Indian Railways: Scripting the Future

Indian Railways: Scripting the Future

Overcoming Divisiveness in Unification

The creation of the Indian Railway Management Service (IRMS) through a merger of the eight organised Group ‘A’ Services, approved by the cabinet recently, has been in discussion from as early as 2001. Most of the earlier studies have addressed the need for cadre restructuring for purposes of improved synergy and alignment to the ‘business’ of Indian Railways. Various media reports released subsequently do suggest that the unification of services will end departmentalism, promote smooth working of Railways, expedite decision making, create a coherent vision for organisation and promote ‘rational decision making’. However, before discarding departmentalism as a bane, it is necessary to examine whether the idiomatic ‘baby is also being thrown out with the bath water’.  For a closer scrutiny, it is necessary to discern and draw a distinction between the ‘Operational’ and the ‘Business’ realms of Indian Railways. 

Operations of the Indian Railways

The Indian Railways is a multi-tiered organisation. It is headed by the Railway Board at the apex level, followed by geographically organised 17 Zones and 68 Divisions. The Divisions are further departmentally split into ‘operational units’ such as branch offices, depots, sheds which, inter alia, includes the 7000 and more railway stations.

The operations of Indian Railways take place in these ‘operational units’. Primarily, all these units are departmentally organised. It is to these operational departmental units that almost 99.9% of the approximate 1.3 million employees of the Indian Railways are attached. More or less identical and replicated across the length and breadth of the Indian Railways, these operational units ensures safe passage for a train that runs from Kashmir to Kanyakumari. These spatially distributed departmental units headed by the departmentally aligned frontline officers from junior to middle management levels, constitute a time honoured system that has served the Indian Railways well for over a century. It seems only rational that the Officers, the leaders, share allegiance to the department that owns their staff, assets and the machines that assures smooth and safe operations. 

For rational decision making, it is necessary that the functional departmental information stemming from the spatially distributed operational units get systematically collated, analysed and used for monitoring and review at the three levels of the Indian Railways hierarchy namely the Division, Zone and the apex level, the Railway Board. In the technocracy that the Indian Railways represents, it is necessary that departmental Officers are the responsible custodians of departmentally collated and analysed information. However, with the adoption of technology in a well-entrenched information flow, the management of the operational aspects of the Indian Railways require fewer departmentally aligned Officers at the Division and higher levels. 

Administratively, the departmental operational units report into the Divisions of the Indian Railways where the organisation of the ‘business’ of the Indian Railways really begins. It is from this juncture onwards that the challenges of departmentalism surface and manifest. 

Business of Indian Railways

The business of Indian Railways is best understood along the business value chain – fixed assets, rolling stock, and traffic. The Divisions of the Indian Railways are what, in management parlance, must become the Strategic Business Units. The Divisions are very large both in terms of infrastructure managed, business and staff employed. To put it in perspective, the Divisions of Indian Railways is larger than most private sector and medium sized public sector enterprises.  

Along the business value chain of the Indian Railways- infrastructure, rolling stock and traffic, seamless coordination is required. Departmental operational information is reorganised and assimilated usefully to manage the business of the Indian Railways. While the Divisions need to respond and take business decisions as strategic business units, the Zonal Offices need to play a strategic and directional role for the clutch of Divisions it has oversight of. The role of the Railway Board is obviously strategic and holds an outside in perspective of the Indian Railways as a whole in the context of the national agenda and priorities. 

For the business roles at the Division, Zone and Railway Board it is perhaps true that Departmental allegiances and narrowed perspectives can be detrimental to effective decision making. However it is sine qua non that departmental information must flow systematically and be made available to manage the business of the Indian Railways. This, in turn, would suggest that for successful synergy in the operational and the business of Indian Railways, the two structures must co-exist and integrate. One that is operational and therefore departmental, the other that manages the business of the Indian Railways and remains reasonably unfettered from departmental allegiances. For the two structures to co-exist, it is imperative to understand and address the structure and the aspect of career progression of an Officer in the Indian Railways.  

