I found a letter where an IRSE officer describes the deteriorating condition of working in railways. My intention has been to put everything available with me on the table. This article is all about the problems faced by young officers of railways in the filed. This not the whole picture, it primarily represents one department working in open line. You shouldn’t make your judgement just on the basis of one or two articles. Every jobs has its pros and cons. Today it’s the turn of presenting cons before you, after all world is not the bed of roses.
This letter is an effort to save Indian Railways from the misdirected policies and practices that have crept into daily operations of Railways. This is not an effort to malign the much revered institution in any way, but to highlight the shortcomings and the plight of faceless field staff, who are putting their blood into the system. Nor is it an attempt to run away from responsibilities. We are a dedicated and concerned lot who takes pride in being part of the organisation and in what we do.
We will be focussing only on the spine of Indian Railways, i.e. Engineering Department, which is suffering the most amongst all the departments. That doesn’t mean other departments enjoy comfortable working as they too suffer different type of disabilities. But Engineering being one of the oldest departments and being the custodian of huge Indian Railways assets deserves to be heard first and foremost.
Mostly the problems concern with the field level because it is the level where most of the Engineering Department’s activities are performed. But first, we want you to please note a few details about three main actors involved at the field level, viz, the Track Maintainer, the PWI, and the ADEN.
Track Maintainer (Trackman)
He goes about performing his duty starting his day at around 06:00. At times he travels 10-15 Km. to get to his place of work, to and fro. He returns by 07:00 – 08:00 in the evening. Still he’s a proud worker and loves what he does.
At Group D level, a trackman does far more hard labour than any other employee among all departments. There have been many cases where a trackman has prevented some serious accidents because he is the one who is out there on track in extreme weather conditions to ensure safe running of trains but is not paid even a single extra penny for that. For him overtime allowance exists only on paper, if at all. In the current scenario when trains are running at over 120 Kmph, the job of trackmen has become more important as well as risky. Cases of trackmen being run over by train or getting severely injured are very common.
Senior Section Engineer – Pway (PWI)
He wakes up latest by 06:00 in the morning, prepare distribution of work for about 200 Trackmen under him by 07:30, goes on with his daily work by 08:00, work till 7, 8 sometimes 11:00 in the night. This, he has to do 7 days a week, 365 days of a year, 35 years of his service. He is directly responsible for safety of track as well any activity that happens in his section. In the age of mechanisation when workforce is getting reduced on one hand and not able to provide adequate machineries and equipment on the other, PWI is asked to increase efficiency of work with the same set of old-age and condemned equipment and scarce Pway material. His main strength is the trackman who is expected to do serious physical labour. Making his task difficult are the trackmen of today, with graduate and post graduate qualifications, having serious problem with physical labour.
He hardly gets (or takes) any leave. He has to work in night soil and muck dropped all over the places. He’s the coordinator of all field activities concerning all the other departments. He also has to share his staff with other departments for their associated work; which he does without any qualms. A PWI represents all other field staff of railways. He has to work with multiple bosses, contractors, gang staff, other departments, state authorities, towards fulfilling his duty.
The post of ADEN is considered to be the most charismatic post in Indian railways. Once, with staff under him numbering over 1000, what cannot be achieved if he decides? He is the creator of huge infrastructure of railways which catches anybody’s imagination. Big vintage bungalow adds to his aura. He is the leader of his team, consisting PWI’s, IOW’s and trackmen, and the sole authority on field for what is to be and not to be. An ADEN is the flag bearer of his sub-division. Other departments and HQ’s expect a lot from him. He is the man to go in case of urgency/ emergency.
Today’s state is as follows. With over 30-40% vacancies, most of the specialised posts being surrendered, decaying works cadre and staff, office staff remaining a third of what it was, contractor agencies getting unduly favoured, with punitive powers gone, with the traffic and no. of activities multiplied manifolds, the ADEN has become a mere shadow of his prime. Combined with detached attitude from the HQ it is becoming increasingly difficult to carry out duties. With increased expectations, same old methods and punishment oriented approach is expected to work, not realising times have changed since they were at the field and needing different strategies. It is not our intention to revive the institution of ADEN as it was but to highlight the poor conditions which will definitely lead to disaster if timely action is not taken.
