Howrah Division: The Umbrella Syndrome

General Manager’s Annual Inspection special is a ritual all railway zones go through in the interests of safety of passengers and cargo entrusted to the railways for transport. The custom of conducting audit of the safe working practices on Indian Railways began in the 1940s, when the Government of India appointed a Chief Government Inspector of Railways (CGIR), under the administrative control of the Department of Posts and Air to begin with, and later under Ministry of Civil Aviation to supervise the working of railways in the interests of public safety. GIRs conducted inspections of the railways under their charge over a period two years inspecting each section every alternate year in a special train known as GIR’s Inspection Special. General Manager of the railway and heads of departments (HODs) concerned with operations and maintenance accompanied the GIR with due deference.

The Inspection Special has an Observation Car at the rear with a trailing window in the rear, giving a view of the track behind the train as well as other railway establishments en route. It was also equipped with oscillation and other instruments to measure the performance of track and vehicles under running conditions. Inspection carriages of the HODs and the DS, loosely termed as saloons, were attached to the special along with a dining car to serve the officers.

In course of time, with General Managers gaining more importance and GIRs, now called Commissioners of Railway Safety (CRS), relegated to the background, the specials became GM's Specials. The pomp and show associated with the Specials attracted attention of the public and the press. Some journalists thought it was a legacy of colonialism, without realizing its role in maintaining safety and efficiency of the railway system.

“Like a present-day Maharaja, Vishnu holds court” intones Linda Hunt, narrator of The Great Indian Railway, documentary on Indian Railways produced by William Livingstone for National Geographic in 1995, “with all the ceremonies associated with his predecessors.” Later in the documentary, Birendra Vishnu IRTS 1958, General Manager Central Railway, the subject of the narrator’s attention, explains how the top manager in the railway interacts with workers in the lowest rungs of the hierarchy to promote safety and efficiency.

East Indian Railway and its successor Eastern Railway had customs and traditions that the old guard preserved with zeal. All officers availed of the food on the dining car on payment but on the last day heads of department played hosts to divisional officers, graciously giving them precedence to enter the dining car. Divisions were not allowed to host lunches or dinners or, like in later years, get corporate users to arrange lavish repasts for the inspecting party. When Gujral, as DS Asansol proposed to arrange dinner in the officer's club, KK Mukherjee GM Eastern Railway asked his Secretary MD Mathur to inform Gujral that it was not the EIR tradition, emphasizing EIR, as Gujral was an EIR officer. Perhaps he recalled the gaudy display in a dinner hosted by VP Sawhney (Non EIR officer) as DS Dhanbad with ice cream served on lighted ice slabs.

Divisions had to prepare a Handout, containing review of the performance of the division, department wise. The Handout had to be distributed before the inspection commenced, for the scrutiny of the inspecting officers. General Manager, Commissioner for Railway Safety, the Chief Engineer and the Chief Operating Superintendent sat at a table overlooking the Trailing Window. The Divisional Superintendent and other heads of departments sat in the next row. Divisional officers sat in the rear except for the DOS, who had to be readily accessible for taking instructions for running the special, and the DEN to help in deciding location of sites to be inspected.

As the GM perused the Handout, he would ask for the branch officer concerned to discuss the information in the Handout. It was a grilling we feared, as most GMs had rough manners for juniors. No matter how well you prepared, the GM had enough experience to find loopholes, existent or otherwise. The head of the department usually stayed in the background to save his own skin. On my first GM's inspection as DSO Asansol, GP Bhalla, the GM was a bully. But he bullied the HODs more than Divisional officers. I got off with a mild reprimand, but I noticed KK Mukherjee COPS, a bully himself and an occasional smoker, repeatedly puffing at his cigarette, in sheer nervousness.

