When I reported at Fairlie Place to join as STO (Allotment), my boss was MRN Murthy Deputy Chief Operating Superintendent (Goods), Dy OG for short. I had a good rapport with him and with BLC Sastry COPS. I met MRN Murthy for the first time in 1963 when he was on deputation with Durgapur Steel Plant. He was one of the bright traffic officers picked by GD Khandelwal GM SE Railway to set up railway operations in Steel Plants. I was impressed by the clarity in his approach and his courtesy to a junior officer. When I returned to Asansol in 1968, he was DS Adra. He moved to Eastern Railway when I was in Dhanbad replacing D Hariram who was posted as Joint Director (Coal). I would confide in him and in Hariram my woes in working with Sachdev. There was no love lost between him and Sachdev. Unlike Sachdev, he was directly recruited officer, not a War Service Candidate.
Although I did not report to Hariram, I had to work in close coordination with him. Moreover, despite being an operating job, work was mostly confined to office hours. I was able to spend more time with the family. But in 1970-71, the tenor of work changed for the worse, with increase in Naxalite activities and break down of law and order in West Bengal.
The general public reacted with fear on the one hand and tacit support on the other for some of the popular measures espoused by the Naxalites, like reducing doctors' fees and prices of essential commodities. Young, armed Naxalites would leave tiffin carriers in the houses of officers and supervisors in Liluah, and elsewhere, and demand food for their comrades. Families complied fearing repercussions. We lived in fear from day to day as events unfolded. Satish Bahl, Dy CME Liluah, who lived in the Colvin Court, Eastern Railway Officers’ Apartments in Howrah, became the victim of a Gherao and was rescued at the instance of West Bengal Governor Dhawan, who happened to be related to him. Security in Colvin Court was beefed up and a separate entrance gate provided for Officers' houses. Bahl was later transferred to CME's office.
At Burdwan railway station, the Naxals put up on the notice board a list of officials who were to be liquidated. The names of those who had been eliminated would be crossed out in red each day, spreading fear down the spines of the remaining people on the list. An APO of Liluah workshop was mowed down as he was walking back to office after the lunch break. SP Verma an Assistant Engineer who lived on the ground floor of our wing in Colvin Court suddenly left overnight along with his family on receiving a threatening letter. A group of young armed boys went to the residence of Bahl's successor Ganapati in Liluah, when he was in the office, and told his wife that they had come to kill her for some of her husband’s alleged acts of commission or omission. With uncommon presence of mind, Mrs Ganapati engaged them in talking and finally agreed to surrender to her fate after saying her prayers. She excused herself to go to the Puja room and managed to talk to her husband clandestinely. The boys escaped before arrival of the police and the Ganapatis caught Madras Mail the same evening never to return. In Chitpur yard a visiting Assistant Director was gheraoed for the whole day by workers to press their demands, just because he was from Railway Board.
On a visit to the burning ghat in Kalighat for the cremation of one of the clerks in the coal allotment office, I observed young, slogan shouting Naxalites bringing the bodies of their comrades killed in encounters with police. The walls of the ghats were filled with graffiti, some of them written in blood, promising to avenge the death of the deceased.
In Fairlie Place, discovery of a carbine in a toilet spread panic amongst the staff. Eastern Railway administration issued orders asking all officers and staff to leave office at 5 PM. The bus in which we commuted to office was fitted with expansion metal grills on the windows and escorted by armed guards. We travelled like criminals carted to jail. Evenings became long but we could not while away the time in the Howrah Railway Officers’ Club, situated across the road from Colvin Court. Armed boys had made it their adda to plan their activities. The only option was to stay indoors, meeting in each other’s apartments by turns to play cards.
With increase in adherents to the new ideology, violence gripped the state. Calcutta’s spicy night life came to a stop as the city downed its shutters at dusk. Chowringhee Road and Park Street remained deserted. Bands of armed youngsters roamed the streets and occupied public buildings. Gun shot and dying screams were heard over the gloomy darkness. Bodies were found in street corners and in ponds.
