When GD Khandelwal CRB retired at the end of 1970, BC Ganguli succeeded him. One of the first orders issued by the new CRB was a complete reshuffling of DSs. Gujral, who had moved to Dinapore earlier was now transferred to Delhi. Ganguli said that he wanted to keep an eye on Gujral. Sachdev was shifted to Dinapore and replaced by AK Mukherjee from the Mechanical Department. PC Luthar, also from the Mechanical Department, was posted in Asansol in place of AK Bhaduri, who moved to headquarters as Dy COPS (Goods), replacing MRN Murty. There was an unwritten convention on Eastern Railway that only traffic officers should head coalfield divisions in view of the complexity of operations involved. Operating officers were understandably concerned about the consequences of the new disposition.
Luthar was bold and dynamic, bubbling with ideas on management that he often shared with me. But he was at the wrong place at the wrong time for his ideas to succeed. The situation in Asansol Division needed more than just management ideas. Asansol, Howrah and Sealdah Divisions were the worst affected by the breakdown of law and order in West Bengal. Coal loading in Asansol Division depended on availability of empty wagons released from incoming loaded wagons in Howrah and Sealdah Divisions, in both of which operations were at a low ebb. Agitators squatted on the tracks for the flimsiest of issues. Unrecognized, category-wise unions ruled the roost, threatening to go on wild cat strikes for every conceivable cause. Gangs of Naxalites, many of them railway employees, roamed the workplaces and streets disrupting work. Officers going out on inspections were threatened and the bus carrying trainees from the Railway Officers’ Training Centre was prevented from entering Andal yard. Luthar’s predecessor AK Bhaduri, fearing for his own life and that of his officers, continuously pestered the General Manager asking for protection.
However, conditions in Dhanbad division were different. Law and order were better maintained in Bihar than in West Bengal and operations in Asansol and Dhanbad impacted each other only to a limited extent. Unlike Asansol Division, Dhanbad division received empty freight wagons from Northern Railway, via Dinapore Division. Northern Railway had no comparable problems and operations in Dinapore division were under control. But the performance of Dhanbad division slumped to an extent unwarranted by the situation. Coal loading did not match the availability of empty wagons, yards and sections were bloated with rolling stock and utilization of locomotives dropped below acceptable levels.
BLC Sastri COPS sent me to Dhanbad to determine the reasons for the fall in performance. I visited the stations and yards in Dhanbad division which were congested to assess the situation before returning to Dhanbad to meet the DS and DOS MP Shrivastava. AK Mukherjee depended entirely on his DOS and Shrivastava fed him with excuses for failure and tried to defend himself by questioning the veracity of past achievements. Mukherjee asked me why the division was not performing as well as it did when coal loading records were broken. I explained to him the reasons for the congestion and suggested remedial measures. Shrivastava seemed to have no clue.
From Dhanbad I went to Mughal Sarai, where Ashok Bhatnagar was DOS (T). Mughal Sarai is the western outpost of the Eastern Railway forming a junction with Northern Railway which forks here into the Allahabad and Lucknow routes. As coal production increased, volume of traffic through Mughal Sarai increased steadily, making Mughal Sarai yard, the largest marshalling yard in the country, perhaps in Asia. Mughal Sarai Up yard was the first in India to be mechanized, followed by the Down yard a few years later.
Dinapore Division consisted of two routes. The original main line from Jhajha to Mughal Sarai via Patna along the Ganges, constructed by East Indian Railway in the latter part of the nineteenth century and the Grand Chord from Gaya to Mughal Sarai via Dehri-on-Sone opened in 1906. With increase in volume of traffic passing through the Grand Chord, it became necessary to separate management of the operations of the two sections. A new post of DOS (T) Mughal Sarai was created at Mughal Sarai for the purpose. Ashok Bhatnagar had proved his worth as an operating officer as DOS (T) Howrah and Dinapore. I thought that he would be the right person for Dhanbad. I shared my opinion with him and on my return to Calcutta, I suggested to COPS to post Bhatnagar in Dhanbad.
In March 1971, the Pakistan Army launched Operation Searchlight to curb the Bengali nationalist movement in East Pakistan by eliminating all opposition, political or military within one month. The atrocities that followed in Bangladesh resulted in genocide, killing close to a million people. According to The Dawn Karachi,
“The estimate of deaths swings between 300,000 to three million. Reports say that some 220,000 girls and women were raped. Some foreign agencies reported that more than 10 million refugees fled to India.”
