New rly zones, more populistic than pragmatic

NEW DELHI JULY 3. The creation of new railway zones has never remained free from controversies. Though the main considerations for the reorganisation have been operational efficiency, economy, inter-dependence of contiguous regions and natural flow of traffic, these parameters have been of little use as successive Railway Ministers have shown the tendency to succumb to political pressures and populist considerations.

At present divided into nine zones — Central, Eastern, Northern, North-Eastern, Northeast Frontier, Southern, South Central, South Eastern and Western — the need for further reorganisation of the Railways was felt about a decade ago.

The Railway Reforms Committee (RRC) in its 1984 report had favoured rationalisation of the zones and divisions and had opined that four additional zones were needed.

A decision was taken in 1996 for the creation of six new zones followed by the seventh in 1998. The 1984 recommendations remained unimplemented till 1996 on account of financial stringency. The Comptroller and Auditor General also called for reconsideration of the decision to create new zones and division from the point of view of financial viability.

The Standing Committee of Parliament on Railways advocated a phased approach to the creation of zones on the basis of workload, efficiency and effective management. The Railway Convention Committee said the money ``wasted'' on such work could have been utilised for procuring rolling stock, renewing lines, etc. The management cadres as well as staff federations too expressed themselves against the new zones and divisions.

The Rakesh Mohan committee considered the decision to create additional zones to be of dubious merit.

At its meeting on November 13 last year, the Railway Board favoured setting up of a high-powered committee to review the priority and the timeframe for such work in future. The Board said the Railways was not in a position to act fast in forming the new zones because of the financial crunch and strong reservations expressed by Parliamentary committees dealing with railway financing and policy.

The Board had also pointed out that the latest developments in information technology could profit the Railways immensely and freight operations could become more centralised, taking away much of the relevance for new zones.

Officials in the Rail Bhawan feared that it would be ``very difficult'' for the Railway Ministry to stand up to the pressure from various quarters for not going ahead with the notification of five other zones. The notification of Hajipur and Jaipur as headquarters of the East Central Railway and the North Western Railway respectively was issued on June 14.

The East Central Railway would have jurisdiction over the existing Sonpur and Samastipur division of the North-Eastern Railway and also gobble up the profit-making Danapur, Mughalsarai and Dhanbad Divisions of the Eastern Railway, which would be left only with Asansol, Howrah, Sealdah and Malda.

Officials pointed out that the Eastern Railway had an operating ratio of about 120 per cent at present, which was likely to plunge to 250 per cent. It would mean that to earn Rs. 100 in a year, the Railways would need to spend Rs. 250, taking the Eastern Railways deep into the red.

Sources visualised serious problems of coordination and operation in smaller zones apart from the financial drain it was likely to cause by way of setting up of infrastructure and administrative apparatus.

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