With this background we would now like to raise issues being faced by railways needing urgent attention.
- Detached HQ
It is for your information Sir, being posted as an ADEN is the most challenging time an IRSE has to face. Unfortunately as officers go higher up they forget how work used to be carried out when they were ADEN. Please compare following facts with 15 years ago. The number of staff, the variety of staff, the number of office supervisors and draughtsman, the quantum of traffic, the frequency of trains, the number of activities one had to deal at a time, the nature of workforce, the demand from the system and the kind of discipline that existed. All of it has changed, and changed drastically. Earlier there was higher tolerance for accidents and reporting was very less. Now even a minor incident travels at lightning speed to every nook and corner of the country. Orders conveying strong message are issued in minutes. Today it is said that we have stronger track structure and you don’t need men as you now have machines. But it is a false assumption. Agreed that Track structure has improved, but so has the traffic which has become more than thrice. So has the speed. So has the number of trains. There is acute scarcity of material and machines, and blocks/ caution-orders for maintenance not available, compromising safety.
Please look into how many machines are there, zone wise. Are they sufficient to meet maintenance requirements of track as per schedule? Is sufficient/proper block time is given for their working? Are proper speed restrictions being imposed as per manual? Answers would be unsatisfactory, missing the theory by miles! Day by day the responsibility for owing up to failures is being shifted upwards. ‘Hang the ADEN, which will give a strong message’. Dear Sir, what kind of a system is this which is more interested in sending a message rather than solving the problem. The unfortunate ground reality is that it will not bring an iota of change to the field staff, as they are already overburdened to have time to fear. But yes it does send a message to that field staff, that one does not have any support from the HQ. You are on your own. It’s better to not do the work, or do it on paper and relax, because there’s an equal cost to doing or not doing the work.
As for the ADEN, he already has a written schedule of inspection of 45 days which he has to complete in 30 days. Add to it the multifarious activities, shrinking staff, unruly staff and supervisors, increasing interference from Unions in daily working, absence of works cadre, no authority to punish for wrongdoing, no authority to take important decisions which has been usurped by HQ’s, no assistance in office work, non-cooperative departments in a maddening race to prove their superiority over others, burden of reporting to anybody and everybody senior to you that too instantly, ever-increasing protocol duties towards seniors with whom he and his team has to accompany without a choice. In addition he has to liaison with state authorities, do variety of Surveys, prepare designs/drawings, and send reports/data in a variety of formats. In such a scenario how can one have a family life or a holiday or have time for himself?
ADEN has to do his night inspections either as part of schedule or as part of surprise inspection. Such inspections are done after working for a full day. After the night inspection if he sleeps at 05:00 in the morning there is no time for rest as the phone calls invariably start by 07:00 Hrs. and a full day starts again. Despite the poor state of affairs, focus is put more on how things look rather than how efficiently trains are run. A misplaced priority please.
- Scarcity of Funds
Railways need money. Money to build infrastructure, build capabilities, to provide quality services, to provide variety of services, to build up workforce, to maintain assets, etc. With great past record Railways is now focussing on quality. We are making our stations and coaches cleaner and services better. But we are forgetting the hands that are bringing these changes on field. They are still living in dilapidated houses and surroundings, with rudimentary water and electricity supplies. Spending on quarters and facilities is never justified. How are we supposed to bring change on ground without changing the mentality of staff and improving their living conditions?
Dr. Anil Kakodkar headed High Level Safety Review Committee noted in its report that the ‘present environment on Indian Railways reveals a grim picture of inadequate performance’ largely due to poor infrastructure and resources, and lack of empowerment at the functional level. It has given several recommendations having no financial implications to empower the functional levels and to simplify processes and procedures to deal with this negative feature. IR has to be energized with a new type of work culture, it further stated.
