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How corruption has engulfed the Railways

Last updated on: May 15, 2013 12:13 IST

How corruption has engulfed the Railways

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The last railway minister may have been caught with his fingers in the cookie jar, but he is hardly the first one to indulge in this, nor the only one among his colleagues in the present political dispensation, writes Shreekant Sambrani.

In God we trust; the rest pay cash." That sign, with the tell-tale allusion to the credo on American coinage, adorns many a commercial establishment in the US. It may as well appear in all offices of Indian Railways and be emblazoned on Rail Bhavan in New Delhi.

And that is not just because cash is the overwhelming mode of receipt of rail revenues - be it passenger fares or freight charges.

Current headlines of the ignominious departure of the most recent chief occupant of that edifice highlight what has been a fact of life for a major part of the existence of the 160-year-old organisation: a money trail of quite another kind finds its path all the way to the very top.

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Image: Commuters disembark from crowded suburban trains during the morning rush hour at Churchgate railway station in Mumbai.
Photographs: Navesh Chitrakar/Reuters.

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Dinesh Trivedi, the former railway minister who briefly tried in vain to tilt in a knightly manner at the numerous windmills that dot the rail tracks, said last week that corruption in the Railways in effect depended on the signals emanating from the minister.

He may well pat himself on the back for his personal integrity, but to link the rot in the Railways to its titular head is just plain wrong. It has existed all along and is not likely to disappear in a hurry.

Despite the vast increase in the number of trains and coaches, the supply of accommodation almost at all times and on all routes falls short of demand. Notwithstanding computerisation of bookings, touts flourish.

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Image: Dinesh Trivedi, the former railway minister.


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Every time I walk into Mumbai Central station to catch a train, I find it a job to avoid the shady characters who are prepared to offer me a seat in any class, any train in my name even at the last minute, for a small charge, of course.

Would that be possible without a tie-up with the booking staff and their supervisors? The Railways has acknowledged a nexus that corners the tatkal bookings within minutes of opening, but we do not know if that is smashed.

Booking freight and ensuring its early movement also requires speed money. I have seen Gujarat Electricity Board officials wring their hands at their inability to gratify railway officials to ensure speedier coal movement, even as they led a rake-to-generation existence.

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Image: A suburban train as it goes over a bridge in the outskirts of Mumbai.
Photographs: Navesh Chitrakar/Reuters.

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These may be treated as petty or garden-variety instances of corruption, but multiply them a million-fold to get an idea of the volume and spread of this cancer.

That should also explain the premium for postings, ranging from booking supervisors to divisional, zonal or board-level postings. No wonder the worthy caught in the net recently was reportedly ready to offer a hefty sum even for a position of member (staff) that oversees the postings.

The numbers involved grow manifold when contracts for execution and supply are involved.

Despite a bloated bureaucracy, the Railways depends on civil contractors for track-related works and metal, machinery, and electrical suppliers to run their captive equipment manufacturing units.

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Image: Commuters cross the tracks to reach the other side of the platform in Allahabad.
Photographs: Navesh Chitrakar/Reuters.
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For Diwali in 1963, as a young student, I went to visit my brother who was then supervising the doubling of a vital east-west supply route in Madhya Pradesh. I was taken up by the adventure of leading a camp-life in a tent and long treks in the jungle.

Barely had I settled into the routine than two portly gentlemen appeared one day in the tent after my brother had left for work. They wasted little time in coming to the point: how much did I want and in what form?

They saw the puzzled look on my face and explained that the standard modus operandus was to settle such matters with the supervising engineer's family before submitting their quarterly bills.

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Image: A worker is pictured at the newly built railway track in Allahabad.
Photographs: Navesh Chitrakar/Reuters

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They assumed that I was performing that function for my bachelor brother. He hit the roof when he heard of this, but neither he nor I believed that his attempt to blacklist them would have much effect.

The Railways is among the biggest buyers of material and equipment in the government, perhaps next only to the defence ministry.

The same malaise afflicts both these organisations: large, lucrative contracts negotiated through influential middlemen, gratification for officials and their political patrons, all shrouded in baffling and mystifying procedures.

A European company manufacturing transmission and traction equipment collaborated with a relatively unknown Indian company in the 1990s.

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Image: Homemade alcohol containers hang from a train window as people hang from the doors and windows at Parsha Bazar railway station in Bihar.
Photographs: Navesh Chitrakar/Reuters.
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It was confident of meeting all the technical specification of the railway research and design organisation, but needed an Indian partner to fix other "non-technical" parameters. Again, this is rather a rule than an exception.

We never tire of narrating the example of Lal Bahadur Shastri taking moral responsibility for the Ariyalur accident in 1956 and resigning.

No such moral high ground marked the tenure of his numerous successors, with the possible exception Madhu Dandavate in the Janata interregnum. If there is even a grain of truth in the many stories circulating about the Railways, the incumbents' prerogatives went beyond the doling out of evident patronage to their constituencies and states or starting new trains.

The current events have uncovered the cesspool. But that hardly suggests the odour will be eliminated.

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Image: Empty milk containers hang from the window of a train in Uttar Pradesh.
Photographs: Navesh Chitrakar/Reuters.

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Even in China, which spends orders-of-magnitude higher amounts on high-speed rail links as compared to our total investment, corruption has been rampant, claiming a ministerial head not too long ago.

In our case, the last railway minister may have been caught with his fingers in the cookie jar, but he is hardly the first one to indulge in this, nor the only one among his colleagues in the present political dispensation.

These latest shenanigans have finally stripped me of what I thought was a life-long romantic infatuation with the railways. I now find association with the railways as noxious as the sight and odours of track after the departure of a passenger train.

The writer taught at the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, and helped set up the Institute of Rural Management, Anand.



Image: Commuters struggle to board a train at Noli railway station in Uttar Pradesh.
Photographs: Navesh Chitrakar/Reuters.

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