SN Sachdev, Divisional Superintendent DHN was, like Gujral, a war service candidate in the Traffic department. In his early years he worked on the Western Railway before moving to Railway Board as a Joint Director. In line with IR's policy of grooming officers for higher positions, he was posted as DS in a coalfield Division. Like other outsiders entering Eastern Railway, he faced the supercilious and sometimes patronizing attitude of its officers. In Gujral, DS Asansol, who was junior to him, he found a formidable competitor. Gujral was already an established operating officer on ER treated with respect and awe. Early on, Sachdev was out of action with a minor ailment and Gujral was asked to hold additional charge of Dhanbad Division. Gujral had worked earlier as DOS Dhanbad and also DVS Dhanbad before Dhanbad became a full-fledged Division. He visited Dhanbad on an inspection tour and recorded a note pointing out many deficiencies in operations. Sachdev panicked, forced the DMO to declare him fit and wrote a counter to the GM. This set the DSs on a warpath that lasted till the end of their careers.
I met Sachdev for the first time when he was in Asansol to participate in the seminar of Divisional Superintendents organized under orders of Chairman Railway Board. I met him again when I escorted a batch of ROTC trainees for a visit to coal washeries in DHN division. Sachdev personally took us round the washeries and explained the nuances of rail operations in them. I met him for the third time when I travelled with GP Warrier GM Eastern Railway on his first visit to Dhanbad division. He was very courteous on all these occasions. But the reports I had heard from Romesh Chaudhury, MD Mathur and others who had worked with him were quite different. I was told that apart from being difficult to work with, Sachdev viewed anyone associated with Gujral with suspicion.
When I joined his team as DOS, I knew at once that I was unwelcome. He was keen to get the post for MP Shrivastava, who was DSO DHN but this time Shrivastava's gift for flattery failed. I was senior to him and I was picked by GM himself. Sachdev tried to take out his frustration on me. His trusted operating officer was Piyush Sarkar, AOS (T), who would brief him about the day's operating position every morning. Sachdev communicated with me through Piyush instead of directly speaking to me. So far, I was used to the direct approach of Gujral and others I had worked with. This was a new experience. It was not only humiliating to be ignored but also nerve-racking for the uncertainty of Sachdev's response to my work. He wouldn't be satisfied with anything I did, nagging like a mother-in-law. If he was consistent, it was only in never saying a good word. After a while, I got used to this procedure and decided to use it to my own advantage. I also decided that I would not allow this negative environment to affect my performance.
In the first month of my term, I toured the division extensively, partly on a motor trolley and partly on the foot plate of a locomotive, covering all the remote areas. From east to west Dhanbad Division extended for about 600 km from Pradhankhanta, a station next to Dhanbad towards Howrah, to Singrauli in Madhya Pradesh, a junction with Jabalpur Division of Central Railway. It included the Grand Chord from Pradhankhanta to Manpur just short of Gaya, the Barkakana loop from Gomoh to Garhwa Road, as well as the 130 km line from Garhwa Road, to Chopan, a junction with Allahabad Division of Northern Railway. Like Asansol Division, Dhanbad Division was a predominantly coal loading Division but, while the former was the main source of high grade steam coal mined in the Raniganj coalfield, the latter served the Jharia and Bokaro-Kargali coalfield, the main source of metallurgical coal required by steel plants.
As a probationer, I had visited all the important stations and yards in the Division, but much had changed in the intervening period. The Grand Chord (GC), from Pradhankhanta to Manpur, including branch lines connecting coal depot yards to the GC, was electrified. The percentage of wagons fitted with Centre Buffer Couplers (CBC) had increased. Larger consumers of coal were getting their supplies in full train loads of BOX wagons resulting in a reduction in the piecemeal loading of four wheelers with screw couplings. The Division had become bigger with the transfer of Daltonganj- Garhwa Road part of Barkakana loop from Dinapore Division and the addition of newly constructed line from Garhwa Road to Chopan and Singrauli. To enhance the quality of coking coal supplied to steel plants, Steel Authority of India Limited (SAIL) set up coal washeries at Patherdih and Dugda. Central Government entered the coal mining sector by forming the National Coal Mining Development Corporation (NCDC). NCDC acquired mining rights in the Bokaro and Karanpura Coalfields served by Barkakana loop.
A new coalfield was being developed Singrauli with the first close circuit railway in India for supplying coal to a new mega thermal power station under construction by the National Thermal Power Corporation (NTPC) at Shaktinagar. There were new thermal power stations at Patratu, near Barkakana and Obra near Chopan. Birla group set up an Aluminum factory at Renukoot using Bauxite from Tori and Latehar on the Barkakana loop. There was a new diesel loco shed in Patratu to provide diesel locomotives for hauling trains in the Barkakana loop. Except for the electrified sections, overhead telephone lines still provided communication and Chopan could only be reached via a radio telephone.
