Interview: ‘An honest Minister keeps the Railways honest’

‘The Railway Board — and every official in the ministry — functions according to the whims and fancies of the Railway Minister,’ former railways minister Dinesh Trivedi tells in an exclusive interview.

‘It is the system that needs to be changed. It has to go from a one person-oriented ministry to an organisation-oriented ministry. The system should be transparent.’

Rs 90 lakhs (Rs 9 million) seized from Railway Minister Pawan Bansal’s nephew; the actual bribe to be paid is alleged to be Rs 10 crores (Rs 100 million)!

The Central Vigilance Commission calls the Indian Railways the most corrupt department in the government.

Former railway minister Dinesh Trivedi explains how the system works, and how it worked when he was minister.

Mr Trivedi, how does the Railway Board and the Railway Minister function?

The Railway Board — and every official in the ministry — functions according to the whims and fancies of the Railway Minister.

If the minister tells them to put the engine in the middle of the train they (the officials) will do it.

If the minister tells them to run a train without an engine, they (the officials) will try that too.

They (the officials) are too scared of the minister to voice any opinion. Even if they differ, the minister can always call for a report on a particular topic from other officials.

You can bet on it that the report will suit the minister’s convenience and opinion.

You mean the minister can over-rule the opinion of the entire Railway Board?

The minister always decides and they (the officials) just tow the line. The minister doesn’t have to over-rule their decision. They never disagree with the minister.

Please tell us how a top-level appointment was made during your tenure.

I used to clearly tell them that I don’t know anything about all the officers of the Railways, please tell me who you think is the best person for a particular post.

They used to give their individual recommendations. We used to discuss it and then pick out the best three.

Those three were sent to the Prime Minister’s Office and the final decision was taken by the PMO in consultation with the Cabinet Committee for Appointments.

So there are some checks and balance, the Railway Minister cannot make ad hoc appointments?

The minister definitely cannot make some junior clerk a member of the Railways Board. The minister has to select from the top echelons of officers. Once the minister wants to have a particular man, s/he can always present her/his case to her/his Cabinet colleagues.

At the Cabinet meeting if you don’t interfere in a particular ministry, will they reciprocate by leaving your ministry alone?

It does not work like that. Everybody has an opinion and they always offer it. It’s a collective decision.

Do you think a Railway Board member will have Rs 10 crores in cash?

Are you reading the newspapers? The money doesn’t belong to the Board member. It belongs to businessmen who have a stake in his appointment.

They think they can make money when he gets his appointment and so they are investing. Where does it say it is his money?

An activist alleged that Southern Railways is in the grip of its union leaders. Any appointment, transfer, tender can be influenced by contacting the union leaders.

I don’t think so. Any important appointment at the top level can only be done by the Railway Board. I don’t think any union leader in South India can assure that.

Also, contracts or tenders beyond a certain amount all come to the Railway Board. They (the union leaders) might be able to influence some small contract locally. In the bigger picture, they are not there.

How did you keep the Railway Ministry corruption-free in your time?

Simple! In my time there was the fear of God. I made it clear that dalals or brokers or conduits — whatever name you gave them — had no place in the ministry.

The corridors leading to the Railway Board were clear of middlemen. I made it very clear that they had no say in any matter and if I found any lobbying of any kind I made sure that the person they were recommending never got what ever he wanted.

The fear was there in my time.

An honest man can keep the entire ministry clean.

We have no doubts about your honesty, but how do we work it out with a corrupt minister?

It is the system that needs to be changed. It has to go from a one person-oriented ministry to an organisation-oriented ministry. The system should be transparent.

All decision should be made by an expert group and all their decisions and the reasons for the decision should be in the public domain.

What have you done about this?

I wrote to the Cabinet committee that we need to make the Railway Ministry and Railway Board organisation-oriented and also to have expert groups working on decisions that are now being taken by the railway minister.

Before they could discuss it I was no longer the minister.

There are seven members on the Railway Board, all belonging to the Railways. Would it help if we had members from other government departments?

As long as we have an all powerful minister who can decide whatever s/he wants and the Board remains her/his handmaiden to okay what ever s/he does, it makes no difference whether the Board member is from the Railways or from any other department.

Only if the Board has a say in matters; also, the opinion should be from experts in that field.

If there is an electrical contract, all the top engineers in that department should decide what to do and the railway minister should be obliged to go by their opinion.

Every decision must be vetted by experts and okayed by the Cabinet committee and the reason for every decision must be available in the public domain. This will root out corruption.

It worked during my tenure; it should work in any tenure.

What is your final word on this current scam and corruption in the Railways?

The fear of God worked in my time. If that is there, there would be no corruption.

Also transparency in decision-making — where you have to give valid reasons for choosing one company over another is always a deterrent to favoring a particular company.

The one that loses (the contract) can always approach the court or the people and prove that it is better than the one who has been awarded the contract because now the reason for choosing has been given.