These events cast their shadows over West Bengal. Hordes of refugees began to arrive in Calcutta, narrating harrowing tales of oppression. The West Bengal government had a hard time dealing with them. Eastern Railway nominated me to a panel set up by the state government for the rehabilitation of the refugees. The situation got worse, with tensions rising so much on both sides of the border that it led eventually to a war that resulted in the creation of a new country, Bangladesh. While the army was preparing for all eventualities, the monsoon – and melting Himalayan snows – caused severe floods in Bihar and West Bengal impeding the movement of troops, arms and ammunition. In North Bengal, a rail bridge on the River Pagla on the route to the Eastern front was washed away. NF Railway engineers estimated that it would take a couple of months to rebuild the bridge and restore traffic. This being unacceptable to the army, BC Ganguli, Chairman Railway Board personally visited the site and designed a temporary wooden bridge that enabled restoration of traffic in a fortnight, pending building of a regular steel bridge. A model of this bridge is displayed in National Rail Museum, but his ungrateful successors have neglected to give credit for the bridge to Ganguli. Ganguli was also responsible for getting the bridge over the Farakka Barrage, scheduled for opening in January 1972, completed ahead of time to help in the war effort.
On a different front, the central Government, concerned about poor working conditions in the privately owned coal mines and unscientific mining practices adopted by some of them, decided to nationalize the private coal mines. In October 1971, the government took over the management of coking coal mines and coke oven plants in public interest, pending nationalization. KSR Chari, a senior mining engineer was appointed as Officer on Special Duty (OSD) to oversee the transfer of the mines to the government. At the request of the Ministry of Mining, Railway Board asked Eastern Railway to depute an officer familiar with coalfield operations to liaise with the OSD and COPS nominated me for the purpose.
The mine owners were reluctant to part with the mines and when they were forced to do so they resorted to every possible trick to salvage as much of their property as possible. Chari wanted railways to help him in evacuating coal from the sensitive mines, as indicated by him. I spent a fortnight in Dhanbad working closely with him. He was the Chairman designate of Bharat Coking Coal Limited (BCCL), a new Central Government Undertaking that was to be announced soon. He liked my work and proposed my name for posting in the Ministry of Mines as the coordinating officer for BCCL. However, my batchmate Sunil Kanti Dhar was appointed to the post. Chari told me later that Dhar was appointed at the instance of the distaff side of the Minister’s family.
The Railway Board showed its displeasure at Eastern Railway's poor performance, without trying to understand the factors outside Eastern Railway's control, by sending a High Level Team, consisting of Parameshwar Sahay, Member Mechanical, C Parameswaran, Secretary Railway Board and KS Bannerjee Additional Director Traffic (Transportation) to report on the failures of the railway. The team got a taste of conditions when the train to which their carriage was attached was held up for four hours short of Burdwan by people squatting on the track. At Howrah, before the visiting team could alight, their carriage was surrounded by several hundred employees shouting slogans asking them to go back. “We don’t need advice”, they shouted, “we need protection.”
The visitors remained confined to their saloon. Eventually, the General Manager had to go to Howrah station to meet them. They were so unnerved by the experience that hey refused to go to Fairlie Place for a meeting with the GM and his officers. Instead, they preferred to be escorted straight to the airport for the evening flight to Delhi. Nonetheless, in their report to Railway Board they held the administration of Eastern Railway responsible for the mess. BLC Sastri was made the scapegoat and transferred to Southern Railway. Sastri, accustomed to the hustle and bustle of Eastern Railway operations for two decades, couldn’t help calling the Goods Section in Fairlie Place from Chennai every morning, to collect data on Eastern Railway’s performance, for a long time afterwards. One can visualise him gloating to find that things hadn’t improved after his departure.
GP Warrier, who was General Manager, Eastern Railway at the time describes the incident in his book Times and Tides and my Railway Days. According to him BC Ganguly, Chairman Railway Board knew the position and had only words of encouragement and appreciation for Warrier and his team, but officers of the Traffic (Transportation) Directorate, whom he disparagingly calls “people who counted wagons loaded and unloaded, not realising that this process is possible only when trains are free to move”, maneuvered to get the expert team to visit Eastern Railway. M Swaminathan was Member Traffic Railway Board, and GSA Saldanha was Director Traffic (Transportation), assisted by KS Bannerjee Additional Director T(T). The episode left us with the uncomfortable feeling that they were more interested in settling some old scores than in genuinely helping the cause of the ailing Eastern Railway.
