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and Those Who Keep the Wheels Turning
by Ramarao Annavarapu Bookmark and Share

After Sachdev, Chief Operating Superintendent (COPS) Eastern Railway, the two most important officers in the operating department were HC Johari, Additional COPS (Coaching), in charge of punctuality and matters concerning passengers and parcels, and PW Impett, Additional COPS (Goods) in charge of freight operations.

We called him Gurudev, because we learnt much from him about being meticulous and thorough in dealing with paperwork. Harish Chandra Johari was Divisional Operating Superintendent (T) Sealdah when he gave a lecture to our batch of six TTCD probationers in Zonal Training School Sealdah soon after I joined Eastern Railway. He was District Traffic Superintendent (DTS), Chitpur, when I was in Howrah division. He spoke to me a couple of times when I was ACS (Howrah Goods), leaving the impression of an acerbic, impatient officer. KK Mukherjee, COPS Eastern Railway at the time, was averse to officers who had been appointed as temporary ATOs, without a written examination unlike other TT & CD officers. Only for this reason, Mukherjee asked Johari to write an adverse confidential report on NN Hari Rao, ACS Chitpur. My regard for Johari went up when I heard that he disobeyed the COPS and gave Hari Rao a good report, despite his own reservations about his assistant’s performance. When I joined Sealdah division as AOS (T), Johari was DOS (T) Howrah and I met him a few times with Hariram. My next interaction with him came in 1968, when I was DSO Asansol and he was Transportation Superintendent (Safety) Eastern Railway. He would be rude and highly critical in dealing with DSOs, but he supported me in the Pandor episode. Our paths did not cross again until I got posted as Sr DOS Howrah.

Johari could be very irritating at times and I did not hesitate to give it back to him sometimes. He could not find fault with my work but resented my rapport with Sachdev. He was also very inconsiderate in the way he treated Dayal Singh Bhoria IRTS 1962, who was Senior Transportation Officer (Coaching) under him. Apart from finding fault with everything Bhoria did, and detaining him in office well beyond office hours, Johari totally neglected to let Bhoria attend to his personal and family needs. Once, while Bhoria was held up in the office, his wife became seriously ill in their Colvin Court apartment. Neighbours rushed to her aid and called an Ambulance to take her to hospital. Bhoria arrived home just as she was being placed in the Ambulance. The next day, Bhoria sent a note to Johari to grant him a few days' leave to attend to his sick wife. Johari refused to sanction the leave. Instead, he marked Bhoria's note to Sachdev complaining against Bhoria. When I heard about this, I spoke to Johari and mildly remonstrated with him on the episode and suggested that he should be more humane in dealing with his assistant. From then on, Johari would often tell me about the lapses of Bhoria and each time make a point of saying, “And you say that I am inhuman!” I had much to do with him in later years.

Peter Impett was Divisional Operating Superintendent (T) when I was under training in Asansol division, I got tired of his asking, “Who are you?” each time I met him, despite having introduced myself the first time. Like his counterpart D Mahadevan in Dhanbad, Peter wore a harassed look and seemed to be immersed in work, either on the telephone or in his files, of which there were many littering his room. He gave the impression of being unfriendly, but my batchmate Romesh Chaudhary and others told me that he was a warm person. As Deputy Director (Traffic-POL) in charge of tank wagons in 1967, I had approached him for help on behalf of Fertilizer Corporation of India Trombay, where I was then on deputation. He had helped me to overcome the shortage of tank wagons by telling me about newly built tank wagons in Kurla awaiting certification. Later, when I was Senior Transportation Officer (Coal Allotment) in 1971, he succeeded Hariram as Joint Director (Coal) and we worked together for some time.

In every job he handled, he worked painstakingly and with complete dedication and honesty. He was not easy to please but was never abusive or mean. But it could be hard to put up with his laborious style of working. As Additional COPS (Goods), he presided over the daily telephonic conference on freight operations. All divisional control offices were simultaneously connected to Additional COPS and COPS. Discussions covered lapses in freight operations the previous day, plans for the day and problems concerning inter divisional coordination. The conference would commence at 10-30 AM every day and go on until it was concluded by Impett. During this period all Sr DOS (T)s were expected to remain on the line along with their Chief Controllers.

