When he took over as Railway Minister in July 2021, Ashwini Vaishnav inherited not only a deep financial crisis, attributable partly to the pandemic, but also a mess created in the top management cadres of the Indian Railways due to a half-baked and unimplemented reform initiated by his predecessor.

The Railways had announced major reforms in December 2019 aimed at resolving the age-old problem of acute departmentalism and its cadres working in silos. The proposed reforms envisaged re-designating of the Chairman as CEO, reducing the size of the board from seven to four members and unification of its seven cadres into one common service called Indian Railway Management Service (IRMS).

However, it was soon revealed that the announcements had been made without an action plan, or any unanimity amongst the stakeholders. No recruitment rules for the CEO, the board positions and the unified cadre could be agreed upon between the Rail Ministry and the DoPT (Department of Personnel and Training) for two years.

This led to arbitrary appointments with half the board member and Director General (DG) positions on extension or lying vacant for long durations of time, leading to demoralisation amongst senior officers. This also resulted in two zero recruitment years for the officers’ cadres, with no indents to UPSC for either the Engineering or Civil Services exams.

Perhaps with pressures from the PMO, the notification of the formation of this new all-India service, and action for recruiting 150 IRMS officers through the Civil Service Examination, was issued two weeks back, apparently without any internal or external communication about other complementary measures. Surprising as it was, the announcement skirted the issue of unification of existing cadres, specifying only the process of new induction.

Many committees, notably the ones headed by Rakesh Mohan and Bibek Debroy, have examined the required changes to Railways’ management structure, but their recommendations were mostly ignored. The follow-up on the announced reforms have so far been cosmetic, except installing a ‘so-called’ CEO and downsizing the board.

The inaction of the government on the issue of merging the existing cadres is understandable as the expectations of different cadres appear irreconcilable. Bringing these services on a common platform based on inter-se seniority would cause a serious imbalance between engineers who join at a younger age through Indian Engineering Service examination vis-à-vis others who join at an older age through the Civil Services examination (after exhausting all their attempts to qualify for IAS, IPS or other more preferable services).

The reaction to railway engineers on induction into the IRMS cadre through the Civil Services has been shock and dismay, although their federations have kept a studied silence. They observe that this service, open to all graduates, would dilute the capability of the executives for the specialised core work of installing and maintaining railway infrastructure and rolling stock, with serious consequences on performance and safety.

Many engineers also lament that while they join the Railways with pride and as a matter of choice, the new entrants would be those who join the organisation as one of their last choices amongst the Civil Services. Effectively, the country would stand to give up its indigenous capability, leaving the door open for costly imports and contractors.

The argument put forth by many is that a large percentage of those who enter by qualifying through Civil Services are engineers, so it may be possible to retain the engineering skills brought in presently by engineer recruits. This argument is specious as they would have no focus or incentive to develop any expertise, flit as they would between departments — much like the IAS.

The work of railway executives, unlike those of other Central Services, is very technical in nature and an engineering qualification is a necessary start point. It was reportedly suggested that induction into IRMS should be through the Engineering Services exam of UPSC. It is unclear why this was not preferred; perhaps because the officers inducted through the Civil Services were strongly opposed to the idea. It was expected that the Minister, an ex-IAS with an engineering background and exposure to private engineering sector, would be well placed to make the best choice. Therefore, one can only accept the situation as a compromise.

One alternative mooted earlier was that of an induction scheme for IRMS similar to the NDA, after Class 12 and then exposing the recruits to a common railway curriculum followed by a spell of specialisation in the chosen technical or non-technical streams, just like the NDA recruits: a ‘catch them young scheme’.

The resources of the newly established National Rail and Transportation Institute and the existing centralised, specialised training establishments of the Railways could be readily harnessed. The scheme could mimic the SCRA scheme for inducting mechanical engineers for almost 90 years before it was closed recently, ostensibly to neutralise the age differential and resultant advantage it afforded to these officers.

Sanjeev Sanyal, the Economic Advisor, also suggested a similar scheme of induction. Some observers feel that the best course of action would have been to continue the existing method of induction through both Engineering and Civil Services till this new scheme is activated to induct trained railway executives in a 4–6-year timeframe.

While IRMS induction through Civil Services may continue for the next 4-5 years, the government can still rethink and adopt the philosophy of induction of officer-trainees after Class 12 for subsequent years. The government seems to have once again leapt before it looked. It will help if it looks at the issue once again now.

This article first appeared on The Hindu Business Line.

(Co-authored by SK Luthra, retired CAO, and Sudhanshu Mani, retired GM, Indian Railways)