Restructuring or bureaucratic overkill?

While reorganising the Railway Board is an unexceptionable step, recasting the recruitment system is problematic

Published - January 29, 2020 12:02 am IST

Representational image.

Representational image.

The Railway Minister’s announcement, in December, in conveying the “historic decision” of the Union Cabinet to restructure the Railway Board, was like the proverbial curate’s egg, good in parts. The proposed changes at the Board level: re-designating the Chairman as Chairman and CEO, reducing the number of Railway Board members excluding the Chairman, from the existing eight to four and rationalising their responsibilities on functional lines and the induction of four members, from outside the Railway hierarchy in an advisory capacity are all, prima facie, unexceptionable. So also, the long overdue upgrading of 27 posts of General Managers to that of Secretary to the Government of India.

A single cadre

The same cannot be said of the breathtakingly audacious proposal to recruit officers/managers to a single service or cadre to be called Indian Railways Management Service (IRMS) for which the Union Public Service Commission (UPSC) will conduct a separate competitive examination — also replacing the existing system of recruitment through the Civil Services Examinations and Engineering Services Examinations into the eight organised services within the Railways (excluding the Medical and Security Departments). A Committee of Secretaries will work out the modalities of implementing the proposal.

The ostensible reason for this “mega merger” is to counter “silo” mentality and inter-departmental rivalries that sometimes adversely impact the working of the Railways. It is unbelievable that this is the consensus solution that emerged after a two-day conclave with more than 1,200 senior managers, to combat departmental rivalries. If there is some method in this proposed “madness”, it is not apparent yet. Meanwhile, it is necessary to disabuse certain impressions created by the Minister’s media briefing and also flag a few troubling questions that the move raises.

The Minister’s assertion that Railway officers are constrained to function within departmental silos right through their service except at the level of the Chairman Railway Board is a bit of a stretch. A majority of Railway managers of all departments serve in one of the 68 operational Divisions of the Railways, particularly during the first 15 to 20 years of their service. So even at present the ethos of coordinated working and a broad exposure to departments other than one’s own is inherent in the system.

Further there are non-silo “general management” posts at various levels, meant specifically to provide interdepartmental coordination such as Additional Divisional Railway Manager, Divisional Railway Manager, Additional General Manager and General Manager, numbering in all about 175, to which officers who have been assessed to have the necessary competence and temperament are appointed. It is out of this cohort of officers that the future Railway Board Members, including the Chairman, emerge.

What is the nature of this beast called inter-departmental rivalry? It is not as though the officers of the various departments are constantly working at cross purposes. In that case the Railways could hardly function. On the contrary, a strong sense of camaraderie and mutual respect, in general, pervades day-to-day working among the various departments. Also departmental rivalry varies amongst departments over a wide range, from the relatively more prevalent, say between the Mechanical and Electrical Departments because of the nature of the functions performed and the turf they cover (which tend to overlap) to almost negligible say between service departments such as Personnel or Stores vis-à-vis other departments. There is also the temporary, situation-specific inter-departmental rivalry, say after a major Railway accident if the cause is not obvious. This usually involves three to four departments directly involved in train operation.

For a malady that significantly afflicts only a few departments is there a justification to overhaul the recruitment procedure, the results of which may become apparent only after more than 25- 30 years, when those recruited through the new scheme reach senior positions? What happens during the intervening period and how will the existing personnel be integrated into the new system?

More questions

The new recruitment procedure appears to target the wrong problem: that of disparity in promotional prospects between departments in a particular recruitment year. It needs emphasising that departmental rivalry is not a seniority problem but domain-related. A longer stint in a particular department or discipline is the basic requirement for developing domain expertise. Being humans not robots, this also generates a sense of allegiance, belonging, ownership, professional pride and loyalty to that department, which in turn could sometimes transform into ‘empire building’. These, and not seniority, are the predominant factors that influence a manager’s outlook or decisions, in the context of departmental rivalry.

The word “silo” usually has a negative connotation implying blinkered vision. The positive side of the same concept is “specialisation” or “domain expertise”. Incidentally, the Ministry has subsequently clarified that the UPSC will be conducting the examination keeping in view the requirements of managers for different services or engineering disciplines (departments). In which case, how does the new system differ from the existing one, except by way of a common recruitment examination?

Is the purpose of the new scheme to create a clone of the Indian Administrative Service within the Railways, with managers flitting across various departments every few years like rolling stones gathering no “inter-departmental rivalry moss” and no expertise either? Who will then man the posts in the Research Designs and Standards Organisation and in the training establishments or function as technical members in accident investigations or in high value tender committees? Is this the grand plan the Minister has in mind for preparing Indian Railway managers to meet the challenges of the future? Questions abound.

A single management cadre cannot make the functions performed by the different departments in the Railways to disappear. Some measure of departmental rivalry will always be there under the best of circumstances and in fact may even be beneficial as a means of “competitive tension”. It is the job of those charged with the coordinating function at various levels to ensure that departmental rivalry does not get out of hand. That it sometimes does is a reflection of the failure of leadership at that level. That is the issue that needs to be addressed. “Silolessness” carried to the extreme can only lead to apathy, neglect and chaos. It is wise to hasten slowly. As a first step, the merger between the Mechanical and Electrical disciplines, already proposed at the apex level, should be implemented down the line.

K. Balakesari, who joined the Indian Railway Service of Mechanical Engineers, was Member Staff, Railway Board

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