New Zones: The more things change, the more they remain the same

“The more things change, the more they remain the same. The phrase, coined by French writer Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr, seems to be proving right for Indian Railways (IR).

IR announced the creation of the South Coast Railway (SCoR), its 17th railway zone on Wednesday, February 27, 2019 (see table).

Nine-zone formula

Cut to the 1950s. Post-independence, we had only 6 zones (ER, NR, NER, SR, WR and CR) which became 8 by 1958 after NFR and SER were carved out of NER and ER respectively. By the mid-1960s, SCR had arrived. This was in sync with the idea of the first Chief Commissioner of the Railway Board (now called Chairman Railway Board) K C Bakhle.

“From K C Bakhle, the Chief Commissioner of the Railway Board, downward Indianization of the railroad workforce was finally completed” wrote rail historian Ian J Kerr in his book “Engines of Change: The railroads that made India.”

Eventually, nine zones became 16 by the turn of the century.

SCoR announcement

The official communication has been very well crafted “As per item 8 of Schedule 13 (Infrastructure) of the Andhra Pradesh Reorganization Act, 2014, Indian Railways was required to examine establishing a new railway zone in the successor state of Andhra Pradesh. The matter has been examined in detail in consultation with stake holders and it has been decided to go ahead with creation of a new zone with headquarter at Visakhapatnam.”

The question which immediately comes to mind is; Will each state in India have its own railway zone going forward?

Numerous examples

The concept of creating zones that cater mainly to one single state is not new. For instance, North Western Railway caters mainly to Rajasthan, NCR and NER to UP, ECR to Bihar, CR to Maharashtra, SWR to Karnataka, ECoR to Odisha and now SCoR to Andhra. And, these zones were created by the turn of the century.

Demand for more zones

The clamour for re-organization of zones and the creation of new zones is likely to increase. For example, Mangaluru and coastal Karnataka are demanding transfer of their regions to SWR from SR. Nagercoil and nearby areas are demanding to move from Thiruvananthapuram Division to Madurai Division of SR. The biggest of them all is the murmur for a separate zone for Kerala, citing skewed development under the Chennai-based SR.

History is replete with such examples, When the central government in 1996 decided to form six new zones (NCR, NWR, ECR, SWR, ECoR and WCR), there was agitation in Bilaspur (then in Madhya Pradesh) demanding a zone for themselves. As a result, a seventh zone SECR was added.

No one was willing to stick his neck out and say what would be the gains from the creation of these zones. In fact, the Rakesh Mohan committee and the Comptroller & Auditor General were not for the decision to create seven zones. However, the government went ahead. The Supreme Court upheld the Centre’s decision, dismissing petitions challenging the decision.

Formation of ECR was also based on the sentiment of being marginalized. The popular sentiment (when IR had 9 zones) in Bihar then was that four zones (SER, ER, NER and NFR) passed through it and yet the headquarters of these zones were outside the state.

Political parties in Tamil Nadu called off their rail roko agitation only after the then rail minister Lalu Prasad Yadav promised to carve out Salem division out of Palakkad. And in the case of Visakhapatnam the most prominent reason as the local MP explained on live TV was the extension of terminating trains to Bhubaneswar.

Employees

 The erstwhile Bengal Nagpur Railway / undivided South Eastern Railway had a large percentage of Telugu speaking population from North Coastal Andhra Pradesh on its rolls especially in Kharagpur and in Odisha.

This got trifurcated after SER was split in the early 2000s and a major chunk went to the East Coast Railway especially the Waltair division.

However, the feeling of Indianization of Indian Railways after independence seems to have taken a turn towards regionalization of IR by the 2000s. One should not be surprised if, for example, Nanded division is handed over to Central Railway in the future because a major part is geographically present in Maharashtra. There are many such examples-Of its total route km of 400, only about 40 route km of Mughalsarai division is in Uttar Pradesh, the remaining 300 km is in Bihar and about 60 km in Jharkhand.

Cost of a new zone

A new zone means a new GM and a new set of principal heads of department (PHoD). It also means more promotion avenues for direct recruit officers.

IR usually gives its other employees an option to either stay at the existing zone or re-locate to the newly formed zone. However, approval to relocate is based on the criticality of an employee’s post and the fact that mass migration to the new zone could dry up manpower at the existing.

In this case, options are likely to be given to employees of SCR and ECoR to relocate to SCoR and vice versa.

A new zone also means creating physical infrastructure, such as a headquarter building and staff quarters, commensurate with the posts in the zonal hierarchy. This entails significant capital expenditure.

With Indian Railways posting a wafer-thin margin (operating ratio of 98.4 in FY18) and likely to post 96.2 per cent in FY19, any extra expenditure in the range of Rs 100 crore or thereabouts for creating headquarters, staff quarters, IT infrastructure, managing transfers etc. will only put extra stress on IR’s resources.

“The more things change, the more they remain the same.”

New zones need time to stabilize and start making money. If the idea of state-wise bifurcation of railway zones becomes a reality, then IR could actually think of unlocking value by listing all of them on the stock market with each zone having a separate balance sheet and a profit and loss account for itself.

After all, railways in India started off with the incorporation of the Great Indian Peninsula Railway Company on August 1, 1849 in London by an act of the British Parliament with a share capital of 50,000 pounds under the guarantee system [which provided free land plus a guaranteed five per cent return on investment to British companies ready to build railways].

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About the Author: Raghavendra Rao

1 Comment

  1. new ScOR has all ingredients to succeed – especially when the SCR’s major chunk of revenue is from the areas earmarked for SCoR; with HQ in SC, projects in proposed SCoR have been given step motherly treatment since AP bifurcation in 2014; even last mile projects like GNT-TNL doubling & electrification is yet to be operationalized – with political considerations taking primary seat, its been a disappointment in residual Andhra when significant revenue is being accrued from this part. ECoR had always had sway over needs of north & east Andhra belt; hope all these imbalances & injustices meted out to Andhra in 2014 would start rectification now starting with this one step though delayed for 4 yrs.

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