Article: Suresh Prabhu on decentralizing decision-making in Railways


Suresh Prabhu on decentralizing decision-making in Railways

A candid conversation with Mr. Suresh Prabhu, the current Railway Minister of India, on the state of the Indian Railways, the launch of new initiatives and the indispensable element of the human capital.
Suresh Prabhu on decentralizing decision-making in Railways

Railways have system of transparency in its working with requisite checks and balances to strike a proper balance between operational efficiency and accountability


Decentralization of power instills a sense of responsibility in the officers and the employees and speeds up decision making



Suresh Prabhakar Prabhu is the current Railway Minister of India, under the Narendra Modi government. An adept parliamentarian, a qualified Chartered Accountant, Banker, Educationist, Social Worker and a Politician, Mr. Prabhu has juggled multiple portfolios during the first NDA regime’s stint at the center from 1998 to 2004 where he held positions as the Minister for Industry, Environment and Forests, Fertilizers & Chemicals, and Power. Mr. Prabhu is also the chairperson of Manav Sadhan Vikas Sanstha, an NGO that works towards empowering people.

You have mentioned in your White Paper on Indian Railways that “In an earlier era, the Indian Railways have been described as “imperium in imperio” – an empire within an empire. The size and scale is gigantic.” Railways to an extent is still like that. How are you dealing with this gargantuan task of managing the most difficult portfolio?

Railways has always been fortunate to have a team of professionals and the commitment of railway workers to their job is remarkable. There is no dearth of knowledge in the system. We have diagnosed early on that the main problem of Railways is cumulative disinvestment. This is an area which we are tackling on priority. Given the excellent operational protocol that Railways has, the professional managers of the Railways can take care of the rest.

Indian Railways is fulfilling a social purpose (for the common man) as well as a commercial purpose. And it is a huge responsibility both ways. How is the Railways balancing this act?

Railways is serving the social objective s in a major way by connecting the remote regions of the country even if these are not profitable and running the passenger services at affordable fares, which are the cheapest in the world. We are recovering only around60 per cent of the cost of running the passenger services on an average and this has been traditionally subsidized by charging higher freight rates. This balancing act has become difficult with competition hotting up in the freight sector. However, correction of the distortion in one go is not possible. A gradual rebalancing of freight and fare is required. Meanwhile the social purpose served by Railways and the economic losses suffered on this count need to be recognized and compensated. Within the government, we are trying to find a mechanism how to do that.

Suresh Prabhu Minister of Railways

What has been the biggest HR challenge for you in relation to people management, productivity and performance?

How are you looking at building scale for planned expansion and at the same time improve productivity and customer experience from the human resource angle?Indian Railways is not only diversified in area but also in the mix of employees. It is the largest civilian employer in the country with over 1.3 million employees. Synergizing the workforce in tune with the existing objectives as well as future challenges is a huge HR challenge. The employees are highly motivated and disciplined. They have a strong commitment to the organization which is reflected in the use of Railway Family by all. Yet they have legitimate aspirations for career growth as well as certain personal requirements in matters of postings and transfers. There is no concept of hire and fire, being a government organization. The employment is life-long. Hence another challenge is to utilize the potential of the employees for higher level of technology through training. Technology brings in productivity so long as the person at the work spot is adequately trained. Retraining becomes necessary when one particular kind of job ceases to exist and the employee has to be redeployed in another job requiring a different set of skills. Motivation of staff is maintained through prompt payments. Pay Commissions established every 10 years review the wage levels. This imposes one more financial burden. Industrial relations also acquire an important role in our HR efforts. In this, our Unions and the management maintain constant dialogue at all levels which has led to peaceful industrial relations in such a big system.

Expansions in Railways assets are primarily taking place in laying of new lines/gauge conversion/doubling, electrification of busy routes, new electric locomotives sheds and maintenance depots and new production units or expansion in the capacity of existing production units. Considering this, expansion in staff requirement also arises due the introduction of new trains or enhancement of coaches in existing trains and new railway stations and yards that are set up. All these require additional staff and we follow a cost neutral system if generating our own resources for meeting staff requirement for the new activities and assets by way of surrender of posts which are genuinely needed. This requires a lot of ingenuity and initiative especially at the Divisional level. Customer experience is sought to be enhanced by way of providing training in soft skills to all categories of frontline staff i.e. staff who come in contact with the general public. Introduction of modern tools especially computers in offices and in other parts of working have also increased productivity of the organization from HR point of view.