- Misdirected Policies
Through this letter we want to help explore where the bloodline of India is heading. What is the purpose of this service? Is it social service? Is it profit making? Is it capacity building? Be an efficient and punctual mode of transport? Or for building infrastructure? Surely it is all of the above. But what are our priorities? Do we want to earn more disregarding the safety of passengers? Priorities must be decided at your level sir. At ground level it is now understood that Punctuality is inviolable, even more than Safety. We are literally forced to beg in front of Operating staff and Controllers to let us do our job. We are forced to impose emergencies due to things not getting addressed by usual channels, and rectifying the same within shortest time and unusual hours.
Or is it to push ground staffs to the extent that they get all the poor lifestyle diseases or even die because of them? Sir, ask any railway doctor, he will tell you railway employees overburden. Every second person is having sugar or BP or both. This is the nature of job they have to perform, without questioning the authority. Many employees have actually died early of lifestyle diseases, especially those who have spent the bulk of their carrier on field.
Railways is a discipline oriented organisation. In practical terms abuses are hurled every minute on the field. It is impossible to do job without abuses and charge sheets, bringing us to point out misdirected policy in recruitment.
The workforce is overqualified for the job. With respect to the current working, a Trackman should have 10th pass as the maximum qualification. Today we have M.Com’s, MCA’s, MBA’s, etc. as the new generation of Trackman. Many of them are here only because they need a job, not because they like the nature of job. It is hard to expect them to work in muck, and do manual labour. And of what use is the education which is used for making excuses for not doing work or to reply back to the supervisors. We’re sorry to say this Sir, but this policy is burdening the system with useless hands.
Along with the overqualified staff the induction of female workers for trackman job is difficult to realise on the field as it requires hard manual labour. Most of the times they either can’t do such work or pressure is put on open line supervisors to give them office jobs. Holding nothing against female workforce, the induction of women as trackman needs to be reviewed.
Third is the issue of vacancies. We have to wait for vacancy to go up to 30-40%, which when filled up never reaches 100%. Dear Sir, we are performing a job of safety. We can’t afford to have any vacancy. Vacancy is infringing with safety, and the field staff had to bear the additional burden of work for years. This is valid especially after the downsizing of the organisation and unreasonable burden put by successive Pay Commissions and Finance. A good number of overqualified new recruitees leave the organisation, or go to other departments, or remain in place with distaste for the job.
Fourth, due to downsizing various specialised and critical posts vanished from the organisation. Ideally those functions should also be eliminated. Not surprisingly, it did not happen. Artisan staff is almost gone. Onus lies with the Supervisors to train available staff for the artisans job, arrange tools for them, and carry out all the functions as smoothly as it was ever used to be. Works cadre is almost destroyed, as with shortage of staff, poor recruitment of supervisors, apathy from HQ and a variety of poor contractors, contributing to its obsolescence. Finance wing being more interested in surrendering posts every year without logic, not realising the importance of a Valveman or Safaiwala in the system.
Fifth is the policy of easy promotions for Supervisors. Earlier it took decades for Supervisors to reach SSE level. By putting this fact we want to convey that SSE’s in Indian Railways are equipped with immense experience and act as the storehouse of institutional memory. The whole system is pretty much dependent on this level. But now anybody and everybody is getting promoted to the SSE level, without possessing requisite technical knowledge. The problem is going to become worse in the coming years when good quality supervisors will be hard to find. It is one thing to give financial upgradation, but totally different to expect to work like an experienced supervisor. The fact is usually overlooked in practise and the burden is borne by others.
Sixth, pampering Unions and not following up. Unions are becoming dominating at field level, especially on Personnel matters. It is not conducive for smooth running of administration as the impact is borne by field staff. You also loose the power to enforce discipline. They have done a good job in bringing a once a week assured rest order for supervisors. Such a rest should be there for In-charge and ADEN too. A pressure job like this needs timely rest.
