I joined Sealdah Division in June 1962 as Assistant Operating Superintendent (T) under Darbha Hariram who was then DOS (T) Sealdah. I took over charge from my batch mate KC Varma who was with me in Dhanbad during training. He was transferred to Danapur Division as Area Officer Dehri-on-Sone. Deputy COPS (G) MS Gujral, whom I met before joining Sealdah Division, instructed me to brief him every morning about the operating position, like AOS (T)s of other divisions. I apprehended that I would soon invite his ire due to my inexperience, but Gujral adopted a teacher's role towards me and led me step by step to grasp the finer points of railway operations. I admired his analytical mind and marvelled at his patience in explaining his analysis to me. Thanks to him, I established myself quickly.
AK Gupta, Divisional Superintendent Sealdah was a TT & CD officer who had recently come on transfer from NF Railway. Eastern Railway was a premium railway with a high intensity of traffic. Eastern Railway operating officers were snobbish towards officers from other railways, whom they treated as not only less experienced but also less qualified to work on Eastern Railway. KK Mukherjee, Chief Operating Superintendent Eastern Railway, would often make the snide remarks to Hariram about Gupta. It was in bad taste of course, as I discovered Gupta's sterling qualities when I worked with him later in Asansol.
NN Hari Rao, a temporary ATO who was in Asansol Division when I was under training, was AOS (G) in Sealdah. The nameplates in the office read, D Hariram, A Ramarao and NN Hari Rao! Mild mannered Hari Rao was an ex-serviceman, who had served in the Royal Air Force during World War II. He was sincere and honest without being flashy. Some of his superiors didn’t think he was smart enough just because he was a temporary officer and tried to damage his career, but he was able to get himself transferred to SC Railway.
Unlike in other divisions of Eastern Railway, the Operating departments office was involved in day to day operations. Following the system in vogue on BA Railway, control charts of each day were sent to the office on the following day. In the office, the charts were scrutinised by office clerks, who had never worked in the control office, and errors in controlling trains etc. detected were put up to operating officers for initiating disciplinary action against control and other staff. I was amazed at the expertise the office clerks displayed in this work. A veteran clerk called Ganguly Babu could detect minute errors and was feared by train controllers.
Hariram was very different from the operating officers I had encountered so far. His was a relaxed style compared to others who believed in showing off how hard they were working, wearing a harried look all day. More importantly, he did not have the habit, all too common amongst operating officers, of listing the failures of other departments to serve as excuses for operating failures of the previous day. On the contrary he would go out of the way to know the problems of the other departments and devise ways of helping them. AK Sengupa, XEN RE (short for Executive Engineer, Railway Electrification), would land up in Hariram's office every other day with a list of his problems in carrying out his assigned work in the Railway Electrification Project. I used to think that he was giving excuses. Hariram would listen to him attentively and make telephone calls to various officers on Eastern Railway or outside, operating officers as well as officers of other departments, to line up help for Sengupta. I asked Hariram why he was doing this when Sengupta should have sought help from his own superiors, instead of wasting Hariram's time. Hariram told me that the work Sengupta was doing would eventually ease operations on Sealdah division so delays would affect our work. RE Project officers had other fronts to attend to and may not be able to focus on Sengupta's problems to the extent needed. If a few calls from him could help Sengupta, then why not? I never forgot this lesson and used it to good effect in the rest of my career on IR.
Others who used to visit us at this time include SH Babu IRSE, AEN (RE) and S Kitson DOS (RE), father of RD Kitson who retired as Chairman, Railway Board in 1992. Kitson was DOS (T) Howrah earlier and was much loved by his staff as well as the probationers who were entrusted to him for training. Babu had an unusual name thanks to the obsession with celebrity names among Andhras. Telugu people routinely name their children as Gandhi, Nehru, Tagore, Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose or Gopala Krishna Gokhale. During the freedom movement, Indians treated the enemies of the British as their friends, be they Germans, Italians or Japanese. I still remember listening to German broadcasts clandestinely, during the second world war, in the company of my uncle and celebrating German victories. Sinking of British battleship Prince of Wales became a major point of rejoicing in India. In this mind set, Babu’s parents had named him Hitler Babu. The name became an embarrassment and Babu later changed it to Haribabu.