You strongly believe in the mantra ‘Less government and more governance’. How have you managed to decentralize decision-making and granting more authority to the people down the line? With decentralization comes huge challenge of  building ‘ecosystem of trust’ in such a colossal  organization – how are you dealing with this challenge?

For quick decision making at field levels, the General Managers have been given full powers for sanctioning of estimates and acceptance of tenders. It is helping Indian Railways in execution and completion of works at a much faster pace and the organization is on the path of becoming self-sustaining organization. Railways have system of transparency in its working with requisite checks and balances. It has been done with due caution to strike a proper balance between operational efficiency and accountability.

The Indian Railways has mandated consulting firm Deloitte to study and rationalize manpower for Group A services. This will undoubtedly cause huge upheaval. What was the intention behind this? What are you anticipating at this moment?

The terms of reference given to Deloitte are to prepare a rational manpower policy for Indian Railways in the context of Group A services. The study was commissioned on the basis of the Report submitted by the one man Committee chaired by Shri Vinod Rai to look into rationalization of man power. The study will be completed and submitted by 31st of March, 2016. It is not correct to assume at this stage that it will cause huge upheaval, one reason being that it is related to Group A services only. A rational man power policy for Group A which is the crux of the management on the Indian Railways at all levels should normally be expected to bring in a more satisfied order cadre if their legitimate career aspirations are addressed. The experience of the study may help us decide the future interventions in human resources practices for the future of railway employees. It is to be mentioned here that due to its geographical spread varied employee profile, diversified nature of work, introduction of any major intervention in human resource practices would have to be well thought of.

Every now and then, Railway recruitments keep coming under much criticism in the media. What efforts are you making to streamline the recruitment process and make them more objective and transparent?

Indian Railways has taken a number of initiatives towards speed, efficiency, transparency and credibility. The key initiatives comprise new system of handling over the Question Booklets to the candidates, a pilot project of uploading of Answer Keys and Cut-off marks initiated, uploading of Question Booklet and Answer Keys on RRB’s website, online application and examinations, a five-fold increase in the number of exam cities from 60 to 351 that has facilitated the candidates by reducing their travel costs and hassles, and enhanced objectivity, transparency, security, integrity and credibility of Railway Recruitment Board exams. Such initiatives have led to a rise in the number of applicants by about 5 times and also in actual attendance in the exam. It has also demonstrated that these changes have been widely welcomed by lakhs of aspirants.

We understand that you have started phenomenal effort of reaching out to all the railway 1.3 million employees and convey birthday wishes directly – how did you get this idea of doing so in such a  vast organization? What do you intend to accomplish from this effort?

For any organization, the most important resource is the human resource. But for the Railways, it is far more important resource because it is customer centric, people centric, people intensive. The only resource that has no installed capacity is human resource and its potential is unlimited. But how do you tap that potential and how do you motivate them? For this, one needs to have an organization culture which will ensure that each and every individual is motivated to do better. In view of this, we took many initiatives. One of this is sending personalized birthday greeting which has turned out to be the best example of reaching out and motivating employees. The mechanism of conveying Minister’s Birthday greetings to employees on their birthday is one such shining example of efforts of all personal officers on the Indian Railways which was achieved with utmost alacrity and without spending any resource.

Overall you have embarked upon a massive transformation in Indian railways, which is commendable. From change management perspective, how are you rallying the railway leadership and the ranks and file towards this change agenda. How are you getting them on board?

Constant interaction and dialogue at all levels with clarity will help in involving the rank and file towards the change agenda. Decentralization of power instills a sense of responsibility in the officers and the employees and speeds up decision making. Railway officers coming to the helm are those who have spent a life time in Railways. So they know the system and ensure continuity and they have also been a part of the change that is being brought about. 

This interview will be read by thousands of HR professionals. Do you have any message for them? How do you think they can contribute towards nation building?

The challenges before the Indian railways are of modernization, adapting to technology and enhancing skills at all levels. HR professionals by bringing to notice cases of successful transformation in huge organizations can help Indian Railways to get ideas for implementation in its own sphere. Nation-building is a collective effort and it is not necessary that one should be the part of the organization to contribute in this regard. Ideas are always welcome but they need to be examined from the viability and need point of view. Nation building requires most of all efforts from human beings in which the role of HR professionals become paramount. 

(We express our gratitude to Dr. Arvind N. Agrawal, Partner, Global HR Lead Partners LLP, for providing his expertise and facilitating this interaction) 

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Topics: Leadership, #PersonalJourney

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