When I reported to Eastern Railway on return from deputation to Fertilizer Corporation of India in June 1975, I was asked to await my posting orders as there was no post available for me. However, when the Central government declared a state of emergency all over the country, I was posted as Deputy Chief Commercial Superintendent (Claims -Accident) in place of PN Kalra IRTS 1957, who was transferred and posted as Deputy Divisional Superintendent Dhanbad.
My first day in the office of the Chief Commercial Superintendent Eastern Railway, located in a brick red building at 3, Koilaghat Street was memorable. Following the declaration of Emergency, government issued a slew of orders to enforce law and order and impose discipline on government employees. In Calcutta, office staff were notorious for their indifference to punctuality. Their lackadaisical attitude was compounded by the rigors of living and commuting to their workplace. High levels of humidity, unfriendly approach to the nearest railhead, long journey in overcrowded suburban trains that were often off schedule, the rush from the suburban station platforms in Howrah and Sealdah to bus and tram termini and the final lap to office in overcrowded buses and trams, took a toll of their energies and temper, leaving them irritable, impatient and volatile, aggressively resistant to any attempt to control them. Over the years, office managers abandoned ideas of enforcing discipline in the interests of industrial peace, learning to live with the situation and accepting it as a part of the city’s culture. In 1960, an attempt to enforce discipline in the office by a Chief Commercial Superintendent who had come on transfer from Southern Railway had failed.
On the day I took up my duties, an unexpected downpour left the transportation system in disarray. Trains ran late due to signal failures caused by short circuiting of track circuits and most roads in Calcutta were flooded. Under government instructions, attendance registers of office staff, normally kept in the custody of Assistant Commercial Superintendents, were removed to the chambers of Deputy Chief Commercial Superintendents ten minutes after the office opened. A cross was placed against the names of all those who had not already signed. They would lose half a day’s leave and if they turned up more than an hour late, they would be marked absent. Late comers had to sign the registers in the presence of the superior officer.
Attendance registers of my staff were placed on a table in a corner of my chamber. Late comers trooped into my room in single file, sheepishly, cloth bags hanging from their shoulders, their clothes wet, and their footwear splattered with mud. I felt sorry for them, as they eyed the attendance registers covetously, but couldn’t help them as the government had assumed full powers to deal with defaulters with a stern hand. As I explained the rules, they listened quietly and signed the register silently, except for two trade union activists who preferred to take the day off.
My post was created to settle claims arising out of an accident that occurred on January 29, 1975, when 43 up Darjeeling mail rammed the rear of a H 185 up Sealdah Habra local at Ultadanga Road station on Sealdah division of Eastern Railway, killing more 82 passengers and injuring more than 120 others. In terms of Indian Railways Act, next of kin of those killed in the accident and the injured were entitled to compensation. Eligible claimants had to submit their claims to the Claims Commissioner appointed for the purpose. The post of Dy CCS (Accident Claims) was created to present the Eastern Railway's case in the court of the Claims Commissioner. I was assisted by a Senior Claims Officer and three claims inspectors (CI).
I had returned to the Commercial Department after an absence of thirteen years, during which I had earned my wings in the operating department. I took up the work with the sense of urgency to which I had now become accustomed in managing railway operations and found the laid-back approach in CCS office difficult to accept. Fortunately for me MN Radhakrishna the CCS, who was also an Operating officer, appreciated my approach.
The system displayed no desire to settle the claims of the affected families with any sense of urgency. Neither the railways nor the Claims Commissioner seemed to think it important. As per the procedure, when a claim was lodged with the Claims Commissioner, he would send a notice to the railways to respond within a fixed time. The notice received in my office would be marked to one of three CIs to investigate and report on the claim. Based on the CI's report, the Railway Advocate would be advised to file a reply. I found that in most cases the Commissioner was asked for extension of time as the enquiries had not been completed. Moreover, claims were refuted in a routine manner even where the facts clearly showed that the railway was liable.
Most of the victims were suburban passengers from low income groups, who commuted from villages served by the northern eastern section of Sealdah division covering the district of 24 Parganas in West Bengal. Many of the bereaved families lost their sole bread winner in the accident. The promised compensation of two lakh rupees for the deceased was a lot of money for them. Everyone connected with them found some excuse or other to claim a part of the pie. From the village sarpanch and policeman to the lawyers in the court of the Claims Commissioner, they swarmed around the victim’s families like flies around a lump of jagree. One of the ploys was to delay settlement of the claims to give agents time to bargain their shares.
All the posts, including that of the Claims Commissioner, were created for limited terms. Justifiable delays would lead to extension of the terms that would benefit even the Claims Commissioner. Prolonged litigation would benefit lawyers on both sides. There was a conscious effort from all of them to slow down the process of settlement wantonly. I was appalled at the lack of sympathy and sensitivity on the part of all the government officials who were entrusted to relieve the distress of the grieving, badly harassed families. I decided that I would not be a party to this exploitation. The least I could do, and perhaps the only thing I could control, was to refuse to be a means to delay the claims.
My predecessor monitored the progress of the enquiries through meetings with the Claims Inspectors held at regular intervals. At my first meeting, I asked them to explain the delay in submitting their reports. They told me that the claimants lived in villages many of which were located far from railway stations and could only be reached through country roads. It entailed long walks across farmlands and difficult terrain, often needing more than one visit to find the right claimants. The claimants were often inarticulate, and the CI had to find someone to help in communicating with them. While I appreciated the difficulties faced by the Claims Inspectors, I advised them to place themselves in the place of the victims and view their labour as a service to them rather than as duties assigned to them. At the same time, I made it clear that I would not agree to any request for more time for enquiries and that I would hold the CI responsible for any delay.
