Zones of contention

Print edition : July 20, 2002

A major round of organisational changes in the Indian Railways initiated by Minister Nitish Kumar brings forth a spectrum of political reactions.

CONSTRAINED by the funds crunch within his Ministry and the prevailing orthodoxy about market oriented reforms, Nitish Kumar has not had much opportunity to enliven his year-long tenure as Union Minister for Railways - his second in four years - with creative administrative forays. The events that have followed his recent notification of major organisational changes in the Railways, however, have offered him a surfeit of excitement.

On June 14, dusting up a part of the proposal mooted in Ram Vilas Paswan's Railway Budget of 1996, Nitish Kumar announced the formation of two new railway zones - East Central Railways based at Hajipur and North Western Railways in Jaipur. These zonal entities are scheduled to become operational by October 1. There was no explanation of why Paswan's proposal to create six new zones had been pared down to the relatively modest figure of two. But as the controversy began to burgeon, Nitish Kumar moved swiftly to buttress his defences. On July 4, he announced that five more zones would be created, to be operational by April 1 next year: East Coast Railways based in Bhubaneswar, South Western Railways in Hubli, West Central Railways at Jabalpur, North Central Railways in Allahabad and South East Central Railways in Bilaspur.

Railway Minister Nitish Kumar and Minister of State O. Rajagopal.-M. LAKSHMAN

Between the two announcements, Nitish Kumar had to contend with a spectrum of political reactions. Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, Chief Minister of West Bengal, deprecated the move to carve out the new zones, arguing that it would impair operational efficiencies, dislocate personnel and generate a welter of conflicting regional demands on an invaluable national asset. Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot, in contrast, welcomed the decentralisation of the Railways' operational management and applauded the emphasis on efficiency that this seemed to suggest. The Bihar government reacted likewise, while Orissa Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik queried the Central government over the delay in notifying the other zones proposed in 1996.

Perhaps the most hostile reaction came from Trinamul Congress leader Mamata Banerjee, Nitish Kumar's predecessor as Railway Minister. Banerjee has never made a secret of her belief that the portfolio she abandoned in a strategically miscued decision to distance herself from the National Democratic Alliance prior to last year's Assembly elections, belongs to her by right. Claiming that West Bengal's interests had been damaged by the decision to split the Kolkata-based Eastern Railways two ways, Banerjee demanded that the decision be reversed.

Banerjee's reward was the July 4 notification, which among other things, split the Kolkata-based South-Eastern Railways three ways. Coupled with the loss of three divisions to the East Central Railways, Kolkata now had to confront the prospective loss of another four divisions to the East Coast and South East Central Railways. But in the process, against the solitary resistance of West Bengal, Nitish Kumar managed to broaden his supporting cast - till then confined to Bihar and Rajasthan - to seven States.

Murmurs were later heard about how the Minister had ensured the support of Andhra Pradesh by retaining the traffic-heavy Guntakal division within the Secunderabad-based South Central Railways. A credible case for transferring Guntakal to the proposed South Western Railways was rebuffed, and two new divisions - Nanded and Guntur - were created under the jurisdiction of the South Central Railways, to compensate partly for the loss of Hubli division.

Concurrent with the announcement of five new zones on July 4, eight divisions were notified, all of them to be operational by April 1, 2003. These are to be based at Nanded, Guntur, Agra, Raipur, Ranchi, Pune, Ahmedabad and Rangiya in the north-east. The final outcome of these organisational changes in terms of operational efficiencies and public service remains to be seen. But its immediate result has been to create a web of largely convergent and partly conflicting political interests. Since West Bengal remains fairly isolated in its unequivocal opposition to the proposed changes, by mid-July it was a fair bet that Nitish Kumar would have his way. There was no respite, however, in his schedule of receiving delegations arguing the cases for and against the reorganisation.

Subhash Chakravarti, the West Bengal Transport Minister, led a delegation of legislators and parliamentarians to the Railway Minister on July 9. The meeting was by all accounts marked by a fairly civil exchange of views, since the delegation, which did not include any Trinamul Congress members, was keen to avoid the tone of intemperateness that Mamata Banerjee had set. In Kolkata, Chief Minister Bhattacharjee emphasised that his interest was in ensuring that the Railways did not fall prey to petty regional interests, since its operational parameters, as also its role in integrating a far-flung country, needed to be protected. The issue, he was at pains to emphasise, was not one of West Bengal against Bihar.