Much time would be spent in collecting information from Chief Controllers. Discussion on relevant issues took only a part of the time but the way Impett conducted the conference, we didn’t know which division would be called at what time. All the Sr DOS (T)s were forced to stay on the line as the conference dragged on up to midday and beyond. When I was DOS (T) Dhanbad in 1969-70 the conference conducted by Hariram and MRN Murthy never exceeded 45 minutes.

At the next meeting of Sr DOS (T)s with COPS, we decided to raise the matter. As the senior most Sr DOS (T), I took the lead and explained how our time was being wasted in fruitless waiting while Additional COPS (Goods) collected information and later called us to answer questions at his whim. After discussion, it was decided to keep only the Chief Controllers on the line while information was collected and Impett agreed to restrict the conference time. Peter Impett endeared himself to us by not only accepting his fault but also by truthfully recording the proceedings without allowing his ego to dictate the result.

Peter Impett kept his correspondence up to date unlike most officers who held his post, before or after him. One day he called me to remind me that I had not sent my comments on some articles he had sent me, despite several reminders. During the Emergency, with no interference in train operations from trade unions and outside agencies, passenger trains ran to time and freight operations improved without any effort on the part of operating officers. Some of them published articles on the improved performance of their divisions. These articles were forwarded to Railway Board and circulated to zonal railways for comments and similar action. Many of them were from divisions with little traffic and displayed no path breaking or innovative approach. I did not think they deserved comments or deserved to be emulated.

I took the articles to Impett on the following day and asked him if he thought what we had achieved in Howrah Division was in any way less than what these divisions had taken pains to publicize. I had not written any article on the amazing success of different schemes launched in Howrah Division, apart from the article on platform occupation that I wrote at the instance of Sachdev. Peter agreed with me that we had believed more in doing than in showing off and did not pursue the matter further.

A nagging problem faced by most operating officers is shortage of staff in essential categories like Assistant Station Masters (ASMs), Guards, and trains passing staff. The availability of ASMs was so acute when I joined Howrah division that we were on the point of closing some stations. The Personnel department assured me that requisition had been placed on CPO for the division's requirements as certified by Sr DOS (T) and the new recruits, who were under training, would soon be joining the division. When the position failed to improve even after the new recruits had joined, I invited the AP0, MS Chakravorty and Bibhuti Babu, his Office Superintendent who dealt with traffic establishment, to help me unravel the mystery.

The requirement of ASMs submitted to CPO for placing requisition on the Railway Recruitment Board was based on the number of vacancies existing in the lowest grade of ASMs that was the point of entry for new recruits. Several ASMs were officiating in higher grades in place of those who were temporarily promoted to higher categories and so on, going right up to senior most supervisors in the division. The number of such temporary arrangements was so large that there was a serious shortage at the level of ASMs performing trains passing duties. If the higher posts were filled up by holding selections in the prescribed manner, there would be a series of promotions, leaving the resultant vacancies in the lowest grade to be filled from direct recruitment. In the absence of regular promotions, the temporary vacancies left in the lowest grade could not be counted for recruitment. The situation had been vitiated by the fact that no selections had been conducted for a decade.

It had been a traumatic decade for the Eastern Railway. As I have recalled in my earlier narratives, law and order in West Bengal had been seriously compromised due to the Naxalite movement and subsequent events culminating in a war with Pakistan in 1971. Post elections in 1972, the situation had become normal but in 1973 onwards, the mass movement started by Jayaprakash Narayan had once again disturbed normal life. Train operations and working conditions in Eastern Railway were affected. Operating officers as well as those of the personnel department could not pay adequate attention to this important aspect of man management. The procedure for selection required approval of Sr DOS at several stages. Bibhuti Babu told me that when the files were put up to Sr DOS for orders, they would get stuck there and when he went to pursue the matter, Sr DOS would dismiss him on the plea of being too busy with work related to operations.