The staff loved Hariram because he tried to help them with their problems and was always approachable, kind and courteous. They called him Dayalu Hariram (kind Hariram). Every afternoon, a long line of employees would be waiting to see him with their problems. Hariram would listen to each of them and scribble a note addressed to APO I on the employee’s application. Most them wanted a change in posting or cancellation of a transfer order. Lakshmi Menon, APO I, told me later that those applications ended up in her table drawer because she could not implement the orders. The same man was given multiple posts, or several people were given the same post. Nevertheless, the staff had implicit faith in Hariram.
The approach to the Sealdah Divisional office and officers’ colony is through a road taking off from Acharya Prafulla Chandra Ray Street (Circular Road). In 1962, this road was lined with ugly looking hutments that housed hundreds of refugees from East Pakistan (present Bangladesh). They encroached upon the road for their ablutions and daily chores, causing obstruction to traffic. When I arrived in Calcutta in 1957 and stayed in the Officers’ Rest House on the first floor of Sealdah station, the station concourse was fully occupied by refugees, leaving narrow passages, which passengers had to negotiate gingerly. Even the staircase leading to the rest house was occupied by refugee families whose little kids including infants would be lying on the steps. We had to tread warily to avoid stepping on them. The refugees cooked, slept, married and reproduced under these conditions.
Following partition of the country in 1947, refugees had flowed into India both from West Pakistan and East Pakistan. Punjabi and Sindhi refugees from West Pakistan suffered severe hardships in refugee camps around the capital and accepted the government’s proposal to rehabilitate them in towns and villages across the country. Relying on their innate skills they settled down as traders, artisans and transporters. In Nagpur, Sindhi shopkeepers were immensely popular for their competitive prices, their courtesy and ability to provide all your needs. In 1951-52 I lived with my parents in Venkatanagar, a minor railway station on the Bilaspur – Katni section of SE Railway (then BNR) where my father was station master. The small Sindhi community was already prospering and a Sindhi physician from a neighbouring town treated my brother who was down with an attack of typhus. Refugees from East Pakistan were, however, uncomfortable outside Bengal and preferred to live amid squalor across the city even after fifteen years.
Sealdah Division had been a part of the Bengal Assam Railway before partition. It had provided access to the hinterland in East Bengal and Assam as well as to the very popular hill Stations in Kurseong and Darjeeling. It was split in two in 1947, and the truncated southern portion of the Sealdah division was merged with Eastern Railway. IR was forced to create a new connection to Darjeeling through New Jalpaiguri, a part of the Assam Rail Link that had been constructed with alacrity to link the MG systems of Assam with the rest of the country. The rest of the BA Railway was merged with other railways in East Pakistan to form the East Pakistan Railway (EPR). For Sealdah division, the adjoining division on EPR was Pakshi Division. We had two express trains running to Pakistan from Sealdah, East Bengal Express to Dacca and Barisal express. We also interchanged a few goods trains. The main problem in interchange with EPR was rampant theft of wagon parts in the stock returning from East Pakistan.
BA Railway had a different style of working, different Special Rules, Manuals etc. a quadruple line system serving the suburban services that had two pairs of up and down lines, separately for slow and fast traffic, unlike the E I Rly system of two up lines and two down lines adjacent to each other, Multiple Aspect Upper Quadrant signalling, with a predominance of A Class stations (stations are classified as A, B, C and D based on the layout and signalling provided at the station) to serve the numerous jute mill sidings all along the Hooghly. And despite East Indian Railway’s being a very intensive railway in terms of traffic handled, BA Railway had more modern equipment like Automatic Signals on the heavily used lines, mechanized hump yards at Chitpur and Naihati and a very well-designed terminal goods yard at Chitpur. Eastern Railway’s first mechanised hump was installed in Moghul Sarai Up Yard only in the 1950s.
But operations were very difficult at that time. Station layouts were being disturbed all along the suburban section as a prelude to electrification, delaying both freight and passenger trains. Overaged and out of date locomotives that should have been retired were being flogged in the suburban services, pending completion of electrification works. The inefficiency of the Calcutta Port Railway added a further burden. On one occasion, steam locos of all the seven trains that were held up at automatic signals on the Dum Dum – Ballygunge Chord line for passage to Kidderpore Docks, had to drop fire for shortage of water!
I was allotted a small flat in a transit block near the DS office. Since I stayed very near to the office, I would be frequently called to take care of difficult situations even at inconvenient hours. The suburban passengers of Sealdah Division were even more volatile than those in Howrah Division. I witnessed several events in which train operations were upset because the commuters took law into their hands.
