In 1947, the Railway Board had a Chief Commissioner (later called President, further, in 1951, re-designated Chairman), a Financial Commissioner, and three Members (Transportation, Staff, Engineering). Well after a Member Mechanical was added in 1954, another Member Electrical joined in 1987. Soon clamour set in for the remaining two cadres (Signalling and Stores) also to have their representation on the Board. In 2015, the government initiated a halfway measure to merge two verticals of Electrical and Mechanical branches on ‘functional lines’. But, strangely, soon thereafter, the Railway Board was retrogressively expanded to make it a nine-Member body, with two new Members, one for Signalling, and the second for Stores.

In the meanwhile, since the 1980s, established precepts for selection of General Managers and Board Members for railways were thoughtlessly altered, thereby eroding the system’s effectiveness. Like the Army filling senior ‘command’ posts (Brigade, Division, Corps, Army) mostly from among those from the fighting ‘arms’ (infantry, armoured, artillery), not from corps of Engineers, EME, Signal, Ordnance, and Accounts, the posts of zonal General Managers were required to be manned only by officers exposed to rigours of action in the field.

Board Members were invariably from among General Managers from zones (termed ‘Open Line’), not from production units or projects. Instead of first devising a mechanism for selection of genuinely suitable officers with requisite experience from different disciplines, doors were thrown open for all; even those confined to their ‘back-office’ desks for most of the career came to be assigned senior-most general management positions.

The Railways’ primary task being production and marketing transport efficiently and economically, its top management posts must perforce be manned only by those who are appropriately trained and exposed to the vagaries of the market and rigours of operations in the field. It’s much like a racecourse: the jockey who leads the horse to the winning post occupies the pride of place, ahead of those who maintain the stable and the turf.

Those others who provide vital support for railways’ primary business would naturally be enabled to rise in their specialised domains. That is how the Tandon Committee on Organisational Structure and Management Ethos of Indian Railways (1994) advised for suitable selection of officers with “needed combination of managerial ability and knowledge” for senior general management positions, while others “would seek their advancement in the areas of their broad specialisations rising up to positions of …Director General”.

Inflating the numbers

Further, anomalies and distortions have been creeping in through subtle subterfuges. Departmental posts are ring-fenced; some departments particularly vie to inflate the numbers to secure senior positions proportionate to the respective cadre strengths. Little has ever been attempted to determine cadre-wise optimal strength. It currently varies widely: Civil engineering commands the largest chunk (1,958), followed by Mechanical Engineering (1,349), Traffic (1,099), Electrical Engineering (1,074), Signalling and Telecom (971), Accounts (822), Stores (650), and Personnel (478).

Departments engaged in executing projects kept widening their bases through “work charged” posts which, as the Debroy Committee found, were surreptitiously continued for years well after the projects were completed, often in connivance with Finance, which too had its share in the pie.

It is recognised that, functionally, there can be no escape from the departments because of both the technical and non-technical specialisations needed for a complex multi-disciplinary entity like the railways. To create a cohesive and integrated ‘cadre’, strictly for the future, the Indian Railways may look for all its Group ‘A’ managers to be inducted into IRMS only from amongst technical/engineering graduates, who, during training, may be duly exposed to transport economics as well. For future recruitments, there may thus be no major hurdle to abide by the underlying spirit of IRMS.

Again, it is of critical importance that the Railways institutionalises the selection for the general management pool. It may afford an opportunity to officers from all disciplines to be considered, say, on completion of 15 years of service, selection done only by an external agency, preferably by UPSC.

A rigorous selection process together with training will help an enduring management cadre to evolve, for appointment as empowered local area managers at large stations, workshops and depots, also in planning, vigilance, public relations, and, of course, following regular specialised courses, as divisional and zonal managers.

The writer is a former Managing Director, Container Corporation of India

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