Seventh, with time new lines are opened, new assets created, new activities started. As if there was surplus staff available at field, they are invariably diverted or assigned additional duties without diluting current responsibilities. Sir, please acknowledge that Railways is not just like any other Govt. establishment where field staff can be diverted or responsibilities can be diluted without much loss to administration’s working. Field staff here is associated with Safety, and these staffs work day and night, with concentration and hard labour. The cost of diluting current responsibilities is very high, which can prove to be disastrous. With Zero Accident Mission in place, patrolling is now usually done throughout the year as each season has a critical effect on track behaviour. Patrolling by current staff is having the most prominent effect on the maintenance of track as the staff is not available for the same during times of patrolling.
Eight, the categorisation of all Gang staff into Track Maintainer I, II, III, IV and lack of clarity on practical issues has led to disruption in the control over gang units. Due to Restructuring, TM automatically getting promoted to higher grade pay and hence refusing to take on the responsibility of Mate. Otherwise they give refusal to higher grade pay to take benefit of LARSGESS scheme. Either way proper Mate cannot be assigned to a unit and hence there is the problem of control. Also, employees coming via LARSGESS got the job without facing any competition; hence don’t know the value of their job or many times lack sincerity.
- Scarcity of Material
It flows directly from scarcity of funds. At times, conditions become so bad that we have to compromise safety. At many places you would find material have deteriorated to such an extent resulting in poor riding quality and requiring replacement soon. Yet HQ would frown upon as if it is asked for personal reasons. They mind it very much if you ask for it in writing, and further repercussions. It is hard to put speed restrictions or stop traffic. All this can be avoided if we have sufficient stock of materials. Timely replacement of assets is vital to ensure safety of trains. Most of the time replacement is sanctioned after the asset has crossed its life as per code, when a higher official notices it and ask for the replacement. In the meanwhile if something happens, the onus lies on field staff for not imposing speed restriction or stopping traffic.
- Scarcity of Labour
Shortage of departmental labour is dealt above. It is said that now there are numerous agencies available at field level. Practically, more often than not it is the same agency who has taken multiple contracts in a Division/Zone. And it is beyond their capacity to increase labour, being the costliest item in any work. Plus there are not many ways to force an agency to do exactly as it is required. High level of supervision is required to ensure quality. One can’t go on terminating private players as there are not many. It is a technical field and requires huge capital backing. Even if this point is disregarded, agencies don’t want to go beyond stations or work at odd hours. And thus we can’t rely on them in case of emergencies. For this reason we require a strong and dedicated departmental workforce, and hence is the demand.
- Scarcity of Machines
Point already elaborated earlier. It can only be addressed if problem of funding is dealt with. It is not possible to do what is required with current stock and condition. Requirement wise analysis needs to be done and procurement to be done at the earliest.
- Situation of Offices
The on-field offices of railway employees are in shambles. Money demanded for necessary spending is rejected-not-justified. Daily activities are asked to be carried out with meagre imprest. The number of Office Supervisors has reduced a lot. Experienced one’s are retiring, new one’s are either not interested or not able to do it all in the world of ever increasing reporting and compliances, and the quantum of work. Old ones are unable to cope with new information age of computers and smartphones. HQs don’t pay heed and the burden of reporting is borne by the field offices and officers like ADEN, ADSTE, ADEE, etc.
- Abusive Environment
Unfortunately Railways has become an organisation where if you don’t look strong you are labelled ineffective. Concepts like team building, synergy, counselling and appreciation just don’t exist. It might have been possible in the past when the Trackmen were not too much qualified and discipline was held sacrosanct, and line of command used to work perfectly. Not in today’s time, when everyone is well learned, and has options beyond a meagre paying job. They are more concerned about their rights rather than duties. It’s not bad to have learned people in your workforce, or to demand rights, but in this case it is to be analysed if it is okay to have it, and what needs to be done in the changed context. Otherwise it creates bad environment at the field level. The issue here is making policies according to the changed context.