At the end of my tours, I assessed the potential for improving the performance of the Division against the targets laid down by headquarters and prepared my plan of action. The first requirement was to improve mobility on the Gomoh Gaya section of the GC. Goods trains were being slowed down because the loop lines of several stations were blocked for one reason or another, making it difficult to arrange precedence to mail/express and passenger trains. At some stations, hot axle wagons were occupying the loop lines because the hot axle sidings were full. Four-wheeler wagons were fitted with axle boxes that had brass bearings. For lubrication, wads of waste cotton soaked in lube oil were placed between the brass bearings and the journals of the axles. A thin layer of white metal was placed just above the waste. The heat from friction between the brass and the journals would dry up the waste and burn it. This would first melt the white metal, followed by the brass. If the vehicle continued its journey, the journal would break, and the vehicle would derail. To prevent such derailments, drivers, guards and station staff were trained to detect a hot axle in its early stage and detach it from the train. The detached vehicle would be examined by a train examiner and either marked fit to run or to be repaired in the nearest sick line. If clearance of these wagons from stations was delayed, hot axle wagons detached subsequently had to be placed on loop lines. Loop lines were also frequently blocked by stabled loads, trains whose locomotives are detached to be used elsewhere.
A steam loco hauled “work train" served goods sheds on the section and cleared hot axle wagons detached from through goods trains. The train failed to perform its assigned tasks because it could barely cover half the section each day. Being the slowest train in the section it got the last priority for passage. The detentions led to the locomotive running out of water and coal and the staff having to be relieved for working long hours. Mobility of the section was vitally linked to the performance of this slow, low priority train.
On my first day in office, I found, on my table, several notes from SK Jain, DME (Power) pointing out lapses by operating department that were affecting loco maintenance. He marked these notes to DS for information and on some of them DS asked for my remarks. There were also notes from DS asking for my explanation for some perceived lapse in operation on the previous day. Replying to these notes was cumbersome and time consuming. They interfered with my normal work, all the more so because, more often than not, Sachdev would respond with another note. I had learnt that in operations one should keep paperwork at a minimum and I was unwilling to let Sachdev change my habits. Office Superintendent of DOS (T) Dhanbad maintained a Register of Mechanical Failures and the OS of DME (Power) likewise kept a record of Factors Affecting Mechanical Operations (FAMOR). I walked up to Jain’s chamber and persuaded him to close the Registers since the only way to improve things was to work together, not against each other.
A major issue that caused disputes between the Operating and Mechanical Departments was the availability and performance of steam locomotives. The number and type of locomotives based in each loco shed was decreed in a “power plan" approved by the COPS. The locomotive requirement for each service depended on the “turn-round", the time taken for a locomotive to return to the shed at end of the service. If inefficiencies developed in maintenance or in operations, the service would run out of schedule and each department would blame the other for the results. I accompanied Jain to loco sheds and Jain joined me in the marshalling yards to instill trust and confidence between the two departments. We resolved to pep up steam services in the division by making the supervisors of both departments work together in ensuring right time offering of locos by the loco sheds and right time departure of the coal pilots and work trains by the yards.
On the Grand Chord, I made sectional Traffic Inspectors responsible for making sure that the work train completes its assigned work efficiently. Section controllers were asked to provide passage to the work train with least possible detentions en route. The Grand Chord became uncluttered within a few days. Utilization of electric locomotives and throughput – the number of trains pushed through the section in a day – improved significantly.
Similar schemes were drawn up for improving the working of coal pilots. I held meetings with guards of coal pilots individually and along with the depot yard masters to understand the methodology. Often, the guards made interesting suggestions themselves and all they needed was my support. Piyush Sarkar my AOS (T) involved in all the schemes I worked out. I asked him to inform the DS before launching the scheme. He was a loyal assistant. He would explain the plan and its benefits to Sachdev, and we would await his reaction. The next day or the day following, Sachdev would ask Piyush, “What happened to your DOS (T)’s scheme?” I would take that as his approval and proceed to implement it.