Dr BC Roy, the popular and respected Chief Minister of West Bengal died on his 80th birthday July 1, 1962. Dr S Radhakrishnan was on his first visit to Calcutta as the newly installed President on the same day. Dr Roy was succeeded by PC Sen. The law and order situation worsened suddenly. While staying in Calcutta we had become accustomed to the sight of people reacting precipitately, and often violently even for small inconveniences. Suburban passengers, particularly those in Sealdah Division would stop trains for any reason whatsoever. A major break down of law and order occurred in July 1959 due to food shortage, which the leftist’s used to incite violence. The police resorted to firing and killed some demonstrators. I recall walking from Fairlie Place to Sealdah on the following day and noticing the bullet holes on the walls of buildings on both sides of a deserted Bow Bazaar Street. Dr BC Roy had put down the riots with a firm hand ensuring peace for the next three years.
One day, ticket examiners caught a ticketless passenger on a suburban train and lodged him in a lockup in Sealdah station because he could not pay the penalty charges. He had some books in his possession, leading to the assumption that he was a student. A group of students who gathered before the lockup were dispersed by the GRP. Word got around that a student had been wrongfully arrested by police and within a short time a large crowd, including many students from a nearby college began marching towards the Sealdah railway station. Sensing trouble, the Railway Protection Force closed the gates of the station and a unit of the state police stood guard to prevent the crowd from attacking the station. This angered the crowd and they retaliated by throwing stones at the police. Some miscreants who had joined the group set fire to a bus leading to a mini stampede. As we watched from inside the gates of the Sealdah station, a pitched battle ensued between the crowd and the police lasting several hours, during which several buses, trams and a fire engine were destroyed. This was the first of several demonstrations the new government faced, exposing its vulnerability.
In the middle of July 1962, KK Mukherjee, COPS Eastern Railway decided to visit Sealdah Division. He told Hariram that he wanted to seclude himself to spend time in reading and disposing files that had piled up on his table. He only wanted the SS Sealdah to see him off. He was not to be disturbed, apart from handing him the daily operating position, unless there was an emergency. A couple of days later, there was a major collision at a station called Dumraon on Dinapore division killing over a hundred passengers. I called up KK Mukherjee and gave him the bad news and arranged to get his Inspection Carriage attached to the first train to Sealdah. Next morning, I received him at the station and briefed him about the accident.
Meanwhile, I and my batch mates on Eastern Railway discovered that our promotions were being delayed, as compared to our batch mates on other railways. After joining in junior time scale, a directly recruited Class I officer’s first promotion is to the senior time scale. The time taken for promotion varied between railways as it depended on the availability of vacancies. When we joined the railways, we came across officers who had got promoted in the fifth year of service. When GD Khandelwal became COPS on the South Eastern Railway, he insisted on having only Traffic officers as DSs and persuaded the steel plants to accept traffic officers on deputation to improve their operations. This resulted in increased vacancies in senior scale and by the middle of 1962 all my batch mates and even some from our junior batch were promoted to senior scale. While we were waiting for the next vacancies to arise, two officers of the Lower Gazetted Service (LGS), who had been promoted from the ranks, were promoted bypassing our whole batch. Our seniors, whom we met to know the reason for this lack of faith in us, told us that Veer Saksena, the senior most officer in our batch had left a poor impression with his bosses and COPS and CCS were unwilling to promote him. This was not a valid argument because in that case the next two officers could have been promoted. MA Ashraf, CPO said the COPS thought we needed more experience. When we pointed out that our batch mates on SE Rly were manning posts of DOSs with no greater experience, he called KK Mukherjee, who responded that in his opinion Khandelwal was making a serious mistake. R. Gopalkrishnan CCS told us to have patience and narrated the story of his own promotion to senior scale in the thirteenth year of service. When the proposal for his promotion was put up to the CCS, he had approved it with a note on the file that read, “Promotions are becoming much too fast these days!” We explained to Gopalkrishnan that things have changed since then. Since our batch mates had been promoted elsewhere there was no justification to hold us back. I also requested him to ensure that my being in the operating department does not come in the way for my promotion if the vacancy arose in Commercial Department.