- Problem of Blocks. Punctuality over Safety.
Sir, as stated earlier also we face a lot of problems in getting blocks for maintenance operations. Operating Department holds the key to giving blocks. Mostly Pway staff has to chase it as if it’s his personal work. Sometimes it becomes a matter of weeks till he get a block, ‘managing’ safety at his level. Also every time he would be there with his staff, waiting at the site till the time there is hope of getting the block. What a terrible waste of resources when you have so little! Sir, why haven’t we developed a transparent mechanism where a representative from Pway side can book a block and he will be told beforehand the day when the block is expected. And the block is given no matter how on the same day, as it is a matter of safety. Same should also happen when there is an emergency. It’s left to your good judgement sir, what is more important to us, Revenue/Punctuality or Safety. To maintain the assets in good condition timely blocks are very important, no matter what. Engineering staff is forced to compromise on safety on regular basis as blocks and caution orders are not been given easily. With ever increasing traffic, pressure on pway assets is on the rise which further accelerates the wear and tear, and requires frequent attention. If existing assets are not given timely attention they have to be replaced at a much faster pace, again putting a burden on railways financial resources. Operating department gives the block and caution orders whenever it is convenient. Safety has to be given precedence otherwise results may be catastrophic.
An ADEN is overall in charge of the subdivision. He has to take care of Pway as well as Works. He has huge workload. He has to conduct daily inspection of track, inspection of bridges and yards, monthly day and night footplates, other night inspections, filling inspections in TMS, test check of various contractual work under his jurisdiction, ensuring quality of the work being done, check every bill, manage blocks, attend blocks, ensure compliances, attend HQ meetings, chase material procurement, manage contracts and labour, liaison with state authorities, accompany higher officials on their inspection, looking after the passenger amenities, dealing with complaints of unions and staff, looking after the welfare of the staff, their allowances, their medical etc. Apart from all these he has to prepare reports, proposals, sign hundreds of papers etc. It is becoming increasingly difficult to cope up with such work pressure. Leaves are denied for some reason or the other. Continuously working under such pressure takes a toll on mind as well as body. Familial and other responsibilities becomes secondary resulting in tensions across all dimensions of life.
- Multifarious Activities
Sir, activities like tree plantation, skill upgradation, holding seminars/camps, cleanliness drives, etc, are noble and essential activities. We want to be a part of all such initiatives, but despite having best of intentions we don’t get extra funds, staff, time and resources to carry out the same. Our core duty is to run trains safely, which requires immense concentration and inputs from staff and officers. Such activities asking for involvement from higher officials actually puts burden on field level only. We are unable to handle so many protocol movements, compliances, and do our job effectively. Again we want to reiterate that Railways, especially at field level, is unlike any other Govt. organisation.
Although we spoke only about the engineering department, but problems of various kinds also exists in other departments as well. For example, Mechanical/Electrical department might use old/dysfunctional parts in locos and coaches or Operating department do not always lock hand operated points due to shortage of staff or send shunting master without proper authority, etc. Some problems are common while others unique. But engineering being the biggest and the most critical department can lead the way towards the desired change.
We hope that the points highlighted above are constructive in nature, and would lead to a change for a better future. Otherwise the environment at field level is becoming demotivating. We are forced to question why we chose this service after getting the best ranks. We were warned that it will be very demanding still we took the job. But with increasing expectations and quantum of work it is becoming increasingly difficult to fulfil the duties effectively.
By addressing the letter to you Sir, we don’t imply that the Railway Board is failing in its duty. There are some issues which may have been overlooked or needs attention as per field requirement. It is a technical organisation and technical persons are the best judge to decide the future course. And a railway man is always an able administrator for the job.
We feel we should have to focus on our core responsibilities, not be swayed by populist demands or cosmetic changes and work more transparently so as to develop faith.