The workload of a Sr DOS was indeed unenviable. We would be on the job from 6 AM every day, collecting data, asking questions, to prepare for the grueling telephonic interrogation by the operating bosses in headquarters to follow. Rushing to control office after a hurried toilet and breakfast, the routine of questions and answers would extend well beyond the time others broke for lunch. A short break for lunch and the Sr DOS would be at his desk trying to clear the paperwork between telephone calls, summons from the DS, visitors, and meetings, scheduled and unscheduled. I was, therefore, not surprised to hear from Bibhuti Babu that the Sr DOSs were testy and irritable when he tried to draw their attention to his pending files. I knew that I could behave in the same way and delay the matter further. A special effort was needed to clear the backlog of selections.

Bibhuti Babu only needed my formal approval, something that could be done immediately the file was brought to me. So, I told him to meet me in the control office in the mornings, when I would still be fresh. The control office was a veritable mad house in the mornings, with the presence of several officers including DS, telephones ringing incessantly, constant chatter of people talking on phones and shouting out orders on multifarious subjects. But I reckoned that I could slot a short break between telephone calls to attend to Bibhuti Babu. It would enable him to act on my orders on the same day.

Bibhuti Babu would enter the control office furtively and stand in the passage outside Chief Controller's glass walled cubicle, waiting for me to sight him. I would beckon to him with one hand, holding a telephone to my ear with the other. After finishing the telephonic call, I would wave him over to look at the file and record my comments. While this method of dealing with the file speeded up the process of selection, we were soon faced with a new problem. At the first sitting of the selection panel, consisting of Sr DCS, APO and myself, nearly 30 % of the candidates were absent and even in the next sitting a month later several candidates failed to appear. Most of the candidates had not been relieved of their duties for the selection due to shortage of staff at their respective stations, which meant that we would need several sittings, spread over several months, to complete each selection. At this rate, even the first selection could take years. And there had to be several more selections before all vacancies were filled up.

As per prevailing practice, the sittings of the selection panel were conducted in the divisional office. Candidates from across the division had to travel to Howrah for the interview spending up to three days away from their work spots. I asked the APO if there was any rule against conducting the interview away from the divisional headquarters. There was none. I decided to conduct the interviews at different stations to make it easier to spare the candidates.

The candidates were divided into several small groups based on their location and a series of interviews were arranged at important stations on the division in which candidates from nearby stations were invited. I involved the local TIs and station masters to ensure that every candidate was spared for the interview. There were occasions when the candidate was on duty at the time of the interview but was relieved by the station master just for the period of the test.

By committing myself to complete all the selections expeditiously, I added considerably to my workload. Selections consisted of two parts, a written test and an interview. Before inviting the eligible candidates for the written test, we had to ensure that the seniority list was prepared correctly. Very often, it was not updated. Sometimes, there were multiple seniority lists, because they were manipulated by dealing clerks to favour one candidate or another based on a consideration.

Fortunately, Romen Bhattacharjee, TI (Headquarters), Howrah was well informed on the subject and with his help, I was able to rectify the seniority lists. In one selection, Romen pointed out that an eligible candidate called Dasgupta was not on the list. The dealing clerk explained that Dasgupta was on deputation and it was unlikely that he would attend the selection. When contacted, Dasgupta was surprised to hear that he was about to be bypassed. He volunteered for the selection and thanked me profusely.

The next step was to set question papers for the written test and, after the test was conducted, correct the answer sheets. With so many selections in hand this work was considerable and had to be done cautiously to avoid complaints. Finally, candidates were interviewed, assigning marks for seniority and suitability to form a panel of successful candidates.

Selections and subsequent postings had to be done mindful of reservations for scheduled castes and scheduled tribe candidates. While employees working in grades two levels below were eligible for selection from unreserved categories, for reserved categories this was relaxed to three levels. Even with this relaxation, it was difficult to find suitable candidates from these categories. Government had, accordingly, permitted posting of candidates from general categories in the posts left unfilled for want of suitable candidates from the reserved categories. Over the years, this had resulted in increasing the percentage of unfulfilled quotas in all grades across departments. The government woke up to this in 1976 and issued a directive to fulfill the quotas forthwith. Buta Singh, Deputy Minister for Railways visited each railway zone and demanded a certificate from the General Manager that the quotas had been restored. We were advised to find candidates by going further down the grades, even to the recruitment level, if needed. Since selection process was time consuming, we were told to just meet the candidates and promote them on a temporary basis, pending selection.

