Saturday, October 30, 2010
‘Bureaucrats are both running and ruining the country’
THE STATESMAN, 11 August 2010
Even as the Cabinet cleared the Whistleblowers’ Bill, Mr. Atul Kumar, a serving Indian Railways Stores Officer (since 1981), spoke in a personal capacity to Shiv Karan Singh, Principal Correspondent, about corruption in the Railway procurement system and the consequences faced by those who blow the whistle. Mr. Kumar has regularly been pointing out problems in the Railway procurement system, resulting in colossal revenue losses. His entreaties have fallen on deaf years, but have led to his frequent transfers. The officer has degrees from the Delhi College of Engineering, IIT (Madras), and IIM (Kolkata), and has worked as Material Managers in South-Eastern, Northern, Central, Western, Eastern, East-Coast and Southern Railways, as well as at Chittaranjan Locomotive Works and Integral Coach Factory (Chennai). Mr. Kumar is presently awaiting transfer from his recently held post of Controller of Stores Metro Railways (Kolkata).
Q: You are amongst the few officers who have a history of speaking the truth about irregularities that dog Railway procurement. How has the Railways’ leadership responded to your efforts?
A: ‘Sachchi baat kahi thi maine, logon ne sooli pe chadhaya’ goes a ghazal by Sabir Dutt, which sums it up. Senior management has treated me as a pariah, transferred me frequently, and denied me my due in the organisation. But, far more importantly, they have not bothered to address the issues that I have brought to their attention, which are in the larger public interest. Rs. 5,000 crore, leaking out just from Railways procurement per annum, is not a small sum that can be ignored for long, especially in a country where 77 per cent of the population lives for less than Rs. 20 per day.
Q: The Statesman published reports detailing Railways corruption that has blown an estimated Rs 50,000 crore hole in the public exchequer in the past decade. While the Board has maintained a resounding silence, the Railway Minister has welcomed the news, stating, ‘we have learned a lot from these reports.’
A: I hope the Minister meant what she said. The media loves to blame politicians. However, it is bureaucrats that are both running and ruining the country. With the present Minister’s credentials of integrity, it is not so easy for the Board to pass the buck to her, as bureaucrats usually do. But the top layer will always try to keep her in the dark. The Minister may say one thing but top bureaucracy does just the opposite. I have further been victimised through unceremonious transfer, a tool readily available with Railway administration, as the Board perceives my detailed letter written to them four months ago to be the basis of your reports. The Railway Board believes it is more powerful than the Minister, and even the Government of India. Look at how the Board has suppressed the posts of Board Members for S&T and Stores for a decade, despite these having been approved by the Government and Ministers.
Q: How do you say you have been victimised?
A. I have been arbitrarily transferred again within just over a year, and the peculiar thing is there is no vacancy where I am going. A large number of suppliers implicated in my letter are based there.
Q: Railways has expressed concern over misuse of Rs. 100 crore that it has pledged for the Commonwealth Games (CWG). Given the immense irregularities in Railways procurement worth thousands of crores, what do you make of this sudden concern amongst Railways leadership for corruption in CWG procurement and commissions?
A: Yes, it is amusing and sad all at once. If Railways are so concerned about their image they should clean their own house first, no? CWG irregularities, even though so blatant, are peanuts compared to the leakage taking place in Railways. CWG is a one-time scam while the leakage reported in The Statesman is perennial. Existing checks and balances in our bureaucratic system have miserably failed.
Q: Why are Stores officers helpless in the face of supplier cartels that over-charge?
A: In one sense they are helpless because of their own volition. If they put their foot down, don't accept overpricing, and speak in one voice, cartels can't dominate so much. However, this can only go so far, because on the other hand, they hardly have any say in development and selection of vendors they have to buy from. The rules of the game are set elsewhere. Stores officers just play the game, like robots acting through pre-programmed software. That too when they are also engineers selected through UPSC at par with officers of consuming departments.
Q: Isn’t the push for a Member (Stores) only a cadre aspiration that will not actually stem corruption?
A: In this context, corruption is not the central issue. The issue is organisational need and professional independence; that the Stores department remains under one user departmental Head is just ridiculous. The need for post of Member Stores was approved by the Government more than 10 years back. It should be beyond debate now. Quite amazing though that the Railway Board has repeatedly succeeded in stalling it. A Member Stores may not solve the problems in procurement overnight but will definitely boost the morale of the cadre responsible for procurement worth Rs 25,000 crore and scrap disposal over Rs 3,500 crores annually, and strengthen them professionally. With good leadership, this will begin stemming corruption also.
