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Hajipurisation of Indian Railways

Excerpts from an open letter from retired chairmen, Indian Railways Board, to the Prime Minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee, and the Deputy Prime Minister, L. K. Advani.

THE WORLD still reels with the tremors of balkanisation of Europe. The balkanisation of Indian Railways (IR), inherent in the scheme for new rail zones, will have an equally devastating impact on the system.

The pivot of the new rail zones scheme lies in the rail headquarter envisaged at Hajipur, a place in the middle of nowhere on the IR network.

Hajipur sent one of its illustrious citizens to the Rail Bhavan in New Delhi to take over as Hon'ble Minister of Railways, with a total expertise of the world's biggest railway network no more than that of any of the trillions of passengers whom IR ferry on the network. Within three weeks of his stewardship of as complex and as gigantic an undertaking as IR, he gave directions to seek an improvement in the working efficiency of the system, by creating a zonal headquarter at Hajipur.

In 1948, under the stewardship of N. Gopalaswamy Ayyangar, as many as 42 railway systems, then operating in the country, including 13 class I and 10 class II railways, were taken up for reorganisation. Since then, over the past 50 years, only three new zones have been added, one for strategic reasons (Northeast Frontier Railway), the other two for operational reasons arising out of an avalanche of traffic growth, none on linguistic or political consideration. When freight traffic on IR registered a massive growth over two years (1984-86) and around the same time Railway Reforms Committee recommended four extra zones for operational reasons, the Rail Ministry treaded cautiously, in view of the serious financial and other implications of creating new zones.

Precarious financial health

If anything, IR's financial health today is a cause of serious concern.The IR has the dubious distinction of carrying on its rolls world's largest manpower under a single management.

Today, the salary bill along with pension accounts for as much as 60 per cent of IR's total earnings, thus leaving a paltry 40 per cent of revenues to take care of all other expenses.Paradoxically, this objective is sought to be achieved by saddling the system with enormous additional and avoidable expense of thousands of crores of rupees for additional manpower and infrastructure for the proposed new zones.

The step taken by the Minister is inconceivable more so in the context of modern day bourgeoning communications and business conglomerates coming on the scene. The operations of IR have been rationalised, technology upgraded, and infrastructure improved.

Voices of dissent and disapproval

The Comptroller and Auditor General has questioned the wisdom of this move to carve out new zones. The Standing Committee of Parliament on Railways as well as the Railway Convention Committee are not in favour. The IR management cadres and trade unions have expressed strongly against the move. The expert committee constituted by the Railway Minister remarked that the idea of creating new zones is of 'dubious merit'. We are indeed surprised that the Railway Minister, Nitish Kumar, who seemed to have read the writing on the wall even in 1998, when he submitted his status paper on IR, is now seen to be rushing this proposal through.

The East Coast Railway will comprise Khurda Road, Waltair and Sambalpur divisions of South Eastern Railway. Till the other day, the territory of Sambalpur division was part of the Waltair division. So, two divisions and another truncated division are enough to create a new zone.

Likewise, Bilaspur and Nagpur divisions of SE Railway will essentially make the new South East Central Zone. The third missing leg of the stool will be provided by sandwitching a new division at Raipur, thereby providing an additional division together with a new zonal headquarter for the newly created State of Chhattisgarh.

The three most important IR corridors are: Kolkata-Delhi; Mumbai-Delhi on Western Railway and Mumbai-Delhi on Central Railway. These three corridors command the maximum relevance not only for the economic and industrial well being of the country but also have a strategic importance. The two Mumbai-Delhi routes link the country's financial capital with the national capital. These time-tested operational networks are now sought to be ruptured by the creation of the headquarter of a zone at Allahabad. This will tantamount to a stab in the very heart.

The erstwhile East India Railway developed Grand Chord for the evacuation of coal from coalfields in the eastern part of the country to the industries of the North and the West. The Grand Chord is by far the heaviest worked rail route.

`Hajipurisation' will have the most debilitating effect on this core sector of IR network. The Grand Chord starts from the heart of the coalfields and culminates in Mughalsarai, the biggest interchange point of India and Asia. The incalculable operational damage will ensue with the creation of a new zonal headquarter each at Hajipur and Allahabad. The loss of operational efficiency, in terms of monetary value, will far outstrip a few thousand crores estimated in additional staff costs and on infrastructure.

Sir, we are at the twilight of our lives. We have spent our life-time and toiled for IR during the challenging years of its growth. It pains us to learn that IR, of late, is falling prey to populism, detrimental to the health and growth of this great organisation, its workforce and the economy.

The decision to create new railway zones, starting with the dubious Hajipur experiment, is, in our considered judgment, clearly a populist, parochial and political overture. We are convinced that the creation of new zones will be an operational debacle, a financial disaster, and an administrative blunder.

The enormity of the crisis that looms large over IR has prompted us to place before you our considered views. We have the highest regard and respect for you, Sir. We would not like to see you preside over the 'Hajipurisation' of Indian Railways.

The least that this organisation deserves is a review by a committee of independent experts headed by a transport economist of international stature and members from allied disciplines, who can examine the entire issue on merits without parochial considerations.

In our opinion, purely from consideration of sound management and operational efficiency, there is a case for reduction in the number of zonal rail headquarters.

With deep personal regards, we remain,

Sd/- Kripal Singh, M. N. Bery, M. S. Gujral, M. N. Prasad, and Y. P. Anand

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