The Naxalites got their weapons by stealing them from the police often sneaking up behind unwary constables to snatch away their rifles. In desperation, the government directed all policemen to chain their rifles to their belts, but this only made the policemen less mobile. The central government stepped in by dismissing the elected government and imposing president's rule, to give a free hand to the governor to administer the state. After trying vainly to regain control using the demoralised police force, the governor asked for the army. Several regiments arrived and spread themselves in the state setting up camps near the worst affected areas. The green lawns of the Calcutta Maidan became spotted with the khaki of the army's tents and the streets reverberated to the sounds of flag marches. An uneasy calm settled on the state as the Naxalites considered their next move and the army lay in wait. Watching the army's inaction and the meagre sentries protecting the camps at night, the Naxalites decided to mount an operation against one of the army's outlying units. Crouching in the bushes outside the camp, two of them crept noiselessly behind a sentry and tried to jump him. But the jawan, far more alert and much better trained for combat than his counterparts in the police force, turned swiftly and fired two shots killing both his assailants on the spot. The ease with which the army swatted the Naxalite's first attack put the rebels on the defensive. The army, thereupon, seized the initiative, and started a combing operation, rounding up the miscreants, seizing arms and restoring the rule of law. The police too took heart from the success of the army and gradually regained its former hold on law and order and the army returned to its camps to await further orders.
Employees, distrusting the two recognised trade unions, grouped into category wise associations, each with an agenda inimical to others and, shunned by the railway administration, pressed their demands by resorting to sudden strikes without prior notice. One such wild cat strike took place in Dhanbad division when station staff downed tools and brought operations to a standstill. Trains could be run only by officers taking over the work of station staff. At the request of DS Dhanbad, GP Warrier General Manager, Eastern Railway sent a team consisting of AN Wanchoo, Dy CME (Running Loco), DRL for short, Ranjit Mathur, Tank Wagon Superintendent and me to assist the division. As a junior officer, I was surprised to find myself in the team. Warrier called me aside and told me that he had picked me because he had good reports of my relations with staff in the Dhanbad Division.
Wanchoo and Ranjit went to Dugda and I took a couple of trusted Traffic Inspectors with me to Kusunda. We despatched a few coal loaded trains to Steel Plants by doing the manual work of coupling wagons, operating points and signals etc ourselves. When we returned to Dhanbad in the evening to report on our work for the day, I found Sachdev in a despondent mood. Except for the Station Master, all the station staff of Pradhankhanta (PKA), a station next to Dhanbad towards Howrah, had deserted their posts. Coalfield Express, scheduled to reach Dhanbad at 10 PM, would have to be terminated in Asansol division. Pradhankhanta was also a junction for the branch line serving Patherdih, a source of coking coal for steel plants, and Sindri Fertilizers.
I left for Pradhankhanta at once along with MR Bhaskaran, Divisional Signals and Telecommunication Engineer (DSTE) Dhanbad and one Traffic Inspector. While the Station Master took care of the station master's office, we had to man 3 three signalling cabins. I took charge of the largest cabin the East side and arranged to receive Coalfield Express. I had to do all the operations myself, working on the block instruments, pulling the levers to set points and lower signals, keeping in touch with control office, station master and other cabins, all single handedly while Bhaskaran and the lone TI similarly managed the other two cabins. We remained at our posts till the evening of the following day. The next day, Piyush Sarkar AOS (T) Dhanbad, called me late in the afternoon. He had seen the trains moving smoothly across Pradhankhanta and had assumed that staff had returned to work. He was shocked when the DS told him that I was manning the Pradhankhanta cabin. Eastern Railway had called for help from the Territorial Army to break the strike. A railway unit of the Territorial Army led by Col Peter Impett was mobilised and entered Dhanbad division from Gaya. The unit consisted of railway staff, many of whom were station staff. As they passed through the division, the staff on strike realised the futility of continuing with the strike and began to return to duty. By the evening the strike was over, and I returned to Dhanbad. For the first time since I had known him, I heard Sachdev say that some good work had been done.
In the office too, leaders of the leftist Union, Eastern Railwaymens’ Union (ERMU) became uncooperative, aggressive and noisy in their protests against every perceived encroachment on the interests of their members. The office of COPS Eastern Railway was divides into sections to deal with each subject. Freight operations were handled by the ‘Goods’ section manned by ministerial staff (office clerks). Among these a group of clerks collected the stock position (status report of operations) from divisional control offices in the early hours of each morning, relay the information on telephone to the principal officers dealing with operations and compile a ‘stock report’ that would be laid on the tables of GM, COPS and other operating officers before their arrival in the office. None of these clerks had any experience of working on the field. This was a drawback to rectify which COPS and Dy COPS (Goods) decided to set up a Central Control Office, replacing the office clerks with operating staff drawn from the divisions. ERMU opposed the move and as the orders were about to be issued, MRN Murthy and the rest of the officers were gheraoed and subjected to much abuse. Rattled by the demonstration, MRN Murthy abandoned the scheme. Central Control was eventually established in calmer times.