We now had Supervisors in the higher grade from SC and ST categories who were far junior to and, more importantly, much less experienced than, those working under them. It resulted in new dynamics in staff relationships, to the detriment of discipline. Despite being told clearly that their promotions to selection posts were temporary, many of the SC and ST employees refused to vacate the posts when duly selected staff from the same categories were appointed to replace them. on the positive side, some of these employees turned out to be sincere, dedicated, and smart and contributed to the wellbeing of railways in subsequent years.

We had also to ensure about genuineness of caste certificates produced by the candidates. In one case the son of an employee enjoying the benefit of being a Scheduled Caste candidate appeared for selection as a Scheduled Tribe candidate. It looked suspicious because ST candidates were rarer than SC candidates. It turned out that the candidate’s mother was from a Scheduled Tribe. When he was admitted to school as a ST candidate, his admission was challenged, and the court had ruled in his favor.

The final stage of the selection process was posting those who had made it to each panel to the post for which they had qualified. Apart from appointing persons with the right ability to occupy posts vital for operations, I had to ensure that orders were carried out without the appointees dragging their feet for one reason or another. I believe that people are most productive when they are comfortable with their location and environment.

Howrah Division spanned two states. Many Bengalis working in Bihar nursed desires to be transferred to their home state. A smaller number of Biharis similarly looked forward to being in Bihar. The Personnel department maintained a list of applicants for such transfers. Occasionally, an attempt was made to accede to the requests, based on length of stay, urgency or date of application but the number of vacancies available were always far short of the number of applicants. The selections provided a better opportunity and the staff hoped to benefit by it.

Romen Bhattacharjee had good knowledge of the abilities, needs and personal problems of many of the candidates. For others, I sought the help of their immediate supervisors, finally making my own assessment. It is never possible to please everyone, but I tried honestly to help as many as possible. At the back of my mind, I always recalled my father’s struggle as a station master and the sacrifices my parents had to make to send their children to school, while my father was transferred from one station to another without educational facilities.

The scheme we adopted to expedite selections was a roaring success and we adopted it for the subsequent selections too. In less than two years all the pending selections were completed, and the deserving staff awarded promotions. As each stage of selections, and the resultant promotion and positioning, was completed, the vacancies in the recruitment grade in each category were reassessed and fresh indents were raised on the Railway Service Commission. There was no shortage of staff in essential categories when I left the division.

I also earned the goodwill of the staff who benefited. Long after I left the division and even after I retired from service, I would run into one or other traffic staff who would touch my feet and recall that I had got him promoted. While it gave me great satisfaction to have completed the task, I had set for myself, it was perhaps by divine decree that the task was entrusted to me in conditions that were conducive to its fulfillment. Be that as it may, the goodwill I earned here and elsewhere has sustained me ever afterwards.

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25-Apr-2020
More by :  Ramarao Annavarapu
 
Views: 712      Comments: 3

Comments on this Article

Comment Thank you very much, Madhukar and Gurudas.
I will feel gratified if what I write helps to preserve posterity for future generations of railway managers and motivates them.

Ramarao Annavarapu
04/27/2020 22:06 PM

Comment Wonderful memory and a great write up. God bless. Keep posting more episodes. These are also forming a part of the history of the Indian Railways.

GURUDAS S
04/27/2020 06:20 AM

Comment The unfortunate part of the Railways is that even after decades and so much of improvement in working conditions, man management remains on the back-burner. It requires a caring Officer, not a common commodity, to keep his staff motivated. Railway staff are amazing. My experience over four other organisations tells me our people can and do move mountains. It is our leadership that fails us many times.
Your recounting of your days is excellent. I hope to see a book soon.

Madhukar Sinha
04/26/2020 03:25 AM




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