No Leisure Breaks: Lohani on task of improving the form, structure and appearance of Indian Railways

We have to instill renewed sense of confidence in railway passengers: Ashwani Lohani

NEW DELHI: There is virtue in work, there is virtue in rest. That seems to be the guiding principle of the new chairman of the Indian Railway Board, Ashwani Lohani. Lohani may not believe in taking a leisure break himself, but follows this basic tenet when it comes to his employees.

Last month, during a visit to a running room (where drivers and guards usually rest) in Allahabad, he ordered that air-conditioning facility be provided in all running rooms in the country.

“It was so hot and dingy in there and it is a shame that this is where the drivers and guards of our trains get their rest,” the 58-year-old officer says, explaining the principle that guided him throughout his career spanning 30 years in various administrative jobs in the Railways, Air India and Tourism departments. “My employee comes first, then comes the passenger,” says Lohani, who took charge last month.

Right in front of him in his Rail Bhawan office, lies the Bhagwat Gita and the tricolour is displayed prominently next to it. “With these, nothing wrong can happen here. Railways is a feudal organisation. Employees tend to follow the boss. If I am committed and not corrupt, the work culture will change. Here, employees know when the boss means it,” he says.

On a mission to fix the “human” problem in the Railways, Lohani feels “only the railway employees can fix the Railways. Technology and policy can’t do much if people using them don’t want to change.” Handpicked by the Centre, Lohani is seen as a turnaround man, both politically and administratively –– it was when he was Air India CMD that the airline registered its first operational profit. Rooted in traditional ethos, Lohani was favoured by many in the establishment to revamp the Railway Board –– the oldest bureaucracy in India.

A few days ago, while travelling along the Moradabad track on the rail car, he saw some gangmen working on the tracks in the hot sun. He stopped by them and shared a meal of cutlets, which he says, he must do more often. “These are people who are responsible for our trains and we talk so little to them, about them,” he says.

Among his primary concerns is also the quality of food being served in trains. “The aim is to serve food, not make money,” he said. At a recent meeting, he admonished officials on “why food on trains could not be as good as those served in planes.”

“That will happen soon. We are looking at giving passengers the option to go for e-catering services. We are also looking at “ready-to-serve” items that can be served. These days, aircraft serve ready-to-eat daal chawal to pulao. Why can’t that be replicated in trains,” he asks.

He admits that the culture of an organisation cannot be changed with a few words of assurances. He intends to celebrate the vigilance week by putting up messages in his office and getting his officials to spread the importance of values, ethics and morals while at work.

In the past one month of his taking charge, he has visited several places, flagging a number of issues related to personnel and maintenance during his meetings.

“I have given each employee I met my whatsapp number so that they can send me their grievances. My job is to reach out to drivers, trackmen, all employees of the organisation, reassure them that their voice is being heard. If they are motivated to work, the culture will change. They will have more ownership and operational efficiency will follow,” he says, while refusing to admit that Indian Railways is a victim of age-old policies and technology. “Processes over the years have been made complicated. Our job is to simplify them.”

As soon as he took over, he ordered that there will be no “VIP culture” in trains. The order was similar to his instruction to do away with the culture of subservience practised in Air India before he took over, of employees being asked to carry the briefcases of politicians and VIP delegates, and be at their “beck and call” while on board or when their limousines come all the way up to the aircraft to drop them off.

At Air India, he has the record of starting over seven international flights in 21 months, which includes a flight that is being considered a world record of sorts for being the longest flight (Delhi- San Francisco) to be operated only by women.

Lohani has the expertise of turning around India Tourism Development Corporation (ITDC), including the Ashoka Hotel in the national capital, when he was its chairman and managing director in 2002-2003. Sacked when Arun Shourie was minister, Lohani has a crisp answer to the episode. “I take orders in writing. If you give me an instruction verbally I need to be convinced about the intent and the implication. I don’t compromise on integrity.”

Lohani says he would make it compulsory at Railway offices to discuss sexual harassment cases, something that he did at Air India too.

“My effort will be to bring these issues to the table. Many of these issues are never even talked about. These are problems of real people that exist and need to be solved for work to happen.”

In the past too, Lohani has gone all out to protect his employees, the most famous being standing up for an Air India employee who was slapped by a Shiv Sena MP. He was willing to let go of the case only after he got an order in writing and after the Shiv Sena reached out to him.

Guided by Swami Vivekananda and Richard Branson, whose qoutes fill his room, Lohani is a man with a competitive edge to prove to the world that things can change if the right efforts are put in with faith. What keeps him going on, in his own words, is what his daughters tell him often, “Papa, fail math hona (Father, please don’t fail).”