MRN Murthy was later replaced by AK Bhaduri. Our relationship had been soured when worked together in Asansol in 1963. He continued to be difficult and we argued occasionally. He had a beautiful, ornate handwriting, of which he was justifiably proud. Mine was poor by comparison, to say the least. In school, I was regularly penalized for my bad handwriting. Yet, when drafts of letters, with a few corrections made by us in ink, were put up to GM for his signature, GP Warrier berated Bhaduri for his illegible handwriting. Bhaduri was peeved that the GM could read my poor writing but couldn’t decipher his artistic hand.
Unsettled law and order and industrial relations led to a severe shortage of wagons for loading coal that in turn resulted in unfulfilled demands even in priority sectors. Allotment of wagons became an exercise in keeping a balance between different sectors, trying to distribute the distress evenly. We did not always succeed. There were reports of closure of some industries and Directors of Industries in the states began to inflate their needs in the hope of getting a greater share of the allotments. Coal agents thronged the corridors of ER headquarters soliciting for wagon allotments. They tried to offer bribes to achieve their objectives. I did not like any of the agents to visit my house to solicit for wagons and avoided giving my residential address to them. One day I got a call from my friend, colleague and namesake, Amirapu Ramarao, a marine engineer on Eastern Railway, that someone had called on him mistaking his address to be mine and that he had directed him to my place, only to realise after the man left that he was a coal agent and was sure he was to no good as he was carrying a bag rattling with bottles. The coal agent turned up at my place with a bagful of liquor bottles. He brought his blind father along to show me how direly he needed wagon allotment. As was my habit I spurned his bottles, admonished him for troubling his father and sent him on his way.
But our efforts to help needy consumers gave rise to a case that left a bitter taste for a long time. Allotment of wagons for despatch of soft coke suffered due to its low priority and we were flooded with requests we could not meet. Eventually Hariram and I decided to allot a few wagons on ad hoc basis, taking care to distribute them as widely as possible. This touched off a controversy because MP Narang, President of Soft Coke Merchants Association felt that he should have been consulted. Apparently, he was hurt that he had been denied the fat commission he would surely have extracted from the beneficiaries. He complained that the action was incorrect, but we did not accept his view. An anonymous complaint was submitted to Railway Board but when the file was put up to BC Ganguli, Chairman Railway Board, for permission to investigate, Ganguly ordered closure of the case as the complaint was anonymous. Narang then sent a complaint addressed to the Minister of Railways through a Member of Parliament. This time Railway Board was forced to order an enquiry by the Director Traffic, Transportation, GS Saldanha. After talking to me and Hariram, Saldanha submitted his report to MT. By this time Hariram had moved to Railway Board. I was quite anxious about the outcome as Saldanha had been critical of our actions. I would often call Hariram to know the position, but the suspense continued for several months. Finally, Hariram called to say that the case had been closed. It seems the MP who had complained turned up one day to meet Kamalapati Tripathi, the Minister for Railways (MR), and reminded the MR about his complaint. MR sent for BM Kaul MT, who appeared accompanied by Hariram. MR asked what action had been taken against the officers mentioned in the complaint. Kaul told him the matter has been enquired into and there was no wrongdoing on the part of the officers. When the MP tried to argue Kaul stood up to his full height of 5' 4" and said if the MR is not satisfied, he was willing to quit. It was now the turn of MR and the MP to pacify Kaul and the MP requested Kaul to forget the case as he was withdrawing the complaint.
There were many, including some misguided officers in the Commercial Department, who tried to take advantage of the situation. BD Gupta, an officer known for his honesty and sincerity, posted as DCS (Line) Howrah called me to ask if it was permissible to book coal packed in gunny bags as smalls consignments from railway stations in Howrah Division. Rules and Regulations for despatch of coal by rail were laid down in the Coal Tariff by Indian Railways Conference Association (IRCA), the authority recognised by the government of India. The Coal Tariff envisaged despatch of coal in wagon loads directly from coal mines. There was no provision to despatch coal in small lots from anywhere else. Moreover, coal was a controlled commodity. The Coal Controller under the Ministry of Mines and the Coal Programming and Allotment organization under Indian Railways were set up to ensure that coal would be despatched only to genuine consumers strictly in order of priority. Defence, railways and power generation got the highest priority followed by industries sponsored by state governments.
