‘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.