Q: Railways still has its share of honest officers. Why do they not speak out?
A: Edmund Burke once said, ‘The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.’ Railways are nothing but a subset of society. Something special to Railways, however, is total arbitrariness in transfers and postings and subjective appraisal of officers. It compels people to keep quiet and is the root cause of all ills in the system. More often than not, lobbying and nepotism govern postings in senior positions. Until this issue is addressed, corruption will continue to flow from the top. The system, checks and balances notwithstanding, allows the corrupt or incompetent to rise to the top positions. The basic problem lies there. We are literally begging for scams to surface all the time.
Q: It is for kickbacks that Railways management has maintained a system that allows for exorbitant prices. Are there ready solutions to stem over-pricing corruption? If adopted, will the high-level committee’s recommendations that ‘vendor approval work at RDSO be substantially reduced’, help?
A: I have not seen this report you are referring to. But, apart from straight-out corruption, bureaucratic apathy and incompetence have a role to play too. Kickbacks exist, but so many officers just conform to improper practices. There is a burning need for revisiting the existing approval system and in fact even the necessity for pre-approval of sources. Cost Estimation Cells headed by Material Managers and the encouragement of more sources for competitive bidding will help. Common prudence demands that tenders should be decided on correctly estimated costs rather than cartel-controlled misleading last-purchase-rates, especially for high value purchases. Total transparency via Railways websites in the entire procurement process beginning from specification changes, vendor approvals, to finalization of tenders is needed. Simple solutions exist, but not the will. Already a very potent clause, i.e. 'book examination clause' exists in our supply contracts (not in works contracts). It has hardly ever been used. By using it, not only can suppliers be prevented from fleecing further, but recoveries can also be made.
Q: India still does not have a Whistleblowers Act. On the other hand, with Rajiv Gandhi’s single directive order of 1988 pasted into the CVC Act 2003, corruption by senior bureaucrats has never operated with such impunity.
A: As you say this, a Whistleblowers Bill has been approved by the Cabinet. The need for an act to protect whistleblowers itself speaks about where society has gone. Organizations and public at large should be saluting our whistleblowers. Rather, we keep murdering our RTI activists.
Q: Your poetry, awarded by none other than the Railway Board, documents loneliness, anger, and occasional hope: Choota peeche raila, yahaan main akela, bahut akela… akela nahin hai tu, tere saath chal rahi hai ek lambi dagar.” Do you really see hope in honest officers usually afraid to speak, or in a public that fails to demand accountability from its own government?
A: It is quite easy to write poetry. Fighting the might of the administration from within is a different ball-game. Even those around you start disowning you. Self preservation and vested interests reign supreme in decision making, especially at the top, common prudence and public interest taking a back seat. Still one can’t lose hope. During one of my train journeys, one very experienced MP averred that it needed one mad person to correct a system. It may require more than one madman to correct the present system. Somewhere along the line they will come or nature will take its own course.
Q: Knowing that you will probably be 'disciplined' further, why have you chosen to respond to these questions?
A: As much as I feel bound to do my job according to the laid out protocol, after being contacted by you, I feel even more ethically bound to speak out in the larger Railways and national interest. What is really wrong is the present apathy to systemic problems in Railways. If my pointing this out, in an attempt to try and push for a better system in order to save thousands and thousands of crores of public money, will result in further persecution, so be it.
Coming back to the subject, a much needed breather for Mr. Kalmadi and bad luck for Mr. Ashok Chavan, the Chief Minister of Maharashtra, since this expose' comes so close on the heels of CWG scam also involving his party-men. That has forced leadership of his party to become virtuous overnight and demand his scalp. Poor Mr. Chavan. So many top central cabinet ministers under same leadership have been surviving for years the bunglings worth hundreds times more both in value and gravity. Even the Supreme Court of the country has had to seek solace only in uttering sarcastic remarks every now and then, remarks a wag could utter. The anarchy looks to be complete by each passing day. Is it "time now" for the much needed revolution?