Realising the futility of seeking relief at the zonal level we decided to appeal to the Railway Board. MP Shrivastava collaborated with me to draft individual petitions and we got everyone to sign them. Vir Saksena said he would sign after everyone had done so. I suspected his motives but ignored him while I got the others to sign. When I went back to him, he asked for a day to consult his brother-in-law who was an IAS officer. The next day he declined to sign the petition, based on a logic given by his brother-in-law. If we got any benefit by appealing, he would get the benefit even without appealing since he was the first in the batch. But if Railway Board reacted adversely, he would be the first to be affected. I let him have a piece of my mind and posted the rest of the petitions in a bunch to PC Mathew, Secretary Railway Board. Sometime later, Ranjit Mathur (IRTS 1954 exam), who had met Mathew in Delhi told us that Mathew had received the appeals. He told Ranjit to inform us that some action would be taken soon.
My second son Venkata Ramana was born in BR Singh Hospital on September 24, 1962. I took a short break to take him to Khargpur to perform his namakaranam in the house of my brother-in-law Dr Ramamohan (Ramam), who was teaching in IIT Kharagpur.
The country was thrown into a crisis in October 1962, when the Chinese army marched across the Himalayas to capture territory in the North East. The Chinese marched so swiftly, against an unprepared Indian army taken completely by surprise that we feared they would soon reach Calcutta. Panicky preparations were made to fight the enemy by ordering mobilisation of men and equipment and calling up all reserves including the Territorial Army. Hariram and AK Gupta, who belonged to two different units of the Territorial Army got their orders and were given rousing farewells. AK Sarkar was appointed as the new DS and I was asked to hold charge of DOS. Thanks to the tutelage of Hariram and Gujral, I had enough confidence to handle the division’s operations on my own. I was also able to explain the operations of the division to the new DS. However, KK Mukherjee felt that I needed help. He asked BN Mukherjee, who was his trouble shooter as DOS (Chasing) to supervise the operations of Chitpur yard. BN Mukherjee called me from Chitpur and told me not to worry because he was looking after Chitpur.
An important index of the health of a marshalling yard is the midnight balance, that is the number of wagons in the marshalling yard at midnight. The figure is worked out every day by adding the receipts in the last 24 hours to the previous day's balance and deducting the despatches. The resultant figure is reported to headquarters every morning and is the subject on which divisional officers are questioned by COPS and other operating officers from headquarters. When I reviewed operations the next morning, I was surprised to see that the yard balance of Chitpur was depressed by several hundred wagons. On being questioned, the Chief Yard Master explained that BN Mukherjee had told him to consider all goods trains in the departure yard that had locomotives attached on them as despatched and deduct the wagons in these trains from the yard balance. Mukherjee also spoke to COPS and took credit for reducing the yard balance. I learnt long afterwards that BN Mukherjee and others of his ilk did such things routinely with the blessings of KK Mukherjee.
A Civil Defence Organisation was set up hurriedly, with Controller of Civil Defence (CCD) in Fairlie Place. Very soon posts of Divisional Emergency Officers in senior scale were created on all Divisions and I was elevated to DEO Sealdah, although I had to continue to work for some more time as acting DOS (T). Ajit Kumar Chakravorty IRSE was CCD. We were required to submit paper plans for civil defence of vital railway establishments and railway colonies on top priority. My plans for Sealdah division were ready in two weeks and we awaited orders for undertaking construction works to implement the plan. Meanwhile, the war came to a sudden stop on November 21 when China declared a unilateral cease-fire. No one in the government seemed to be clear on the line of action on Civil Defence, now that the fighting had stopped. The CCD waxed eloquent on the need to implement the plans but fell short of issuing instructions to DSs to incur the expenditure it entailed. In the absence of clarity, I advised DS Sealdah not to spend money unless authorised by GM. However, MP Shrivastava DEO Howrah convinced his DS to spend the money to set up ugly looking baffle walls, sandpits and static tanks all over Howrah station, defacing the station premises for a long time. The last few of these static tanks were finally removed by me as DRM Howrah 25 years later!
At the end of November, I was posted as DOS (G) Asansol. In this short period, I had donned three roles, as AOS (T), as acting DOS (T) and DEO. I paid a courtesy call on Gujral before leaving for Asansol. He told me that he had convinced COPS to take me out of the Civil Defence job and post me in Asansol so that I could earn the stamp for working in the coalfields, an essential qualification for progressing in the operating department of Eastern Railway.