Train More for Better Transparency in the Railways

Train More for Better Transparency in the Railways


By: Venkatesh Nayak

All is not well with the Indian Railways, it seems. Recently, Loco Pilots belonging to the All India Loco Running Staff Association, submitted a detailed memorandum to the General Manager, South Zone demanding restriction of duty hours from the present 11/12 hours per person to the 10 hours stipulated in the rule book. Further, quoting from the International Labour Organisation (ILO) Convention R161 of 1979, they have demanded a weekly rest day available to all other workers of the national passenger-and-goods-transportation behemoth. More poignantly, they have also sought a reduction in the duration of their outstation stay from 72 hours to 48 hours to enable them to spend enough time with their families as other workers do.

How the Railways Ministry, which is increasingly catering to the better-off segments of society with Vande Bharat Expresses and their like at the expense of the aam janta which travels in the choc-a-bloc General Class and Sleeper Coaches- will respond to these demands, remains to be seen. Lest we forget, these ‘engine drivers’ keep India i.e., Bharat — from Kashmir to Kanyakumari — well connected and sufficiently provisioned but whose names we never get to know as there are no cabin crew announcements like those made on commercial flights. Their legitimate demands deserve attention and appropriate action.

But this piece is not about the labour woes of the Indian Railways. The top-level managers of this Lifeline to the Nation have suddenly become very concerned about its diminishing track record of transparency. A cautionary directive issued by the Secretary of the Railway Board towards the fag-end of 2023, requires all replies of public information officers (PIOs) to citizens under The Right to Information Act, 2005 (RTI Act) to be cleared by General Managers at the Zonal level and by Divisional Railway Managers (DRMs) at the Divisional level. Likewise, all decisions on first appeals issued by the designated first appellate authorities (FAAs) will have to be vetted by these very officers before they are despatched.

Explaining the basis for this missive, the directive pointed to the deteriorating quality of RTI replies given by Zonal offices and field units and their frequent failure to adhere to statutory timelines while so doing. These factors are apparently leading to an increase in the number of appeals filed before the FAAs and the Central Information Commission (CIC)- the second and final appellate authority under the RTI Act. Consequently, the Railways as an ‘Organisation’ was earning ‘disrepute’, the Secretary lamented.

Shortly after this controversy hit the headlines, the media reported the transfer of a Chief Public Relations Officer (CPRO) of CR. They suspected a witch hunt within the ‘Organisation’ for revealing information that the Opposition was using to score brownie points. However, truth be told, the RTI reply, which is accessible on social media, is signed by the designated PIO who continues to remain in that position at the time of writing this piece. Was the CPRO shunted out for failing to contain the adverse publicity generated, one does not know. Perhaps one might never get to know what led to that transfer. This is because the reason for the transfer of an officer is rarely recorded and even if it were, the citizenry would have difficulty accessing it, thanks to a bunch of conservative orders and judgments issued by the Supreme Court of India which guarantee such information the cover of confidentiality.

But has the Indian Railways’ track record of transparency deteriorated? Those of us who are outside the ‘Organisation’ would be able to comment on it, if we had access to the RTI applications it receives and the replies its PIOs issue from time to time. Despite being one of the first public authorities under the Union Government to publish its RTI applications and replies on a dedicated website, the Indian Railways stopped this practice a few years ago. So now we can make an assessment only by examining the RTI statistics published in the CIC’s annual reports (ARs). Read More