Rarely was the focus by media on the Railway Ministry earlier, unless Lalu’s antics and publicity stunts, Mamata’s theatrics and browbeats kept them in the full publicity from Rail Bhavan, the imposing headquarters where the real work of keeping the world’s second largest rail network running. However the scenario is different now. Today everything is in shambles at Railway Board with six Railway Ministers’ in the last 4 years contributing enough to the mess with the very dignity and thin line between bureaucracy and politics eroded permanently. Today the Railway Board is led with corrupt bureaucracy occupying top positions!
The arrest, on corruption charges, of one of the senior most Railway officials by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), and the consequent exit of its minister, has left the Railways not just rattled, but unable to move with no decision happening, especially on top level appointments.
With Mahesh Kumar, Member-Staff, Railway Board, behind bars for over a month now, the Ministry is in a fix on whether a full-time replacement is necessary till Kumar’s fate is known. Member-Staff is the top HR post in the Railways, which is India’s biggest employer with over 1.4 million on its rolls.
The Railway Ministry had suspended Kumar after he was arrested by the CBI for allegedly offering a bribe to the nephew of then Railway Minister Pawan Bansal. Bansal had denied any links with either his nephew or Kumar, but was forced to go nevertheless. He has subsequently been questioned by the CBI.
Railway Board is in a Peculiar Fix today
Since Member-level appointments are statutory and since such appointees cannot be axed as easily as a minister, the Railway Board is in a peculiar fix. It does not have anybody full-time running the HR side of its business. And it appears unwilling to get someone else for the job till the CBI formally files charges against Kumar. There is also the possibility of the CBI either failing to charge Kumar, or even if it does, failing to prove its case, which means Kumar will be back.
For the moment, Subodh Jain, Member-Engineering, has been given additional charge of Member-Staff.
There is no clarity by when the CBI will take a call on the fate of Kumar, who was appointed Member-Staff just two days before his arrest.
Ministry officials point out that this top Railway Board post may not get a full time official for up to two years, if the CBI were to take longer in its investigation, as Mahesh Kumar has two years to go till retirement.
Incidentally, of the seven-member Railway Board, two posts already are without full time Members — Staff and Traffic. Two more posts — Chairman and Finance Commissioner — are set to fall vacant in another two weeks as CRB and FC are retiring on 30th June.
NO DECISION MAKERS
But the real issue is the slowing down of decision making. Just imagine the chaos if a $22-billion company (the Railways had revenues of Rs 1,26,000 crore last year) had nearly half of its top functional directors missing!
Earlier, too, questions have been raised on the practice of keeping top posts vacant. In a letter to the Cabinet Secretary, the Railway officer’s federation had written against such practice, though in a different context.
The dilemma for the Railways is – Should it wait to hear from CBI on Kumar, or appoint someone? If it does the former, decision-making suffers. If the latter, and the CBI clears Kumar, it has a different headache. “If Mahesh Kumar were to be reinstated, he can be appointed to the Railway Board on a ‘supernumerary post’, which is something like temporary duty. This happens for lower posts regularly, though at a Member-level rank, there is probably just one such precedence,” said an official in the know.
Meanwhile, a three-member committee has been formed in the Board to review the rules followed for Board-level positions. But some insiders question the terms of reference. “That should be to look specifically at loopholes in the current maze of rules followed for selection. For instance, in the current context, there is no clarity on who should be posted among two of the top contenders for the Chairman’s post,” said another source.