I am tempted to narrate the experience of my friend Ashok Malhotra in a similar situation, as DSO Bombay on Central Railway. His GM Rattan Lal was a bully, but his DS PR Pusalkar was kind, loved and respected. When the GM called for him, Ashok rose from his seat, holding a sheaf of papers, and walked gingerly, threading his way through the crowded aisle, butterflies dancing wildly in his stomach. As he passed his DS, Pusalkar took the papers from his hand and, as Ashok watched in disbelief, unpinned the papers and reinserted the pin with its sharp end exposed. Ashok had taken great care to cover the pointed end lest it pricks the GM's finger.

Helplessly, Ashok approached the GM and placed the papers in the outstretched hand of Rattan Lal, fearing the worst. As expected, the prick touched the exalted digitus primus. It drew a sharp "Ah" from Rattan Lal, followed by a long lecture on the need for youngsters to learn procedures and practices properly, at the end of which, he returned the papers to Ashok and dismissed him. Ashok was on the verge of tears as he turned to go and was surprised to find Pusalkar smiling. Pusalkar offered him a seat and consoled him. "If I hadn't done that, he would have grilled you on the statement you were carrying. That would have been much worse."

With the rise of sycophancy, the General Manager's Inspection has been reduced to a race to please the boss, by any means. Lavish dinners at the cost of a client, entertainments and gifts, everything is permitted. Also, it can be used to play one department against another, as it happened in the Inspection of Howrah Division in December 1975.

Bandel was one of the stations to be inspected. During the inspection, DS accompanied the General Manager, as per protocol, and I stayed with my Head of Department, the Chief Operating Superintendent. I got a message that the GM wanted me urgently. Eric J Simoes, the GM, was a Traffic officer from Central Railway. I had first met him as a probationer, when he came to Railway Staff College, Baroda, as a visiting lecturer on safety. A Goanese, he was known to be ebullient and excitable. He served in various capacities on South Eastern Railway and had a brief stint as Chief Commercial Superintendent, Eastern Railway when I was STO (Allotment). We had shared an easy relationship so far but dealing with him as GM was a different cup of tea. Simoes was inspecting the office and stores of Assistant Engineer, Bandel and had come across a huge pile of unused concrete sleepers that had apparently been procured for providing platform aprons at Bandel. But the work, sanctioned ten years earlier, had not even been started apparently because the traffic department had failed to provide traffic blocks.

When I reached the spot Simoes began ranting at me as if it was all my fault. I told him that I had just joined the division and that it was the first time I had heard of the problem. That diverted his ire to the DEN, but I had to promise to find a solution fast. That was not the only negative point for me, though.

I have mentioned in an earlier post how the Divisional Mechanical Engineer (Power) had, with the backing of the Divisional Superintendent, who belonged to his department, tried to shift the blame for its failures to the operating department and how, by paying attention to the use of locomotives in traffic, the shoe was transferred to the other foot and the DME(P) was forced to put his house in order. Technical departments were accustomed to see operating officers brushing off any attempt to get traffic blocks, be they for construction work or for maintenance, on the plea of pressure of traffic. As I tackled the problems raised by the technical departments, their inadequacies were exposed because they had neglected to organise their work, on the assumption that the operating officers could never give them the requisite traffic blocks.

I call this the umbrella syndrome. All other departments looked for shelter under the “Operating Umbrella”. So long as they could put the blame on the operating department for their failures, they could push their own problems under the carpet and get away with it. But if the operating officers removed this protection by tackling the challenge of traffic blocks, they would be forced to face the elements. As I had learnt in my first posting as Assistant Operating Superintendent under D Hariram, lack of attention to the needs of maintenance of track, traction, rolling stock or motive power eventually impacts on operations. It is, therefore, in the interest of the operating department to facilitate proper maintenance of assets.