The new COPS was Chandidas (CD) Chatterjee from South Eastern Railway. Like Asit Bhaduri, he was an alumnus of St Stevens College, Delhi. According to Bhaduri, Bengali students of St Stevens were awed by CD’s performance and treated him as a role model. Meanwhile PR Pusalkar, after a successful career on Central Railway, was posted as Sr DGM Eastern Railway and COPS in waiting, ostensibly to further his career. The inside story was that the government had transferred Maharastrian officers on Central Railway suspected of being sympathetic to the new movement launched by Shiv Sena in Bombay.
CD Chatterjee had earned a dubious reputation as TS (Safety) by suppressing or downgrading accidents to win the Safety Shield for SE Railway. In his zeal to better Sastri's performance by increasing coal loading on Eastern Railway he asked DOSs of the coalfield divisions to artificially boost the availability of empties for coal loading and take credit for loading for this inflated figure of empties. As was to be expected, the earnings from coal loading published by the commercial department, based on invoiced tonnage did not match the claims of the operating department. Shanti Basu, Coal Area Superintendent Dhanbad, the commercial officer who controlled issue of invoices for booking of coal, expressed his concern and asked me to bring it to the notice of COPS. I shared this information with Peter Impett, Joint Director (Coal), who advised me to undertake a detailed enquiry and put up a report to COPS.
My enquiries confirmed Shanti Basu’s apprehensions. There was a noticeable gap between the confirmed loading figures relayed by operating department to Railway Board on day to day basis and the invoiced figures of loading issued by the commercial department. CD Chatterjee called me to his room on reading the note and asked me to stay on after office hours. When I mentioned that I had to catch the staff bus, he offered to drop me home. I was surprised because CD Chatterjee stayed in Garden Reach while I lived in Howrah. On the way to Garden Reach he asked me why I had put up the note. I said that it was my duty to inform him about the inconsistency. He told me that there was no need to put it in writing and asked me to remove the note from the file. I did as I was told but the facts could not be hidden for long and CD Chatterjee’s bluff was called in due course.
Eastern Railway provided the only broad-gauge access to East Pakistan for the war with Pakistan in 1971. Consequently, Eastern Railway – and Sealdah division in particular – bore the brunt of traffic movement, handling refugees, troops, arms and ammunition. At the end of the war, the movement of 95,000 Pakistani Prisoners of War out of the newly formed Bangladesh was also handled by Eastern Railway. KK Das, DS Sealdah, Dyutish Sarkar, DOS (T) and others toiled day and night to perform their tasks to the satisfaction of the army authorities. Other divisions ensured smooth flow of traffic under the guidance and monitoring of officers in COPS's office. But, when Railway week awards were announced in April 1972, no one from Eastern Railway qualified for mention. Instead, Joginder Singh Oberoi, DOS Jabalpur, was awarded for facilitating the movement of some 30,000 POWs who had landed in Cantonments on Jabalpur Division! Was it due to the casual attitude of Eastern Railway's bosses or the Railway Board's continuing antipathy against the Eastern Railway?
We celebrated the victory of the Indian army and the birth of Bangladesh. 1st JAK Rifles, in which my brother Capt AL Sharma AMC (nicknamed Babu) was a medical officer, was one of the units stationed in West Bengal for restoring law and order. It was deployed in the Jessore sector during the war. For his bravery on the battlefield Babu earned a Sena Medal that was pinned on his uniform by Field Marshall Sam Maneckshaw in a special investiture ceremony in Ramgarh. He came to Calcutta after the war to a hero's welcome by our friends. Satish and Chhabi Behl, who were reluctant to allow hoi polloi to enter their well-furnished drawing room, specially opened it for Babu, when they invited us after his return from the front.
Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s popularity scaled new heights after the success of her policies vis a vis Pakistan and the signal victory in the war that followed. Her party, the Indian National Congress swept the polls in 1972 and a Congress government under Siddhartha Shankar Roy took office in West Bengal. The new government took strong steps to restore law and order and the state gradually returned to normalcy.
