Beyond the ballyhoo of the 1.08 lakh crore bullet train project and the much-delayed Dedicated Freight Corridor—two projects being closely monitored by the prime minister’s office (PMO) and facing problems of land acquisition—the 165-year-old Indian Railways has undertaken a more formidable task of rebuilding itself.
While ways and means are being figured out to ensure that the big-ticket projects remain on track, and Prime Minister Narendra Modi has something to show in the run-up to the 2019 general elections, the railways is also working on a long-term project to transform the behemoth into a self-sustaining organisation. The aim is to let the railway board work as a policymaking body and empower the field staff to run the organisation.
On an inspection visit to Dhanad division on November 30, 2017, railway board chairman Ashwani Lohani was informed about problems faced by employees in getting specialised medical treatment as the local railway hospital did not have adequate facilities. The same day, he put out a message on the WhatsApp group—Lohani and 68 divisional railway managers (DRMs) and other senior railway board officers are on it—saying that the power to empanel hospitals must be delegated to the DRMs. That was taken as his authorisation and an official circular was issued the same evening. Such a decision would otherwise have taken months after moving a file. An order over social media would have been considered blasphemous until a few months ago.
Delegation of power to empanel hospitals is just one of the 136 circulars issued by the railways since last October to hasten decision-making and cut red tape. Among other things, DRMs have been given the power to directly accept tenders for contracts up to Rs 50 lakh without constituting a biddingcommittee. For the first time, a model schedule of powers (SOP) has been issued defining the major administrative and financial powers of general managers (GMs) and DRMs. Earlier, all 16 zones had their own SOPs with no uniformity.
Collisions, derailments, collapsing bridges and crumbling infrastructure, adding to fatalities over the years, seem to have shaken the railways into trying to simplify processes and empower the frontline staff. Until a few months ago, they had to wait for a nod from the railway board in Delhi even for spending on INStalling a motor point—a small item vital for safety, it guides trains from one track to another—or bins for stations. With multiple levels involved in decision-making, a go-ahead could take months.
The aim is to let the railway board work as a policymaking body and empower field staff to run the organisation.
“It involved at least nine officials at three levels—division, headquarters (zone) and the railway board,” explains Sudheer Kumar, principal executive director at the transformation cell in the railway board. “At each level, the file was inspected by officials from the finance and executive departments, in addition to the head. Crucial decisions, including the ones impacting rail safety, were delayed. There was an urgent need for reforming the system to fast-track decision-making and cut down interdependencies.” The cell was set up in January 2017 by then railway minister Suresh Prabhu. By the time the decision to delegate powers was taken in October, Piyush Goyal had replaced Prabhu.
Empowerment of GMs, DRMs and other frontline staff was given a push by Lohani. After taking over as chairman in August 2017, he decided to change everything that had caused problems in getting things moving during his stint as DRM of the Delhi division earlier. “Reforms were needed for a long-lasting impact on the organisation’s working. Decisions need to be taken faster and, for that, processes needed to be changed,” he tells Outlook.
And processes have changed. The DRMs on the ground vouch for it. Mukul Mathur, DRM of Waltair division, faced a bridge collapse in October 2017. “This bridge is a lifeline for the iron-ore industry in the region, and a crucial link for the National Mineral Development Corporation (NMDC), Rashtriya Ispat Nigam Ltd (RINL) and also the two ports, Gangavaram and Visakhapatnam,” says Mukul. “We set the target of repairing the bridge in 60 days. It seemed like an impossible task considering the difficult hilly terrain with Naxal presence, but we did it in 58 days. The main reason was the freedom I had as the DRM. The award of contracts was done within two days. We were motivated and committed to meet the deadline.”
The bridge was constructed with an expenditure of just Rs 7 crore by 400 labourers. For his initiative and timely completion, Mukul became one of the three DRMs to get a ‘Change Agent Award’ from the railway board. “When the bridge was commissioned again, I was told that its video was shown to the prime minister, who was pleased by our efforts,” the Waltair DRM says with pride.
Saumya Mathur, DRM of Jaipur division, believes the appreciation they are getting for their work is a great motivating factor. “The direct communication channels that have opened up by way of WhatsApp groups are unimaginable. We are able to convey our smallest of achievement at the highest level. We are congratulated and appreciated instantly,” says Saumya, adding that with responsibility getting linked with the additional power they have got, there is no excuse for not delivering—something the layers of decision-making allowed them earlier.
“Most DRMs had the mindset that they have to finish their two-year tenure with minimum controversy and then move on after the promotion. Not anymore. Now it seems two years is too little for what we can deliver,” says the Jaipur DRM, who believes direct acceptance of tenders up to Rs 50 lakh has been a game-changer. Her division has finalised 77 tenders in 10 months, while the Nagpur division has finalised 85 and Firozpur 53. Firozpur DRM Vivek Kumar says direct acceptance of tenders has been one of the best things to have happened in the railways.
Guntur DRM V.G. Bhooma was working on her PhD from IIT, Madras, on transformational change in public enterprises when she started seeing the changes in the railways. “We have definitely come a long way, but there is still a long way to go,” says Bhooma. “It is happening at three levels—processes, organisational structure and mindset. The first is perhaps easiest to achieve and has picked up pace in the past one year. New powers are being delegated every day and the active churn of feedback is very good.” She also mentions a ‘Good Work Done’ portal on which anyone can put out information on the innovative work they are doing.