KK Mukherjee's bias was once again revealed when the post of DOS Howrah fell vacant and he preferred ML Chatterjee IRTS 1961, ignoring three of us, KC Pandia, me and MP Shrivastava, 5 to 6 years’ senior to him, who had been waiting for years for posting as DOSs. In fact, my career in the operating department on Eastern Railway took off immediately after KK Mukherjee retired, starting with my posting as DOS Dhanbad. Still, I give him credit for many things I learned during my formative years on Eastern Railway. I would have liked to compare him with the school master in Oliver Goldsmith’s Deserted Village, but KK had many other shades to him that would, in my view, make him fall short of that ideal.
A man severe he was, and stern to view,
I knew him well, and every truant knew;
Yet he was kind; or if severe in aught,
The love he bore to learning was in fault.
He wrote flawless English and urged us to improve the way we wrote letters. In a meeting of DSOs, he commended to us a book he had been reading on the subject. I bought the book, The Complete Plain Words by Sir Ernest Gowers, before returning to Asansol. It changed my style for the better. In his article, On the Rails of a Memory, KK Das mentions that as a probationer he had developed great admiration for KK Mukherjee who was then head of the Chandausi Training School. In response to this article I wrote a letter to Editor of The Statesman in which I acknowledged my debt to KK Mukherjee in the following words,
“KK Mukerji – another Kalyan – was the last of the EIR Moghuls. A Tartar for work, he was otherwise cultured, with his immaculate Oxonian prose, which he wrote in style. He was also a poet and a cartoonist to boot. We learnt a lot from him, about discipline, hard work, attention to detail and self-respect, albeit the hard way.”
Gujral asked me to look after the work of DOS in addition to my own when Thapar took a vacation in December 1968. It was exhilarating to interact closely with Gujral. All the systems were set, and I had little to do but monitor it. Or so I thought. Gujral never stopped thinking of doing better. Even in the short time I was DOS, several new ideas were implemented successfully. It was a great learning experience that helped me immensely in meeting challenges in my career.
Eastern Railway introduced the concept of a telephonic goods operations conference, in which all DOSs connected to D Hariram Deputy COPS (Goods) simultaneously. Plans for the day’s operations were discussed and firmed up during the conference. Hariram would say hello to all DOSs, commend the good work done by them and ask them if they needed any help in fulfilling the tasks assigned for the day. The conference would end in thirty to forty minutes. COPS was also connected to the conference and he could hear the proceedings on a speaker installed in his room. But, unlike latter day COPSs, he never interrupted his deputy or question and reprimand DOSs in the hearing of others.
KK Mukherjee retired at the end of 1968. The new General Manager was GP Warrier, a civil engineer who had earned a reputation in construction work on Southern Railway. One day, we got a message that the GM would travel to Dhanbad by Sealdah-Pathankot Express that passed Asansol in the afternoon. I accompanied Gujral to Asansol station to greet Warrier as per protocol, because he was passing through the division. Suddenly, Gujral asked me to travel with the GM up to Dhanbad and explain details of the division as Warrier was new to Eastern Railway. I was totally unprepared and had no papers to refer to but Gujral had so much confidence in me that he did not hesitate to send me without prior notice. I managed to describe to the General Manager salient points of Asansol Division’s layout, pattern of traffic and operations. When I took leave of him at Dhanbad, I apologised for my lack of preparation, but Warrier congratulated me on my performance. Perhaps this short interaction, plus the recommendation of Gujral, resulted in my being posted as DOS Dhanbad soon afterwards.
