In February 2018, Indian Railways initiated one of its largest recruitment drives to fill around 150,000 vacancies, but by January 2019 the number increased to 230,000. This recruitment over 2018-22 aims to bridge the manpower gap that is ailing the railways.

However, the timing of the initiative, considering that the general election is only a couple of months away, raises several questions, including the obvious—is it a necessity, or a political gimmick?

Since the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government took office in 2014, Indian Railways has been recruiting 20,000 people every year on an average, according to the state-owned company. Now, with the minister Piyush Goyal deciding to recruit 230,000 new hands, the average will go up to 46,000 every year.

“The railways was adopting a balanced approach for recruitment because of several reasons. We wanted to have a financial burden that could be absorbed. Besides, railways restructuring and transformations were on the radar. So, it was a wise decision," said a senior railway official, requesting anonymity.

(Paras Jain/Mint )


A faster and more efficient train network was the key, according to the Vision 2020 of Indian Railways, said the official quoted above. “For such a scenario, reducing human intervention was the priority and, hence, the railways was going slow on recruiting technicians, gangmen, switchmen, and trackmen. Besides, diverting funds for infrastructure upgradation and new technology was the focus," he said.

Even Goyal stressed on technology advancements to beef up the rail network. “To make the Indian Railways safe, I plan to build the most modern signalling system through the entire railways network in India, which will mean over 1.18 lakh km of railways along the lines of European Train Control System," he said in February 2018. Goyal had often said Indian Railways is going to focus on its core function of running trains.

The question that arises is how Indian Railways will accommodate this huge manpower. In the past decade, the railways has outsourced several of its functions. Station maintenance works such as electrical and mechanical maintenance are also going to be outsourced.

Indian Railways, which has a sanctioned strength of 1,506,598, employs 1,223,622 people. The question is whether it will be able to absorb the manpower to run only its core operation of running trains.

“Indian Railways has a network of 60,000km and to initiate mechanisation of this would require around 10 years. Personnel at railways are overworked, especially loco-pilots, and this (recruitment drive) would be a big breather," said a Railway Board member, also requesting anonymity. Automation and manpower are going to coexist in railways, he said.

Queries emailed to the railway ministry remained unanswered.

The Indian Railway Vision 2020 document also recognizes that a balance is required between the forces of differentiation (functional specialization) and integration. It accepted that the existing structure would prove increasingly rigid and incapable of analysing and responding to the challenges posed by rising competition from the road and aviation sectors. It said that one possible approach could be to reconfigure the organization by separating infrastructure from operations and reorganizing of the businesses—passenger, freight and parcel, and other auxiliary services, so that each service could be managed and measured on a profit-centre basis.

The Bibek Debroy-headed committee for restructuring of the railway ministry and the Railway Board, made several observations in its report in 2015. The report said there were about 400 categories of Group C employees. The panel also observed that employee costs (including pensions) are the single largest cost component in Indian Railways and are the main drivers pushing up the operation ratio. These costs have already reached unsustainable levels.

Urgent steps need to be taken to right size Indian Railways by rationalizing manpower, the panel said. As there is very little that Indian Railways can do to mitigate the increasing burden of pension outgo, it is imperative that corrective steps are taken to rationalize expenditure on salaries and wages of employees.

With the NDA government is aiming to raise railways’ contribution in freight from 31% to 50-55% under the National Logistic Policy, the only way this can happen is if railways improves its efficiency through technology, automation and by reducing manpower. It seems that some bold steps will be the only way to define Indian Railways’ promising future.

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