If defining borders of one small railway division can inflame passions, how are we going to handle more complex issues?

Our country is perhaps unique in that the Prime Minister has to personally intervene to arrive at an amicable settlement about the contours of an administrative entity of its railways. The proposed formation of a railway division with Salem as headquarters has stoked an interstate row about its jurisdictional boundaries.

The issue has been sorted out, at least for the time being, by a settlement that has been hailed with much fanfare. The solution? Compensate the Palakkad Division for the “loss” of territory by attaching a small length of metre gauge track of the Madurai Division so that the length of track in the residual Palakkad Division marginally exceeds that of the new Salem Division. Neat, but utterly irrational!

It is not my intention to discuss the merits of this decision — merit, rationale, administrative necessity and suchlike have long ceased to be decisive factors in decisions involving the Railways. I would only like to highlight the total irrelevance of the controversy.

Freight transportation on the Railways is not constrained by the boundaries of linguistic States. On the other hand it depends very much on traffic flows, which again is based on locations of raw materials/finished products and the manufacturing/consumption centres. Long distance passenger traffic flow is pan-Indian.

In these circumstances, railway zones and divisions usually span more than one State and their jurisdictional boundaries should not normally be the concern of the public. They may be of some relevance to railway staff at lower levels from the point of view of education of their wards.

Railways’ finances are totally separated from those of the States. Whether a particular railway division earns or loses revenue does not affect the State directly in any way. The earnings of all the 70-odd divisions of the Railways flow into the Consolidated Fund of India. Railway projects of any major size are sanctioned at the Railway Board level. Allocations are made for various projects through annual budgets based on priorities. The language of a State is not a consideration. On the other hand, need for balanced growth is an important criterion.

Elaborate consultative machinery in the form of divisional, zonal and ministry-level users consultative committees is available to take cognizance of demands and interests of various States and regions. Besides, detailed consultations are held by the Minister personally with Members of Parliament of individual States before deciding major projects to be included in the Railway budget.

Middle and higher level managers on the Railways, drawn from all over the country, belong to all-India cadres. They are not conditioned to think in terms of State boundaries. Many of us who were privileged to serve in positions of responsibility in the Railways recall with great pride, nostalgia and fondness that some of our best and productive assignments were in locations far removed from our so-called ‘home States.’

In fact, for short periods, those places had virtually become our home. Our decisions were never coloured by narrow regional considerations. Our championing the cause of railway systems or rail users in those areas was no less vigorous just because we hailed from a “foreign” State.

The Railways are perhaps one of the few unifying public institutions in the country not yet infected by the linguistic virus. Controversies of the Salem Division variety and their knee-jerk solutions can only hasten the end of that precious and precarious status. Do we want to convert the Indian Railways into a Federation of Railways of Indian States?

Finally, a point to ponder for our leaders and opinion makers.

If defining the borders of one small railway division can inflame passions to superheat levels, how are we going to handle the more complex issues arising out of sharing of river waters if and when the major rivers are interlinked, crossing half a dozen States? If we are incapable of dealing with such issues except through the prism of regionalism and linguistic pride, let us at least save lakhs of crores of rupees that will surely go down the Ganga and the Cauvery and instead spend that money more productively on education and healthcare.

(The writer is former Member, Railway Board. He can be reached at balakesari@hotmail.com)