The Cadre Problem

The Indian Railways organisation is different from a typical pyramidal public sector organisation that allows for reasonably systematic career progression. The wide base of operational units with a narrow peak of senior Officers responsible for the operations and the business makes the Indian Railways organisation look like an inverted ‘T’. This would suggest the obvious challenges of career progression especially in the latter half of an Officer’s career if the conventional model of recruiting Officers at the base of the organisation is adopted. The recruitment of direct Group ‘A’ Officers into the Indian Railways needs to be built on a career progression model based on the vacancies in the narrow peak of the Indian Railways hierarchy. The junior operational Officer vacancy positions perhaps are best filled largely through systematic and timely promotions from lower departmental cadres with adequate training for them to function effectively as Officers. The inadequate focus for decades on a systematic career model for Group ‘A’ Officer recruitment into the Indian Railways is perhaps the root cause of the problem that is manifesting. While it would seem best that recruitment of Officers to the Indian Railways technocracy continues to be departmental, the challenges of departmentalism need resolution. 

The Alternative Solution

On a detailed mapping of operational and business processes and the corresponding detailing of roles of Officers in the Indian Railways in the study commissioned by the Indian Railways in 2015, ‘Prepare a Rational Manpower Policy for Indian Railways in the context of Group ‘A’ Services’, it was found that the jobs of Officers across departments were broadly similar involving contract management, monitoring and review in broad technical and functional domains. This would, in principle, suggest the fungibility of Officers across different departments, lending credence to the current announcement of cadre unification. While this may be true, it is important to be constantly reminded that the problem has snowballed over decades with multiple short term solutions attempted during this period. This has over time translated into a problem of significant complexity. The cadre unification resolution is an audacious attempt to cleanse the Augean stables which is however fraught with imminent challenges and a myriad of unknown fallouts which could hamper the functioning of the Indian Railways. The ultimate objective is clear, the seamless integration of the operational and the business of the Indian Railways. This can perhaps be achieved in a far simpler manner. 

The solution may already exist within the existing ex-Cadre policies of the Indian Railways. The Ex-Cadre general management posts are those that are open to all cadres while there are other identified posts that are fungible between a select number of eligible cadres. These are typically posts that requires the incumbent to wear a well-rounded ‘Indian Railways’ hat rather than represent the narrower departmental interests. Further, these are positions that require competencies that are not restricted to one department but are more general in nature. There are in fact a large number of possible posts at all levels of the hierarchy of the Indian Railways that lend themselves to sharing across cadres. Opening up such posts even at the junior Officer level, will help build a collaborative and holistic mind-set very early in the careers of the Officers.

The two senior ex-Cadre General Management Posts which are currently most critical in terms of career progression and the cause of much heart burn are the posts of the Divisional Railways Manager (DRM) in the Divisions and the General Manager (GM) in the Zones. In terms of triggers for career progression, all other posts are comparatively inconsequential. The powers exercised by these posts go back to a legacy of solitary power wielding positions which in today’s context of a diversifying Indian Railways business, systems thinking and democratic leadership is quite anachronistic. 

The earlier mentioned study proposed the introduction of ex-cadre positions with clearly defined responsibilities and accountability to support the DRMs and GMs at Additional DRM and Additional GM levels, with matrix reporting structures that integrate the Division, Zone and the Railway Board. The creation of these positions and modification in rules would allow for multiple avenues of meaningful career progression. It must be recognised that the future business of Indian Railways requires concerted effort in development of revenue from freight, passenger and real estate among many others. This requires collaborative work and cannot rest on the shoulders of single positions.

Inequitable career progression across various departments in the Indian Railways has been a concern. While equitable career progression cannot be established through the regular cadre posts, reasonable equity can be established through effective distribution of the ex-cadre posts among cadres. To address these issues and many more including building a specialised technical cadre and a transparent and objective performance management system, the strategic Human Resources Development (HRD) function in the Indian Railways needs critical attention which in the new dispensation is now rightfully the mandate of the Chairman of the Indian Railways. The role of the Chairman as CEO and not fettered by the ‘first among equals’ principle augurs well for bold and meaningful transformation.

The Indian Railways is an institution with character and history that has played and continues to play a transformational role for India. There is considerable pride in being an Officer of the Indian Railways and with it comes a sense of service, loyalty and deep camaraderie. Any haphazard attempt to unify cadres may paradoxically prove divisive tearing at the very fabric and ethos of the Indian Railways. Indian Railways has to take guarded steps in its strategic intent.

ajitmathai@mbyom.com; Partner, mByom Consulting & Management Services.

mohanmenon1960@gmail.com; Senior Professor, National Academy of Indian Railways.

The former led the Manpower study commissioned by the Indian Railways in 2015 and the latter was the nodal Officer for the study. The views expressed are those of the authors.

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