Railway Minister Suresh Prabhu might be getting support from the people for his pro-passenger measures, but some status-quoist and corrupt bureaucrats are trying their level best to tarnish his image, as he tries to bring reforms and transparency in the Ministry of Railways, say sources.
Prabhu offered to resign this week following two train accidents within two days, but Prime Minister Narendra Modi asked him to stay on, as the PM is said to be getting ready to shuffle the Union Cabinet. However, the resignation of Railway Board chairman, A.K. Mittal has been accepted. A new chairman, Ashwani Lohani has assumed charge of Railway Board.
Prabhu has introduced several measures aimed at bringing transparency in Railways and weeding out corruption. This has not gone down well with a section of the bureaucracy, say sources in the ministry. These officials had created a comfort zone for themselves. The changes are making them uncomfortable and therefore they have been opposing him ever since he was hand-picked by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in November 2014.
According to a source, one of Prabhu’s most important reforms has been restructuring the Railway Board. He is of the view that the absence of cross-functional collaboration and lack of business focus is holding Indian Railways back. Also, he has been trying but has not been able to break the hold a strong lobby of contractors have over catering contracts all over the country. He wants good quality food to be served in trains with a team of new vendors, but this is being sabotaged by those bureaucrats who patronise this lobby. Prabhu ordered a review of all catering contracts and the blacklisting of companies involved in unfair and corrupt practices after the CBI unearthed an alleged scam in the supply of packaged drinking water, Rail Neer, and arrested two senior officials. This incident shed light on the unholy nexus between senior Railway officials and private caterers. Despite the minister’s best efforts, vested interests are working to ensure that status quo is maintained.
Prabhu’s dream project of electrification and laying of new tracks has also taken a hit because of non-cooperation from the bureaucrats. Sources said that the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) wrote to the then Railway Board chairman about the slow progress in this area. During a review, it was found that in 2016, only 531 km of railway track was doubled against the target of 1,500 km. In electrification, only 1,210 km was electrified against the target of 2,000 km.
Soon after assuming charge, Prabhu decided to empower the execution of contracts at the lower level, which was so far being done from Rail Bhavan. Sources said the minister was clear that the Railway Board could only make the policy of financing, but its execution should be done at the local level.
Another decision, which did not go down well with some bureaucrats, was making all recruitments online. Recruitment was a major source of corruption and therefore corrupt bureaucrats were unhappy with this measure. Before Prabhu, there was no transfer policy, which led to large scale corruption. But Prabhu streamlined the process of transfer by fixing periods for the posting of employees. This was not appreciated by some people. Under Prabhu-raj, touts have been kept out of Rail Bhavan, as CCTV cameras have been installed all over Rail Bhavan to check their movements.
Many officials are unhappy with Prabhu for making all general managers and divisional railway managers attend to complaints lodged by passengers on social media. The minister is of the view that Railways are a service-oriented organisation and therefore should give utmost attention to passengers’ convenience.
Under Prabhu, Ministry of Railways has started a new system of e-procurement, wherein all purchases are being made through online tenders. Tenders worth Rs 100,000 crore are awarded every year. Earlier, it was easy to manipulate the process. Similarly, the auctioning of scraps, which is to the tune of Rs 3,000 crore per year, has gone online, making a section of officials uncomfortable. Prabhu has initiated other measures to prevent corruption, including changes in Tatkal reservation and online allotment of rakes.