With the general elections in the offing, Morarji Desai, Dy Prime Minister in Indira Gandhi’s cabinet, visited West Bengal on an official-cum-election tour. The official part included a visit to Chittaranjan Locomotive Works, accompanied by GD Khandelwal CRB and P Sahai Member Mechanical, Railway Board. Gujral and I received the party at the Andal air strip and escorted them up to Chittaranjan. After the official function, Morarji Desai continued his tour of rural areas leaving CRB and MM to themselves. We had to wait at Chittaranjan Station for the CRB’s special train to arrive. Instead of sitting with CRB and MM who were having tea in the VIP room rigged up for the purpose, Gujral preferred to stay with me in the room of SM Chittaranjan. ‘I don’t want to sit there and answer his myriad questions?’ he told me. Many years later, when I was DRM Samastipur, I was in a similar situation with Gujral, then CRB. I spent more than an hour with Gujral as he pounded me with questions on operations on NE Railway.
On my return to Asansol from deputation, I discovered that the subject of Safety had undergone a change with the institution of Safety Shields to reward accident free performance of divisions and zonal railways. The Safety Shields provided publicity to DSOs and DSs and even more to TSs (Safety), COPSs and GMs, all of whom began to conspire to reduce the accident figures by fair means or foul. A measure introduced to increase awareness on safety and genuinely reduce accidents by determining their causes and finding remedies, was degraded to a race to manipulate the figures, as they vied with each other in finding new definitions and new interpretation of rules that would convert a train accident into a shunting accident, a collision into a train hitting an obstruction and so on.
For the first year or two past records served to decide the winners and the good performance of Asansol division in my last year there, that is 1964-65 earned it the safety shield in the inaugural year. MP Shrivastava received the award and was lauded by KK Mukherjee. KK had found no words to praise me. But, of course, I did not have Shrivastava's ability to flatter his bosses, a trait he used throughout his career to get good reports and postings no matter what he did at work. KK even wrote appreciatively about a circular issued for observing a Safety Week by Asansol Division bearing Shrivastava's signature. Tiwary Babu, my faithful Assistant in the Accident Section, pointed out to me that it was a verbatim copy of what I had painstakingly drafted the previous year. The original draft was still there in the file.
Of the three train accidents that occurred in 1964-65, during my previous tenure in Asansol, only one was a major accident on the main line, in which the PWI of the section was held responsible. Another occurred at Raniganj station when the driver of a goods train standing on the loop line started his train because he mistook the green signal of the main line to be his own. The switchman of the controlling cabin noticed the movement and fearing that the train would derail in the sand hump, he tried to reverse all the signals and set the route for the train but the train engine derailed on the points just as he was changing them. I held him and the goods train driver jointly responsible for the accident and, as per the strict norms in vogue under KK Mukherjee, removed him from service. KC Pramanick, the switchman in question, had an accident free record till then. He begged me to save him and I sympathised with him, but I had to follow the norms. However, when I confided in the DS, he readily agreed to re-employ Pramanick in a lower grade on appeal. Pramanick would mention this each time I met him. Many years later his son came to meet me in Calcutta with the news of his death. It was touching to hear from him about his father's gratitude.
The third was an averted collision, unforgettable for me, because of the Assistant Station Master, Biswas, posted in the block cabin at Durgapur Coke Oven Plant (DCOP). The cabin controlled a quadruple line section, where the up lines and down lines were in pairs. Trains were controlled by using double line block instruments marked separately for Up Main, Up Slow, Dn Main and Dn Slow. I went for a routine inspection and found everything in order. Biswas told me that members of his family in East Pakistan (present Bangladesh) were in danger, that he was unable to keep his mind focused on the job and that he wanted a transfer to a less busy station. I promised to help him, but the accident occurred before I could get him transferred. Biswas had permitted two up trains on the same line by mistake. But for the alertness of a level crossing gateman, there would have been a serious collision. Biswas told me that after he had requested for transfer from DCOP, he got news that his family had been attacked in East Pakistan. They had fled but he had no news of their whereabouts. He was mentally upset on hearing the news and had mixed up the block instruments while granting permission to the second train.