The delay in executing the work of providing platform aprons at Bandel was duly mentioned in the Notes of General Manager during the Annual Inspection and the division was expected to file an action taken report conveying compliance with GM’s instructions to complete the work expeditiously. I examined the platform occupation charts of Bandel and after adjusting the allocation of platforms, succeeded in finding a slot of about six hours during the night for granting traffic blocks for the work. I told the engineers that this was the best I could do since Bandel was a busy suburban terminal as well as an important junction for goods trains. Persuaded by Dy DS AK Guha Raja, who was himself an engineer, they agreed, and the work was taken in hand. The work on each platform was to be completed in four weeks. It took the engineers some time to get organized, during which they often burst the blocks throwing train operations into a chaotic mess but after a while, things settled down. The concreting work would be done at night and the platforms released for use during the day.

On matters concerning the engineering department, I would often consult my good friend A Bhima Rao IRSE 1956, who was then Dy GM (G). Bhima Rao told me that what I had done for the blocks for platform aprons at Bandel was indeed commendable but that for the concrete to set properly the work area should not be disturbed every day. He felt that if I could stretch myself a little more and give 24-hour block for each platform the engineers could be persuaded to complete the work in a much shorter time. I valued his opinion and the idea appealed to me as it was very painful to have one platform in Bandel blocked for several months. Before I granted blocks for the other platforms, I reviewed the platform occupation charts again and could devise the blocks, after a Herculean effort that involved consultations with the commercial department as well as passengers’ associations. I managed to free one platform completely and hand it over to the engineers on the express condition that the work would be completed in two weeks for each platform. In less than three months from the Annual Inspection a ten-year old work was successfully completed.

A distinguishing feature of Howrah station is the cab road. When the station was upgraded and expanded in 1936, a road was built from the main gate of the station up to the platforms between the North and South Wings, to provide direct access to the ruling white gentry. Later this road was connected to a road over bridge spanning the passenger and goods yards to provide an exit from the cab road. The over bridge was named after its builder as Buckland Bridge. The bridge had developed defects which necessitated its replacement and the work of building a new bridge was sanctioned in the late 1960s. Successive Sr DOSs had avoided giving traffic blocks for laying the foundations for the pillars that would hold the bridge, for fear of upsetting the operations of Howrah Goods Yard, the biggest terminal Goods Shed on the Eastern Railway. Congestion in Howrah could have serious repercussions on the flow of traffic on the Eastern Railway, a most unwelcome prospect for any operating officer.

But the work had to be done and postponing the bad day was no solution. Going over the details of the work I discovered that a section of the yard would have to be shut down to allow the engineers to slew the tracks to create space for laying the foundations for the bridge. After examining the available options with the yard staff, I drew up a plan to transfer the work of the affected section to other sections of the yard, without significantly affecting the output of the yard.

My first hurdle in the way of implementing the plan was the Chief Yard Master Hari Chatterjee, an able yard hand but steeped in the traditional wisdom that refused to accept change. He told me bluntly that my plan was unworkable and that he would not like to take the responsibility for the chaos that was bound to result if the plan was put to practice. I heard him out patiently and told him that I would be quite happy to relieve him and take over the management of the yard myself if he did not want to be a part of the scheme. He was surprised at my reaction. In the past Sr DOSs had allowed him a lot of freedom and never questioned his competence. When he found his bluff called, he agreed to toe the line.

I requested Dy DS to call the engineers for a meeting at which details of the block were finalized and a date fixed for commencing the work. I lived in Colvin Court just across the station yard and walked to office every morning around 10 AM. On the appointed day, I left home early and took a detour via Howrah Yard to see how the work was progressing. The block was given on schedule at 8 AM, but when I reached the work spot at 8-45 AM there was no sign of activity and officers and supervisors of the engineering department were nowhere to be seen. I reported this to Dy DS and cancelled the block. At the fresh meeting called by Dy DS the engineers got a mouthful. They had obviously assumed that the operating department would fail, as usual, to give the block. Our action put them on the defensive for the first time. They were better prepared when the next block was given, and work proceeded apace until the full bridge came up. Hari cooperated fully and used his considerable experience and skill to solve various problems in yard operations arising out of the work.

