Lola Nayar on how social media is helping railway minister Suresh Prabhu refurbish the image of the Indian Railways
Attempts for an image makeover can be a tough task but for more than a year, railway minister Suresh Prabhu has been striving to do just that through faster redressal of passenger complaints, using a range of social media tools such as Twitter, Facebook and WhatsApp.
Apart from over 2.5 lakh telephone calls made daily to travelling passengers to get the feedback, on an average the railway ministry receives over 6,000 social media messages—mostly complaints, including many with pictures. Sometimes, there is also an SOS for help from unwell passengers needing medical aid or even women facing sexual harassment from unruly co-passengers, or children lost on the train or at the stations, or hungry youngsters on trains running behind schedule.
“Anything to do with railways has to be as fast. So if someone is going to make a complaint, I cannot tell him, as in the old days, to go to the railway station and lodge a complaint…. If you are very lucky, you will find someone there who would be willing to write a complaint. If you are still lucky, someone will read the complaint, and if you are still luckier someone will actually act on the complaint,” said Prabhu, receiving on behalf of the Indian Railways the first Lloyd Outlook Social Media Award for public service department of the year.
The railway minister believes it is more important to solve the passengers’ problems “while they are still on the train” and not several months later, as was the norm in the past. Issues like cleanliness in a compartment, washroom or restroom have to be dealt with then and there as they impinge on passengers’ comfort. While many trains may continue to run behind schedule, Prabhu has gained the reputation of being a stickler for grievance redressal at the earliest—within 15 minutes action has to be initiated and the problem resolved at the next station. According to the minister, the railways is putting into practice not just delegation of powers—general managers have been empowered to decide on tenders without any ministerial interference—but also responsibilities. Clearly defined duties have been assigned and the person concerned is answerable if found lacking in taking prompt action. In fact, following repeated complaints from one passenger about the unattended wet floor at a station, a directive has been issued that there has to be photo proof after such complaints have been attended to.
The buzz is that the threat of sending a video clipping to the minister has become an effective deterrent against railway employees seeking bribe following quick disciplinary action in one such case after the complainant sent a video clipping.
“All these (quick action on grievances and passenger feedback in real time) are being made possible due to technology…and a change in outlook,” said Prabhu, adding that social media has given more power in the hands of people, who no longer have to wait for five years to express their grievance (during elections).
Given the deluge of social media messages, particularly Twitter messages, the railway ministry now has a dedicated team attending to the messages on a daily basis. The team uses the different handles to assign the responsibilities to the right quarters, which ensures there is no passing of the buck.
Prabhu revealed that the railways were now using the “complaints as a useful management information system”. In that, if there are constant complaints coming from a particular location, “then there is something wrong with the geography, or if there are constant complaints about a function, it means there is a functional defaulter, which means we have to take action. Now, the tweeters are helping us go to the next level of using it as a management tool.”
The social media thrust, including use of YouTube and Instagram to help people do away with the need to write out complaints, comes alongside efforts to upgrade the railway stations by providing many of them with WiFi facilities. Some express trains like Shatabdi and Rajdhani are also to be provided this facility. Since last year, the railways have introduced helpline number 138 for general complaints and number 189 for security to provide prompt help anywhere on its vast network.