I advised Biswas to admit his error in reply to the charge sheet, to avoid the need for an Enquiry under the Disciplinary Action Rules. I would have issued his removal orders without delay and processed his reinstatement immediately thereafter. But as luck would have it, my transfer orders came soon afterwards, and I could not complete the job as promised. I briefed MP Shrivastava, my successor, and left. When I returned in 1968 this was one of the train accident cases pending finalization. Biswas's Defence Helper, who belonged to the leftist Eastern Railwaymens’ Union, had told him to deny the charges and was deliberately delaying the DAR enquiry with one excuse or another. Shrivastava had taken no interest in the matter. Biswas was himself unhappy to remain under suspension for so long and so when I approached him, he was amenable to my suggestion to admit the charge. Fortunately, the Defence Helper trusted me and agreed to my proposal. I was not only able to close the case but also help a distressed employee.
If these two accidents had occurred a year or two later the first would have been declared a shunting accident and the second a case of breach of block rules and the switchman and ASM would have got away with minor punishments.
During the year 1968-69 there were a few accidents at level crossings, derailments, and an averted collision. There was also a freak accident in which Howrah Punjab Mail derailed in the electrified section near Andal and re-railed itself without causing any casualties or serious damage to track, carriages or overhead traction. I was away on short leave at the time and Thapar, who was standing in for me, handled the matter deftly, transferring the responsibility for conducting enquiry to the head office. Relief and restoration work in electrified sections posed a challenge, particularly in quadruple line areas if portal masts were damaged. Electrical and Mechanical engineers struggled to find the right way to tackle each situation. The restoration time was optimized after many years of learning.
The averted collision mentioned above occurred on a quadruple line section. It threw up issues concerning the re-induction of drivers after a long layoff. Janata Express train was being diverted from the up slow line to the up main line at Borachak, the station next to Asansol towards Delhi. The reception signals for the up main line were at danger. Haridwar Express, approaching Borachak by the up main line, passed the red signals and hurtled into the station. The switchman in charge of the Borachak cabin had the presence of mind to change the points of the up slow line at the last minute to prevent Janata Express from entering the up main line. Simultaneously he showed red signals to Hardwar Express and both trains stopped on adjacent lines with passengers of both trains unharmed.
The driver of Haridwar Express had been removed from service a few years earlier for causing an accident, but his punishment had been annulled by a court. In the interim, the signalling and other features of the section had undergone significant changes with the advent of electrification. As per procedure prescribed to ensure safety, a driver returning to duty after a layoff had to be tested for knowledge of rules and make several trips, known as “learning the road”, to familiarize himself with the signalling and layout of the section. He had to be certified by a loco inspector before being booked to drive a train independently. But in this case, there was so much sympathy for the returning zero that his superiors hurried through the process. To make matters worse, there was a shortage of express train drivers on the day he reported for booking so he was booked on Haridwar Express. In his very first assignment, he broke the rules and nearly killed innocent passengers.
This was the time of serious political turmoil in West Bengal. The Naxalite movement had taken off in the previous year and now it was spreading all over the state. Murders had become common in the coal fields area and the United Front government was unable to contain the violence. Jyoti Basu, Dy Chief Minister in the cabinet of Ajoy Mukherjee was emerging as a power to reckon with. Hare Krishna Konar, who was a minister and supporter of Jyoti Basu openly preached violence and his band of red shirted followers took upon themselves the task of protecting Jyoti Basu, ignoring the police security the state provided him. It became unsafe to travel in a car or other vehicle without flying a red flag. I would go for the prescribed quota of night inspections in my jeep with two strong men armed with lathis.
In the summer of 1967, a group of SCRA trainees from Jamalpur were undergoing training in the Electric Loco Shed in Asansol which was under the charge of MS Pai DEE TRS. One of the trainees was Venkateshwaran Anand, who retired in 2004 as General Manager, Southern Railway. In his memoirs, Close Encounters on Parallel Lines, Anand gives a graphic description of the conditions prevailing in Asansol.
“Sri MS Pai, DEE TRS was not only “gheraoed” but also subjected to a vicious slander campaign. Asansol was papered (sic) with posters proclaiming... (I am quoting only the least offensive slogans) “Gully gully main shor hai, MS Pai chor hai” (every lane resounds that MS Pai is a thief) One evening, as he was returning home, he was set upon and thrashed to within an inch of his life. He barely survived. The assault left permanent scars on his body and mind. He never fully recovered.