Wagons were allotted by my office based on the availability of wagons as estimated by the office of Chief Operations Superintendent (COPS) Eastern Railway. There was no scope for despatch of coal in any other way. I informed Gupta accordingly and confirmed it through a short letter. A coal merchant was immediately challenged the letter in a court and obtained an injunction, opening the floodgates for booking coal in smalls from stations all over Eastern Railway. Efforts to get the injunction lifted led to further litigation and scores of orders from courts in favour of the litigants. While Gupta and like-minded officers thought they had achieved a marketing scoop, others used the opportunity to make a quick buck. Even High Courts failed to recognize that these orders were nullifying government’s efforts to ensure appropriate distribution of an essential commodity, or to understand that the coal booked in smalls had been illegally removed from coal mines. Eventually, when the cases reached the Supreme Court, many years later, BM Kaul, Member Traffic, Railway Board effectually presented the government’s arguments. The wise men of the apex court accepted his testimony and ruled in favour of the government.
Shortages invariably lead to corruption and this period was no exception. After allotting wagons to meet the needs of the priority sector, defence, railways and thermal power stations there were very few wagons left to allot to industries. The affected parties used every possible means to influence our decisions on allotment. Our office superintendent Satinath Bose (Sati Babu) also became a part of the game. But his method was subtle and slippery so he could never be pinned down despite our suspicions. It was his job to collect data about availability of empty wagons for loading in the coalfield divisions and place it before Jt Director (Coal) and me to make the allotments based on prescribed priorities and distress calls if any from the concerned consumers. Hariram and I would spend considerable time in understanding the complexities of the exercise and congratulate ourselves on completing the allotments and getting them approved by COPS but at the end of it we would find that Sati Babu had succeeded in making sure that the parties he supported got what they wanted, substantially, if not fully.
There were many others including those at the highest levels who literally blackened their hands in providing transport for coal. At one Thermal power station in UP, the sponsors inflated the programmes and carted off surplus coal from the coal stacks for sale in the black market. There was a category called brick burning coal that was sponsored by state governments but enjoyed a lower priority. We found it hard to meet their highly inflated programmes but managed to allot a few rakes state-wise on percentage basis just to keep the sponsors happy. This coal was usually sold in the market at high black-market prices. In October 1975, Mohammad Shafi Qureshi, Deputy Minister for Railways gave orders to allot rakes of brick burning coal, in preference to coal for the power sector, ostensibly for consumption in Kashmir. It was made out that the coal had to reach urgently before the onset of winter. Most of these rakes were diverted en route and consumed in UP, Haryana and Punjab and those who engineered this move made themselves rich. Thanks to the impeccable integrity of BM Kaul, officers in Railway Board’s Traffic Directorate were protected from unreasonable demands from Ministers, MPs and their hangers on. KS Bannerjee, Additional Director Traffic (Transportation), told the Minister’s secretariat that verbal orders on special out of turn allotments would not be implemented. KS Bannerjee told me not to accept verbal orders even from VP Sawhney, Director T (T). NC Gupta, Joint Director T(T) in charge of Coal in the Board’s office told me later that he carefully preserved the original orders, placing a cyclostyled copy in the file. When a vigilance case was filed on the subject, the Investigating Officer thought the orders were all faked and wanted to hold NC responsible for the out of turn allotments. NC showed him the originals and told him that if he had not preserved them, they would have disappeared from the files.
We were flooded with recommendations from original sponsors as well as their bureaucratic and political bosses, all of which we ignored but one incident stands out as an example of how far people were prepared to go to get a few wagons allotted. Obviously, profit margins were sky high. Hariram had been transferred to Railway Board and while we awaited the arrival of Ranjit Mathur to succeed him, I was holding fort for both the jobs. As we were preparing for the day’s task one day, Sati babu appeared with a frown on his face and announced that there was a visitor in the office bearing a letter from the Prime Minister. I told him to calm down and usher in the important visitor. He turned out to be a coal merchant carrying a sealed letter in an official envelope of the Prime Minister’s Office. The letter was signed by some junior functionary in PMO recommending allotment of wagons to some consumer. I dismissed the visitor and told Sati babu to ignore the letter as it had no authority on the subject.