In November 1971, Chairman Railway Board BC Ganguli ran afoul of the Minister for Railways, K Hanumanthayya, a senior Congress leader and former Chief Minister of Karnataka. During his visits to the railways, Hanumanthayya displayed a domineering attitude and impatience with railway officers. Ganguli was an experienced engineer, proud of his prowess, in no mood to be ordered about. When they fell out, Ganguli began to avoid the Minister and even cut himself off from Members of the Railway Board. In December 1971 Ganguli ignored the Minister's orders to cancel his tour programme and boarded his Inspection Carriage at Delhi Sarai Rohilla station. Under the Minister's orders the carriage was detached from the train and Ganguli, finding himself at the starting station in the morning, resorted to a sit-in strike. The Minister responded by issuing orders terminating Ganguli's post retirement extension and, when he refused to accept the order, MS Gujral, DS Delhi was asked to paste the order on Ganguli's carriage. What an ignominous exit for an upright engineer who had given his best for the railways! But Hanumanthayya himself was dropped from the Cabinet in the next reshuffle. Ironically, eleven years later Gujral would meet a similar fate.
With the departure of Ganguli, M Swaminathan, Member Traffic also put in his papers and BM Kaul became the new Member Traffic. Soon after he took charge, he visited Asansol division along with KS Bannerjee. Kaul was known for his mercurial temper. My colleagues on SE Railway recited many stories of flying files and paper weights when Kaul threw a tantrum, which was often. I was deputed to represent COPS. When I met him, KS Bannerjee tried to introduce me but Kaul immediately recalled that I had shown him round the fertilizer factory in Trombay when he was COPS Central Railway. During his inspection of Andal Marshalling Yard, PC Luthar DS Asansol tried his best to please Kaul but at the Central Tower at Andal, Kaul, lost his temper on hearing the jingle of plates and spoons in preparation for a snack break. He refused to eat or drink anything until he had completed what he had come for, namely get the yard moving. Later, when Kaul left for Farakka, KS Bannerjee told me to return to Calcutta. Kaul threw more tantrums at Farakka and on his return to Delhi got Luthar replaced by his trusted Western Railway Traffic officer, Capt R Srinivasan as DS Asansol.
Our prospects for promotion were very poor, at the time, and most of us expected to retire at no higher level than as deputy heads of department. Officers’ Associations became active on all railway zones to press for improvement in our prospects by restructuring the cadres. I was elected as Joint Secretary of Eastern Railway Officers’ Association with AK Gupta CCS as President and Hrishikesh Bandyopadhyay as Secretary. Many railway officers from all departments left IR seeking greener pastures. While Engineers of all hues found lucrative posts easily, traffic officers like me, lacking professional qualifications, found it risky to leave.
Laurie Albuquerque, Transportation Adviser to Fertilizer Corporation of India (FCI), sent a request to Railway Board asking for volunteers for deputation to FCI with the option to get absorbed later. FCI had been expanding with the adoption of naphtha-based process of manufacture and several new factories had come up. Railway Board circulated the request to all zonal railways. I got to know about Board’s circular from Dy CPO (Gazetted), who told me that COPS had declared that he could not spare anyone. Earlier, BLC Sastri had refused to spare me to appear for a suitability test for working in computers. When I insisted, he advised me to take the test but make sure that I fail in it. I had told him that I am not in the habit of failing tests. I topped in the test but a posting in computers never came my way. When I asked COPS about Albuquerque’s request, he defended his action saying that no one would volunteer. I asked him for one day to get the volunteers and presented him with a list of 14 officers including MB Taly, then Deputy DS Asansol and me. Our names were duly approved by Railway Board and Taly was relieved in December 1971 to take the position I had held in Trombay earlier.
I was to be posted in the corporate office of the FCI as a deputy to Albuquerque, but I was not released by Eastern Railway. GP Warrier persuaded me to stay on and posted me as Dy COPS (Safety), on temporary promotion, in place of Asit Bhaduri who had been posted as DS Samastipur on NE Rly. Bhaduri was reluctant to go and delayed handing over charge so I was posted as Dy COPS (Coaching) and soon afterwards as Dy COPS (Emergency), a post meant to act as a trouble shooter for the COPS. In this capacity, I visited Andal to check the conditions for myself. PK Bandopadhyay who was in the second batch trained in ROTC was posted as Area Officer Andal. Since the departure of Gujral, things had deteriorated so much that very little could be done to get things moving. Discipline was at an all-time low, law and order still uncertain and theft of railway materials high. Freight trains and coal pilots waited for hours outside signals for want of lines to receive them. Operations over the Andal hump were not worth a mention.