I set up a strict timetable to monitor the cases and watched the progress of each case up to filing of affidavits in the court. I briefed the railway lawyer to facilitate settlement of the claims in all cases except where there were genuine doubts about the claimant. I let the railway advocate as well as Claims Commissioner know that I would not recommend extension of the latter's term under any circumstances. The CIs responded by working with a new zeal to finish all further enquiries enabling the railway to file all replies on time without asking for any extension. One of the CIs detected a fake claim and I got him rewarded for the effort.
My work connected with the Ultadanga accident claims was so light that I would complete it in an hour and then adjourn to the room of my colleague and good friend BD Gupta who was the Dy CCS (Claims). I told him and the CCS that I wanted more work to fill my time. Radhakrishna obliged by allowing me to handle the claims pertaining to Howrah division. But even this additional work didn’t take me long. I approached Radhakrishna again and this time he told me to assist PP Ayyar Additional CCS in charge of marketing. PP Ayyar was conducting studies to recapture traffic that had been lost to road, with the help of a few Development Inspectors.
One of the studies concerned the Dunlop factory in Shahapur near Bandel. High rated rubber goods manufactured by this factory had switched over to road almost exclusively. CCS was keen to get this traffic back. I visited the factory and held detailed discussions with Dunlop's Sales Officers to know why the company had chosen to desert the railways. Their main grouse was that supply of wagons was irregular and untimely, and that the wagons had to be cleaned before loading. Moreover, with no assured transit time, goods would take anything up to a month to reach destinations like Kanpur and Delhi, compared to a week by road. They also had some minor complaints regarding issue of Railway Receipts and claims. Since wagon supplies and transit time were operating matters, I discussed the matter with SK Singh who was then Sr DOS Howrah. He promised to help but did not think it was easy. I submitted my report to PP Ayyar and Radhakrishna and moved on to other matters, little realising that I would have to deal with the subject again, and soon.
During my free time I would often walk down to Fairlie Place to meet friends in the operating department, my batchmates Romesh Chowdhary, Joint Director (Coal) and MP Shrivastava, MD Mathur, KC Pandia, Ashok Bhatnagar and others. Sometimes, I would cross SN Sachdev COPS in the corridor. When I wished him, he would stop and talk to me and occasionally invite me to his chamber. He told me that he was looking for a suitable position for me in the operating department.
I was allotted one part of a partitioned bungalow in Liluah. The other part was occupied by Ashok Bhatnagar, Dy COPS (Planning). The bungalow was opposite the Officers’ Club and diagonally opposite the bungalow of MK Sinha, DS Howrah (my old colleague from Asansol). MP Shrivastava, Dy COPS (Emergency) lived across the street. Unlike in the early 1960s when I had lived in Liluah as an Assistant Officer, the club was no longer active. Uncertain law and order, bad maintenance and poor leadership had resulted in most of the members deserting the club. Only a few die-hard club goers would be seen in the club in the evenings, playing cards by themselves. The group included Ashok Bhatnagar, my batchmate MP Shrivastava, KC Pandia and SK Dikshit, LK Mathur, Loomba and Ghosh Dastidar of Mechanical Department. I enrolled myself and joined the group, bemoaning the condition of the club.
In August 1975, the Calcutta station of Doordarshan was inaugurated. When it was announced, we decided that the club should have a TV set. The club had no funds to buy the TV set costing about Rs 2000, so we raised half the cost of the TV by collections from the card playing group. We approached the president of ERWO Liluah for a contribution and topped the rest from club funds. I was entrusted with the keys of the box in which the TV was housed for safety. I would proceed to the club, punctually at 5-45 PM and unlock the TV for the eager youngsters, all from the family members of the contributing members. The sudden increase in the activity of the club attracted other officers in the colony and, egged on by their children they approached the Club Secretary for readmission to the club. Being in the majority the contributing members insisted on the re-entrants paying for the TV on the same scale. Membership swelled and so did the club’s funds. I successfully organized a special magic show to raise more funds and the club was back on its feet.
During this period, Romesh Choudhary was passing through a difficult time. He had married late and his troubles had begun when his first son turned out to be spastic and died very young. His second son too became seriously affected with a liver ailment and died when I was in Delhi. Romesh became an introvert and stopped communicating with people. His wife Praveen was pregnant again, but he hardly seemed to care for the third child. He suffered a massive heart attack while on tour in Asansol and died two days later. I accompanied BD Gupta, MP Shrivastava and others to Asansol to bid Romesh a tearful farewell.
Meanwhile, the sanction for my post was coming to an end. Romesh’s death left a vacancy, for which I was qualified in view of my experience in coal allotment work, but the powers that be decided to post SK Singh instead and I was transferred to Howrah to take his place. As I left Koilaghat, Radhakrishna reminded me of the Dunlop traffic. He also mentioned that he was unhappy to find that Howrah Division had been able to find a platform for a newly scheduled train to Madras only at noon. He wanted me to change it to a more convenient time.
Soon after I rejoined Eastern Railway, Srikant got his call up for admission to IITs. We traveled to Varanasi to attend the counseling conducted in IT, BHU. Srikant was offered seats in Mining and Metallurgy in IIT Khargpur and in IT BHU. He preferred Mining in IIT Khargpur. It suited us because we were in Calcutta.