“Shri M.S Gujral, the DS (Divisional Superintendent) Asansol possessed immense personal courage and would brook no nonsense from the Unions.
One day a worker plunged to his death from an overhead electric gantry crane in the Asansol steam locomotive shed. The union leaders carried his body to Gujral’s office and “gheraoed” him demanding that he should lend his shoulder to carry the body to the burial ground, since he was morally responsible for the worker’s death! Gujral stood his ground. The agitators buried the body in front of the portico in DS’s office. Gujral had the body exhumed overnight and given a decent burial with proper Islamic rites.”
Pai’s fault was that he tried to control theft of mercury from locomotives in the shed. Pai was a topper in his batch. He and his batch mates were trained alongside traffic probationers in our familiarization course in Railway Staff College in Baroda in 1958. After this assault, Pai suffered from mental blanks and loss of memory. Although he continued to work, his career was affected and his junior N Venkatesan rose be Member Electrical Railway Board.
Many incidents occurred during my stay in Asansol. Bodies of victims of violence were found on railway platforms and in tanks and ditches around stations. Naxals attacked Baraboni station and threw bombs at it after asking the staff to leave. Following an accident in Andal in which a shunting porter was crushed between buffers, staff staged a demonstration threatening the DOS who happened to be in Andal. Thapar was tipped off in time and managed to escape. Things got worse in the following year, by which time I had moved to Dhanbad. In a deplorable incident Gujral was surrounded and manhandled knocking off his turban. The local Sikhs treated this as an insult to the community and called for retaliation. The police averted the outbreak of a riot with difficulty. For his own safety, Gujral was transferred to Dinapore Division.
MB Taly became a close friend during my second spell in Asansol. He was a successful operating officer, having worked as DOS in Dinapore and Dhanbad divisions. While he was loyal to Gujral he was aware of his foibles and we shared our views. Taly used to say that while Gujral was businesslike in his work he was not only impersonal but even indifferent in personal matters and ruthless when opposed. More about that later.
We had a good team of officers who responded splendidly to Gujral’s leadership. Apart from Thapar and RK Bannerjee, others in the team were Gulshan Rai DME (Power), AK Mukherjee DME (C & W), MD David DSTE, A Venkata Rao DEE (TRD) and LN Rao DEE (TRS).
Gujral nominated me for appointment as Deputy Commissioner Bharat Scouts and Guides heading the Divisional Scouting organization. I was not a scout in my school days, so I had much to learn but Indu was a girl guide in school. I got her inducted as Dy Commissioner Girl Guides. Eastern Railway had an active scouting organization. It was a pleasure to take part in their activities. We organized a State level Jamboree. Nine years old Srikant became a scout to join a camp in Nainital for his first outing away from home. We took a lot of interest in scouting activities in my subsequent postings.
Srikant had just been promoted to Class 5 in Bombay, where the academic session began in June, unlike the January-December session in Asansol, so he was readmitted to Class 5. He had to take Bengali as a subject, because while we were away in Bombay the West Bengal government had made the study of Bengali compulsory. I could have got him an exemption since I was in a transferable Central Govt. job but decided in favour of his learning the language. I had to employ a tutor for him. He was also a singer teaching Rabindra Sangeet. Indu learnt a few Bengali numbers from him.
I resumed working for Andhra Saraswata Sangham and was elected its President. We missed K Prasad who died when we were in Bombay. His family had provided funds for the best actress award in the Annual Drama competition conducted by the Sangham. Indu and Sita Venkata Rao won the awards. DSJ Rao left Kumardhubi and after working in Ramgarh and Raniganj moved to Durgapur Steel Plant where he ran into trouble and had to quit. There were new faces in the Sangham, notably B Bhaskar Rao, a civil engineer in the Asansol Planning Organisation and EVK Rao in United Commercial Bank. In June 1969, I was posted as DOS Dhanbad (DHN).