After my inspection of Andal, I proceeded to Asansol to meet the new DS. I had met Capt R Srinivasan in Asansol when he came there to attend the DS's seminar. He was a War Service Candidate like Gujral and Sachdev but, unlike them, he wanted to be known by his army rank. He welcomed me and spoke kindly and courteously. I gave him a gist of my observations in Andal for initiating necessary action. He said things have been neglected on the Division and he was trying to rectify them. His tone seemed to imply that his predecessors had deliberately abdicated their responsibilities or were inefficient and lacked the will to do better and he had come with a new broom to clear up the mess. I wished him luck and took pains to explain to him that just a few months ago, no officer could enter Andal yard, much less improve operations.
CD Chatterjee’s attempts to show improvement on Eastern Railway having failed, he was transferred back to SE Railway, making way for PR Pusalkar to take charge as COPS. Pusalkar asked me to go and stay in Andal to oversee operations. I spent a good part of summer there trying to improve operations but, in the conditions existing, it was an exercise in futility. One morning, PK Bandopadhyay, Area Officer Andal, got a call from the DS in the course of which Srinivas gave vent to his ire against the staff of Andal who had compiled the statement showing the disposition of goods rolling stock at midnight, known in railway parlance as 0-Hours position. Srinivasan was upset because horizontal and vertical totals in the matrix did not tally. He ordered Bandopadhyay to suspend the clerk who had compiled the statement.
News of the suspension spread like wildfire across Andal and within a short time there was a gathering of staff outside Bandopadhyay’s office shouting slogans and demanding withdrawal of the suspension orders. Posters came up on the walls all over Andal against the DS. Reverberations of the agitation soon reached Asansol. Srinivasan panicked and ordered Bandopadhyay to cancel the suspension orders. When Bandopadhyay asked for my advice, I told him that as per rules suspension orders should be withdrawn after the suspended employee is issued a charge sheet, but Srinivasan pestered him insisting on withdrawing the suspension orders forthwith. Bandopadhyay had no option but to follow the orders of the DS.
BM Kaul visited Asansol again during this period. Pusalkar was there too and I was witness to the machinations of Pusalkar and Srinivasan to remove all vestiges of Gujral's work. During one of my occasional visits to Kolkata, I was with Mulu Wala, Secretary to GM Eastern Railway, when Pusalkar walked in. As we waited for GM to be free, Pusalkar said that nothing was wrong with the Eastern Railway, it was the officers on Eastern Railway who were bad. Mulu and I were shocked to hear this from an officer who had come to Eastern with a reputation of being a good manager.
GP Warrier, on the other hand was always approachable and supportive. He paid glowing tributes to officers of Eastern Railway in his book. When I returned to Calcutta in June 1972 and met GP Warrier, he told me that there was no post of Dy COPS available for me and he reluctantly let me go on deputation to Fertilizer Corporation of India. Warrier was transferred to Central Railway in July 1972 and was succeeded by VP Sawhney.
Sawhney was the first Divisional Superintendent of Dhanbad Division when it was created in 1962. He had an excellent rapport with many of the Eastern Railway officers. Hrishikesh Bandopadhyay, who was Dy COPS (Goods) had worked under him at Dhanbad as Divisional Operating Superintendent. Pusalkar’s attitude was resented by his officers and was not supported by Sawhney. Within a short time Sawhney arranged to ease Pusalkar out of Eastern Railway.
In his book, GP Warrier observes,
“There is no easier way to alienate a new team of people, with whom you are not familiar, than by finding fault with all what they have been doing, and that too without understanding the rationale behind all those practices.”
Perhaps, he had Pusalkar in mind when he cited as an example,
“,,, a very outstanding officer, who had earned a very high reputation n a major railway, was posted to study another system so that, after a few months of familiarization, he could take over the reins of administration from the number one who was retiring. The gentleman, in his enthusiasm, started finding fault with the various practices in that system and spoke always in eulogy of the methods he had adopted in his parent railway, thus running down the railway in which he should have now become part and parcel. This caused aa hostility to him amongst the senior officers. They did not extend him the necessary cooperation. The new methods, which he tried to adopt, failed totally. In the end, he cut a sorry figure. This, otherwise brilliant, person had to suffer a setback in his career.”