Early in 1976, I received a copy of the Monthly Review written by VK Sibbal, Divisional Electrical Engineer (Traction Distribution) – DEE (TRD) Howrah – addressed to Chief Electrical Engineer. It contained data about maintenance and failures of Overhead Equipment (OHE) in the previous month. On the dismal state of OHE failures, Sibbal blamed the operating department for failing to provide traffic blocks for OHE maintenance despite his personal efforts. In the few weeks I had spent on the division Sibbal had never approached me for the blocks. When I called him to ask him why he had blamed the operating department without checking with me, he replied that, based on his experience so far, he was sure that I would not be able to help him.

I invited him to my room to see if I could do anything to help him. He came rather reluctantly expecting to get another list of reasons for our inability to stick with sanctioned blocks. He remained unconvinced when I sent for the Pathak, Chief Controller to review the existing schedule of blocks and draw up a more workable one. Pathak apprehended that the blocks would cause hold up of trains, but I told him to try out the new schedule honestly. I also told him that I would hold Section Controllers and Deputy Chief Controllers responsible if the schedule was not implemented in its entirety. At the end of the first week, traffic blocks for OHE were much higher than ever before. Sibbal had no more complaints, but OHE failures continued to plague us, though the number was a shade less than before.

One day an insulator near Howrah station failed causing serious damage to operations. I vaguely recalled that the electrical department had availed of an OHE block in the area only recently. A check revealed that the area had been attended less than ten days earlier. I asked the Dy Chief Controller to make sure that this fact was mentioned in the mandatory message to the Emergency Control in headquarters, with full details of date and time when the insulator was attended.

The message electrified the electrical department. As per practice, such messages received from divisions are routinely compiled and put up for information to GM and HODs. I got a call from the P Varadachari CEE, after he got a mouthful from Simoes. Varadachari was DEE(RS) Howrah when I was ACS and we had a cordial relationship. He was upset that I hadn't told him before sending the message. I replied that hitherto the Electrical Department had found it convenient to pass the buck to Operating Department for OHE failures but this time the boot was on the other leg.

Sibbal got the stick but, perhaps goaded by Varadachari, he took it as a challenge. He told me later that hitherto his department had been looking only at the availability of OHE blocks without focusing on the quality of maintenance work in the block period. Once the blocks became regular it became possible – and essential – to make optimum use of the available time. Sibbal streamlined the work by organising his staff into well trained batches to get the full benefit of the blocks. The result was an exponential drop in OHE failures that was a relief to operating staff.

A few months later Sibbal left the division on transfer. In his last letter to CEE, he acknowledged, in glowing terms, the role of the operating department in improving OHE maintenance.


More by :  Ramarao Annavarapu

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Views: 3615      Comments: 3

Comment Thank you very much, Chandramouli garu.
Technically it should be inter branch rivalry but in Indian Railways each is called a department and the syndrome is called departmentalism. Let us leave it at that.
Use of abusive English words was more common amongst Anglo Indians. Growing up in a railway colony and going to a private school in Nagpur, I noticed that using abusive vernacular words was taboo at home and in school ,but Anglo Indian children seemed to use English abuses freely.

05-Apr-2020 22:53 PM

Comment In my response to this part of the narrative I mentioned 'Inter-departmental' fact it is 'inter-branch' because by department we mean Railways and branch represents one of its various wings that function to keep the wheels rolling.regards.

T.S.Chandra Mouli
04-Apr-2020 09:35 AM

Comment Quite interesting narrative,sir.Colonial hangover was palpable even after emergency in 1975.Lording over the juniors was the order of the day.Expressions like " You bloody well..." " you can bloody well..." were treated as normal while dealing with men in junior levels.Of course inter- departmental incompatibility was the order of the day.
Looking forward for more snippets from you.regards.

T.S.Chandra Mouli
04-Apr-2020 09:22 AM

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