Perhaps the most abiding image of the recent saga of the Chandrayaan-2 mission, which came tantalisingly close to getting the Vikram spacecraft to make a soft landing on the lunar surface, was that of the Prime Minister embracing and consoling the chairman of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO). That single act said eloquently what words could not have expressed adequately: that though the mission could not achieve one of its prime objectives, it had notched up a series of outstanding successes along the way for which the entire nation is proud.
As the grand finale unfolded on television screens all over the country, despite the let-down at the end, a strong wave of support and sympathy was visible for the band of dedicated scientists and engineers of the space agency, who had given their all for the success of the mission. Watching the sequence of events, as a former railway professional, I could not help but reflect on the sharp contrast of the Chandrayaan-2 with another initiative, this one by the Indian Railways, which succeeded in achieving its objectives on schedule and yet, within a few months, unravelled in an unexpectedly different manner.
A technological marvel
A little less than a year ago, in October 2018, the country was celebrating a technological achievement of a purely terrestrial nature: the successful rolling out of a gleaming state-of-the-art, semi-high-speed (of 160 kmph-200 kmph speed) train set called ‘Train 18’ in an incredibly short time span of 18 months. If Chandrayaan-2 brought India close to joining the select band of three countries in the world to have successfully achieved a soft landing on the moon, Train 18 propelled India into the exclusive club of about a half a dozen countries in the world that have the capability to turn out a brand new design of a high-speed/semi-high-speed train set in such a short time.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi flew down to witness the landing of the lunar vehicle at the satellite tracking centre in Bengaluru. A few months earlier, in February, he had flagged off the inaugural run of the Train 18 as ‘Vande Bharat Express’ in Varanasi. The train has provided a trouble-free performance in the last six months. Unfortunately, perhaps it was the outstanding success of the Train 18 project that proved to be its undoing.
The unravelling had commenced even before Train 18’s inaugural run as Vande Bharat Express. Following top-level changes in the Railway Board at the turn of the New Year, a vigilance investigation was launched into certain alleged procedural irregularities and allegations of undue favours shown to a particular indigenous firm in awarding contracts for the crucial propulsion system.
It was also reported that deviations had been observed from the specifications prescribed by the Research Design and Standards Organisation (RDSO). Meanwhile, the man who had spearheaded the Train 18 project — from its conception and design to its launch — as General Manager of Integral Coach Factory (ICF) and who retired at the end of last year, was not even extended an invitation for the train’s ceremonial inaugural run in February 2019. (In contrast, some former ISRO chiefs were invited to witness Vikram’s descent.)
As though to add a touch of dark humour, a few months after the train’s inauguration, post the general election, it was announced at the highest policymaking level of the Indian Railways that “the Railways would be willing to start import of complete train sets from foreign suppliers if they agreed to establish the coach manufacturing facility in India”. (This is equivalent to ISRO going in for import of its rockets and space vehicles from the U.S. or Russia!)
With the train set’s production having come to a halt in ICF, Chennai, despite tenders having been floated, Project 18 is as good as dead now.
What explains this vast divergence in the way the two missions, Chandrayaan-2 and Train 18, panned out? The two organisations, ISRO and the Indian Railways, are as different as chalk and cheese. Though both the public sector organisations have notched up a series of successes that truly reflected the spirit of ‘Make in India’ long before the phrase became fashionable, their objectives and organisational structure are entirely different. While ISRO functions mostly in ‘mission mode’ to achieve specific goals of a mission, the Indian Railways operates normally in ‘maintenance mode’, to keep the wheels of the railway network moving as efficiently as possible with the least disruption. This aim is achieved through more than a dozen functional departments that normally work in close coordination. Only certain specific projects or initiatives are undertaken in ‘mission mode’. The Train 18 project was one such undertaking that required the planners to cut red tape and reduce needless procedural hassles. It is likely that in the process, certain ‘sacrosanct’ boundaries of departmental silos were breached for no other reason than to speed up decision-making.
Impact of internal turf wars
It is not the intention here to pass judgments on the rights and wrongs of actions and decisions that enabled the launch of Train 18 in record time, or of the subsequent decisions that effectively derailed the mission. What, however, is of public interest is the enormous damage that the scourge of interdepartmental rivalries and internecine turf wars within the Indian Railways has done to the organisational morale and synergistic functioning of the nation’s prime public transporter. Unfortunately, Train 18 appears to have become the latest victim of this age-old malady of the Indian Railways.
A committee of experts under economist and NITI Aayog member Bibek Debroy, tasked among other things to suggest ways of breaking down departmental silos within the Indian Railways to improve efficiency and speed of decision-making, gave its recommendations in early 2015. The ‘Mission Train 18’ episode is proof, if any evidence is at all required, that nothing has changed since then and that the departmental silos are alive and well. It is futile to expect the techno-bureaucracy of the Indian Railways to reform itself. The ball is in the court of the political leadership to push for reforms in this area. Otherwise, the Indian Railways will continue to notch up more successes like Train 18 that fade into oblivion, unlike ISRO where, it seems, public opinion reckons even a failure as a victory.
K. Balakesari is former member, Staff, Railway Board
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