I adopted a similar approach with other departments, and it paid off. With the cooperation of my colleagues I put my ideas into practice and results began to show in the form increased coal loading and improved wagon turnround and locomotive usage. During the ten months I stayed as DOS Dhanbad, the divisional record for coal loading was bettered four times. Apart from Jain, and his successor SAH Abidi, I had great support from BP Agarwal DME (C&W), PK Mukherjee DEE (Operations) and his AEE KK Hans, MR Bhaskaran DSTE, Kashyap DEN 1, Bhima Rao DPO and AK Bannerjee DAO. My friend Shrivastava's main contribution was to tell me of Sachdev's reactions but I was never too sure how much of it he had made up himself. Piyush Sarkar, Chief Controller Gopal Chakravorty and TI (Planning) Ajit Mukherjee ably assisted me. The sub-control office in Barkakana was well managed by KD Sarkar AOS (T) and Deputy Controller Ramsevak.
Acknowledging the level of understanding of operations displayed by Hans and Bhaskaran, I would call them AOS (Electrical) and DOS (Signalling) respectively. At that time, only IRSE, IRSME and IRTS officers were considered for posts of DSs and GMs. Bhaskaran and Hans were better than many who rose to be DSs and GMs from those services. Bhaskaran later became General Manager of Central Organization for Railway Electrification (CORE).
If I thought Sachdev was being difficult with me because I had beaten MP Shrivastava to the post of DOS, I was soon proved wrong. He behaved like that with all his officers, including with Shrivastava, despite his bluff of calling himself the boss's favourite. Shrivastava blatantly flattered his boss, the current one being always the best. The only other person I knew who could match him was Vir Saksena. After I left Howrah division in 1962, Vir became ACS (HG) and MP Shrivastava ACS (HC) under BM Khanna. They would vie with each other in flattering Khanna, who calls, tongue in cheek, this period the best time of his career, adding that he had, of course, to do all the work as neither of them were capable of going into details and offering suggestions. Shrivastava would praise everything about Sachdev, be it his dress, his gait or his family. Once he famously averred that Sachdev’s daughter would emulate Indira Gandhi.
We, the officers of Dhanbad division, called ourselves the 'Sufferers Club' and amused ourselves by recounting the latest stories about Sachdev, whom we called Mama. Sachdev would appear in the Chief Controller's chamber in the morning and for the next couple of hours he would be finding fault with everyone over everything. He would calm down when coffee was served and chat for a while before leaving for his chamber. He would call us to his chamber just before closing time, detaining us there while he was vented his ire on someone who had nothing to do with us. We were often held up in his office well beyond lunch time while our families waited for us impatiently. He wouldn't offer seats to any of us, making us stand against the wall like convicts lined up before a firing squad.
During inspections, Sachdev would emerge from his inspection carriage with a scowl on his face and for the next two hours harangue everyone in sight. He would stop only at the tea break and we would engage him in small talk to change his mood. I had occasion to see his soft side once when we were at the site of an accident near Daltonganj. We adjourned to the nearest railway officers’ rest house in Garhwa Road after an arduous day. When we had freshened up, he offered me a cup Horlicks with a smile.
He had a different way of dealing with officers who did not work directly under him. A typical case was that of BD Gupta that I named 'The three faces of Mama'. BD Gupta first visited Dhanbad in Sachdev's regime when he was Vigilance Officer. Sachdev sent an Inspector to the railway station to receive him and escort him to DS office in DS's official car. In the office, he was offered a seat, treated to coffee and biscuits and the DS chatted with him with due deference. Emerging from DS's chamber Gupta entered my room and derided me and other friends for needlessly maligning Sachdev. We told him that Sachdev knew the Vigilance Officer's nuisance value and was just taking precautionary measures. Gupta remained unconvinced. The next time Gupta arrived he had shifted to the post of Chief Publicity Officer (CPUO) whose main job was to increase the railway's earnings through advertisements. His mission was to find locations to put up hoardings. This time no one went to receive him. Gupta walked up to the office, met the DCS and other concerned officials and went to make a courtesy call on the DS. After being made to hang around for a major part of the day he was finally shown in around 5 PM. Sachdev did offer him a seat but no tea and asked him testily what he wanted, implying that he was too preoccupied to attend to him, and that Gupta should get his job done at a lower level.
The third time, Gupta arrived to take over as DCS in the leave vacancy of BM Khanna. Khanna was cheeky enough to leave Dhanbad on the evening of Friday preceding the Monday on which his leave was to commence. Gupta arrived on Monday morning and went to report to the DS. An angry Sachdev took out his ire at Khanna's absence on poor Gupta. He met with the standard treatment in the evening, joining the line of the accused. All of Gupta's doubts about Sachdev's qualities got cleared up once and for all with this experience. I wrote a story titled Doctor in the Soup* based on an episode involving the Divisional Medical Officer (DMO).
*Nemesis – a Tale of the Emergency and other Stories (2019: Notion Press, Chennai)