A few days later though, the Bihar government sent its own delegation to urge the Railway Minister to stand firm. The creation of a zonal headquarters in Hajipur, the delegation argued, would bring immense economic benefits to Bihar.

West Bengal Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee.-A. ROY CHOWDHURY

Nitish Kumar for his part was insistent that there would be little adverse consequence for the economic interests of any State. Rather, by decentralising the management of the Railways and providing a sharper focus to neglected regions, the reorganisation would benefit all States uniformly. In concurrent clarifications, officials pointed out that the Railway Reforms Commission had, as far back as in 1984, recommended the creation of four new zones. This proposal had remained unimplemented, and the vast increase in the traffic burden of the Railways since then, now made seven new zones appropriate.

Faced with the threat of an agitation by Banerjee, Nitish Kumar vaguely promised that the matter would be sorted out by an informal Cabinet committee comprising the big three - Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee, Deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani and Defence Minister George Fernandes. But as the tentative deadline for a resolution passed, the issue continued to hang fire. Nitish Kumar was evidently working on the belief that Banerjee could never make common cause with the Left Front government of West Bengal. And that would render the protests from that quarter ever more feeble in the face of the strong endorsement received from other States.

Although few people doubt now that the reorganisation will go through, experts are unconvinced about its operational and economic benefits. The basic focus of operational responsibility in the Railways is the divisional office, of which there are currently 59 distributed across eight zonal jurisdictions. By April next year, the numbers would change to 67 divisions distributed between 15 zones. Most seasoned observers are convinced that even if new divisions were to be created in the interests of operational efficiency, they could be retained within existing zonal jurisdictions, without in any way impairing the zonal office's function of oversight and coordination.

Railway officials counter with the argument that the expenditure involved in the creation of the seven new zones will, aside from the Rs.80 crores already committed, be no more than Rs.300 crores. And when future operational efficiencies are factored in, this investment would more than pay for itself.

Trinamul Congress leader Mamata Banerjee.-DESHKALYAN CHOWDHURY

Experts who have followed the working of the system closely would be prepared to concede the case were the Railways not in a parlous financial state, with its reserve funds virtually depleted. Aside from the funds involved, they say, the creation of seven new zones speaks of misplaced priorities and the vulnerability of the system to political demands. Some of these aspects have been on display in recent times in the jockeying between Bangalore and Hubli, which were both contenders for the location of the South Western Railways.

In 1996, the prize was awarded to Bangalore, but persistent litigation by the citizens of Hubli ensured that the project never got off the ground. Following the political change at the Centre in 1998, the new administration bestowed its favour on Hubli, which in turn brought out the litigative zeal of the citizens of Bangalore. It took a Supreme Court decision in 2001 finally to free the Railway Ministry from the fetters of judicial scrutiny. But nobody is quite certain how the reported expenditure of Rs.12.77 crores on the South Western Railways has been deployed - whether it is in Bangalore or in Hubli.

Officials of the Railway Board now insist that the assets created under the aborted programme continue to have their utility, since Bangalore remains a major divisional headquarters.

The Railway Budget documents record that investments have over the last few years been going into the creation of a new division based at Singrauli. And though no investments have been made for Nanded and none allocated in the Budget for 2002-03, it is not Singrauli but Nanded that features in the list of new divisions.

I.I.M.S. Rana, Chairman of the Railway Board, points out that the decision to set up a divisional office at Nanded had been taken as far back as January 1986, following which the budgetary allocation for the purpose had been spent. But the formal notification was delayed for various reasons. Now with that hurdle being cleared, the division would be off and running without any further delay or expense.

Rana is at pains to emphasise that these minor anomalies are unavoidable in the vast enterprise that is the Indian Railways. But if the organisational changes now proposed were to contribute even to a one per cent increase in operational efficiencies, he argues, they would be more than justified.

The professional cadres that run the Indian Railways are resigned to making the best of the situation they find themselves in. It is nevertheless a fact that their judgment of priorities is often at variance with the demands placed upon them by politics. And it is a further curiosity that once retirement frees them from the calculus of promotion and security, they become fairly trenchant critics of meddlesome politics. Few of the recent incumbents in the Railway Board, who after retirement have established themselves as influential commentators and analysts, have found anything positive to say about the organisational changes proposed. Without in any way breaking the solidarity of the Railways guild by calling into question their judgment, the current incumbents in the Railway Board believe that they are obliged to defend the new measures with absolute, if simulated ardour.

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