Sunday, October 17, 2010
Thursday, October 14, 2010
Does our degradation stem to a large extent from our marriage system? What marriage should be? It is supposed to be association of two soul-mates for life-time or till it lasts. With homo-sexuality being permitted in many societies, sex of the soul-mates doesn't matter. But let us talk of man-woman marriage. Does arranged marriage fulfill this requirement? If we don't try to deceive ourselves, answer is simple and clear- 'No', more often than not 'no'. At the time of marriage it is a blind whether the two individuals will be successful in becoming soul-mates. They don't marry because they were soul-mates or they felt they were soul-mates. They try to become soul-mates after marriage. I know from my experience and that of those I know closely that very often they don't become soul-mates and continue to tolerate each other with their best abilities. They become miserable for rest of their lives and in many cases life becomes curse. That won't be so if taking marriage as a fate-accompli, they concentrated more on positive aspects of eachother's personality than the negative aspects.
Through arranged marriages we are not choosing the personalities. We are choosing wealth, status , beauty, 'khandaan' (the lineage of ancestors), job etc. We are not choosing the personality and definitely not 'soul'. Life becomes an ever continuing exercise in adjustments. Is it what we want to get out of life or do we want it to be full of intrinsic joy?
Times have been changing and arranged marriages have been giving way to finding of soul-mates by the concerned adults, generally known as love-marriages. It is often said that such marriages are not lasting as arranged marriages do. What should be more important for an individual- a happy marriage or a lasting marriage? Of course, nothing like it if it were a happy and lasting marriage at the same time. It is also true that broken marriages result in related problems, mainly concerned with the children. For welfare of the children it is necessary for marriages to last. Here the problem becomes a bit complicated.
If love-marriages fail and break, it doesn't mean that arranged marriage is a better arrangement. It only means that the two adults hadn't found their soul-mates and had married for some other considerations. The more the adults find real soul-mates for marriage, the happier they will be and better the society.
Tuesday, October 5, 2010
What puzzled me most was while I was being asked to feel ashamed for this single act of injustice to a citizen, why I was never told "Shame on you" by this powerful media house or other media houses when news came of thousands languishing in our jails without a trial for years. When the news came of thousands of children in the country dying of starvation, when these powerful people came across kids begging on city streets and traffic junctions. When blatant leakage of public money is reported in the media and everyone becomes silent spectator to victimization of one who dared to bring that leakage to light, the leakage still continuing. Why do our sensibilities get aroused for the dead but not for the living human beings, millions of whom face injustice and raw-deal day in and day out of their existence? Only if our leaders (in all walks) could ever harbour that feeling called shame!
Friday, October 1, 2010
I saw the reactions of those who matter on various channels after the verdict. Without having gone through the evidences judges had gone through and without having read the complete judgement, many felt free to criticise it. This is how we misuse freedom. Sh. Sh. Ravishankar talked real sense but he is a Hindu. Therefore to me the poet and writer Sh. Javed Akhtar stood out as a statesman in what he had to say on the issue. But there were many others including leaders who didn't feel happy from prospects of a solution forthcoming and probably didn't know what they were saying in their efforts for one-upmanship. They included constitutional experts and leaders, all party to relegation of Constitution to classroom material only. Where is equality of citizens, more importantly where is the socialist state?
Let us see what the issue is. There is a place in Ayodhya, Hindus believe to be place where Lord Rama was born. They call it Ram-janamabhoomi and want to build an imposing temple there. Prior to demolition in 1992, a mosque known as babri-masjid existed there and therefore Muslims claim place belongs to them. The three judges bench, two Hindus and one Muslim, has unanimously decided that the place is Ram-janamabhoomi and the idols placed there have to remain. This can be the nucleus for conciliation among Hindus and Muslims. Muslims can now appreciate that place is the most sacred one on earth for one religion of the world. For them it is not that sacred by far. They will earn respect round the world by now coming forward and being magnanimous to offer the place to Hindus for building a temple. They co-exist with Hindus and others in the same country singing same national-anthem. Muslim heroes and heroines are idolised by millions of Hindus. Time for Muslim leaders to rise above parochial thinking and show statesmanship.
But what does one do with the pseudo-secular leaders like Sh. Mulayam Singh who just to get Muslim votes was first to openly criticise the judgement paving way for communal disharmony. Till other day he was the most vociferous among those insisting for a judicial settlement of the issue. And such leaders duly supported by our great media are projected as first claimants to secularism. I only hope Muslims should now be wise enough to see through such ******. Euphoria over peace subsequent to judgement is dying down with disruptive forces now becoming active. I hope they will not succeed in their design and better sense will prevail among all. Statesmanship by Muslims and humility of Hindus of India at this juncture will go a long long way to reinforce communal harmony in the country for decades to come.