Indian Railways has embarked on the world’s largest recruitment drive of the decade, aiming to hire 127,000 personnel. To put this in perspective, the quantum of hiring is roughly the same as the entire workforce of the Indian Air Force. This is also roughly 10% of the total current manpower in Indian Railways at about 1.3 million.
In response to the railways’ call for hiring, 23.7 million people have applied (this is equivalent to the entire population of Australia). This is also 15 times higher than the number of students who appeared for Class X exams in 2018.
So what would Indian Railways achieve from this gargantuan exercise? Clearly, this will augment the workforce of Indian Railways significantly and plug the manpower deficiency, which was one of the reasons for a spate of accidents. The personnel gap also arose because of approximately 45,000 railway personnel retiring every year. The last recruitment drive was in 2017 for a “paltry" 18,252 posts. New railway systems, such as the semi-high speed trains and high-speed trains, are also being inducted and would require more personnel.
However, this massive recruitment drive, which is setting global records, will also set the railways back by ₹4,000 crore every year in staff costs alone, apart from the recruitment costs of ₹800 crore , besides training costs. This comes against the backdrop of Indian Railways struggling to keep its operating ratio below 100—this is the ratio of money spent to earn ₹100. This was 98.5 in 2017-18. Well-run railways maintain an operating ratio below 80.
One of the key questions that come up in an era of ever-increasing automation is whether we really need to replace group D employees. Group D employees typically have a job role that is repetitive and can be replaced by automation. Given their nature of work, they are also susceptible to more frequent human errors, which could be potentially disastrous and also be counterproductive to the overall goal of Indian Railways of improving safety standards. Moreover, a larger organization would also imply increased complexity of management and increased potential of breakdown in organizational coordination. Even though it is politically incorrect to write about automation replacing jobs, in an ever increasingly complex and sophisticated modern railways system, would it be prudent to put automation on the back-burner and divert precious resources for enhancing the error-inducing workforce, based on archaic management and organizational structures?
We are moving towards a system of driverless trains, computerized signalling systems, computerized ticketing systems, and computerized cargo handling and freight systems. Can we imagine bullet trains being managed by a signalling system run by personnel who flag down or flag off the trains? Can we imagine standing in ticketing counters to buy railway tickets? If personnel are required in certain areas, perhaps outsourcing needs to be considered rather than burdening Indian Railways with personnel who will possibly work for 40 years before retiring.
Perhaps the recruitment drive is driven by additional considerations than only the possible short-term requirements of Indian Railways. Perhaps the demand for formal jobs in the economy is driving this decision for this gargantuan recruitment exercise. It may serve the interests of the country to the extent that immediate jobs get created. Would it serve the interests of Indian Railways that is critical for the supply-chain and logistics of the country, and plays a critical role in the manufacturing competitiveness of this country? That is a question that will stay for a long time.
*Jaijit Bhattacharya is president at Centre for Digital Economy Policy Research.