Zonal Reorganization of IR Since Independence

(Disclaimer: although the essential facts are correct, there may be some minor errors)

The Indian railway system in 1947 was extremely complex-which could be seen from any Bradshaw of this period. There were large systems like the East Indian and North Western which covered more area than any of today's zones, while there were also tiny systems mostly associated with the princely states; an extreme case was the Sangli State Railway which had a route length of less than 10 km.

Most of the larger systems had been taken over by the government by 1947, although hardly any attempt was made to rationalize the systems. The new government decided to combine the railways into a smaller number of zones which would result in viable zones.

In the early 1950s, the following zones came into being:

NORTHERN: Remnants of the North Western; the three northern divisions of the East Indian (Allahabad, Moradabad and Lucknow), Bikaner and Jodhpur state railways.
NORTH EASTERN: Bengal Assam, Oudh Tirhut, a small part of BBCI, Coochbehar State
(There had been a large number of changes prior to independence).
EASTERN: East Indian (minus the three northern divisions), part of East Bengal, Bengal Nagpur.
SOUTHERN: Madras & Southern Mahratta, South Indian, Mysore State, Sangli State
CENTRAL: Great Indian Peninsular, Nizam's State, Scindia State
WESTERN: Most of Bombay, Baroda and Central India (BBCI), numerous state railways including Baroda, Jaipur, Saurashtra etc.

The above table is greatly simplified; anyone who wants to know details about the pre-independence changes could refer to the Hugh Hughes books on locomotives (which are arranged railway-wise, so some brief historical details are given. )There is also the official "History of Railways Constructed" published by the Railway Board, although this has not come out since the 1950s.

There were also a small number of narrow-gauge railways which were listed as non-government railways. These were, however, listed in the All-India time table apart from Bradshaw. The 1964 timetable listed nine such railways-run by Martin Burn and McLeod and Co. Some of these lines no longer exist (e.g. Arrah-Sasaram) while others have been absorbed into the regular zones. The Saharanpur-Shahdara line of Martin Burn was closed for about 10 years and then converted to broad gauge. The Howrah-Amta and Howrah-Sheakhala lines (which were on the rare 2-foot gauge) are in the process of being converted to broad gauge (and that too with electrification).

As one might imagine, there were protests against some aspects of this reorganization right from the start. The main problem was on the northern divisions of the East Indian, where a significant proportion of the staff as well as the general public did not like the idea of having their headquarters at Delhi rather than Calcutta. According to G.S. Khosla, the fact that these divisions were going to Northern Railway was deliberately not mentioned in the Prime Minister's inaugural speech. However, not much trouble occurred afterwards in this regard.

Other reorganizations occurred within the zones-some, such as Western, did not have a divisional system so this was introduced for all the zones.

Problems were also felt in administering the North Eastern, which in those days was a fully metre gauge system stretching all the way from Agra to Tinsukia and beyond. Thus in 1958 the Northeast Frontier was created, with headquarters at Pandu, Gauhati. Later the headquarters was shifted to Maligaon, another suburb of Gauhati.

Perhaps this new zone was justified by traffic considerations, but it was also said that it was to give Andhra Pradesh a zone of its own. (However, the Guntakal division which lay mostly in AP remained with Southern, while the Sholapur division of South Central lay mostly in Maharashtra).

In the 1970s there was a constant agitation in the Sholapur area demanding its transfer to Central-this essentially was because people from Maharashtra felt that there interests would be better served by a zone based in that state. Finally, in the late 1970s this division did go to Central while Guntakal division was transferred to South Central. In this way, almost all railways falling in AP did go to the South Central.

Other minor changes included the transfer of the Bina-Guna and Guna- Maksi sections from Western to Central. A number of new divisions were formed in various zones. Some, like Malda and Trivandrum, did not seem to have enough traffic to justify a new division.

The subject of new zones came up in the early 1990s, when the unigauge system had resulted in considerable redrawing of traffic patterns. An expert committee suggested that 4 new zones should be created:

North Western: HQ, Jaipur
North Central: HQ, Jabalpur
East Central: HQ, Allahabad
South Western: HQ, Bangalore

Reactions to these proposals were mixed. Perhaps the traffic did justify the creation of new zones, but this had to be weighed aginst the huge costs involved in creating the new headquarters and administrative structures. A section of railway employees would have welcomed this as their promotional prospects would have improved.

This committee also recommended the creation of several new divisions such as Guntur and Singrauli, although nothing more was heard about these.

When Ram Vilas Paswan became the railway minister in 1996, his name soon became a byword for patronage and job creation. It was not surprising that he soon hit upon this proposal for new zones as a good way of creating more jobs and widening his power base. He promptly modified the proposed zones-the jurisdictions were changed in some cases. The most glaring was the shifting of the HQ of East Central from Allahabad to Hajipur, a rather unimportant place in Bihar which just happened to be his Lok Sabha constituency. The lame excuse was that the railways had a lot of surplus land in Hajipur.

Possibly, he and other vested interests started thinking more of "state zones", perhaps inspired by the earlier case of South Central. For instance, the North Western zone was to include the Jodhpur and Bikaner divisons of Northern and Jaipur and Ajmer divisions of Western, with headquarters at Jaipur. This would have made it easy for politicians and bureaucrats of Rajasthan to manipulate things, which they could not if the headquarters of railways were at Delhi or Bombay.

In Paswan's regime, there next emerged a planned East Coast zone with headquarters at Bhubaneswar. It is pertinent that this was not in the scheme suggested by the experts-perhaps it had more to do with people in Orissa demanding there own zone. Finally, continuous agitations in Bilaspur which caused large damage to railway property resulted in one more zone (name?) being promised with Bilaspur as HQ.

Not much was heard about this once Paswan ceased to be the railway minister; his successors Nitish Kumar and then Mamata Banerjee probably felt that there other more effective ways of distributing patronage. Although it appeared that these new zones were permanently shelved, a small number of officers and staff were indeed deputed to these zones. Some zones like North Western even had their name on inspection saloons. Meanwhile, agitations began in Karnataka on the question of whether the HQ of South Western should be in Bangalore or Hubli.

Not much was heard about this once Paswan ceased to be the railway minister; his successors Nitish Kumar and then Mamata Banerjee probably felt that there other more effective ways of distributing patronage. Although it appeared that these new zones were permanently shelved, a small number of officers and staff were indeed deputed to these zones. Some zones like North Western even had their name on inspection saloons. Meanwhile, agitations began in Karnataka on the question of whether the HQ of South Western should be in Bangalore or Hubli.

The matter came to a head again in June 2002 when the minister Nitish Kumar suddenly announced that the East Central zone, with HQ at Hajipur would start functioning from October. This was to consist of Samastipur and Sonpur divisions of North Eastern along with Danapur, Mughal Sarai and Dhanbad divisions of Eastern. Thus most of Bihar and Jharkhand would be covered by this zone. The North Western zone, which was described earlier, was also to start functioning from October.

This immediately had an effect of antagonizing virtually all the workers and officers unions who protested against this move as it would add costs without any increase in revenue. The Bengal government also protested against the weakening of the Eastern zone, while the Bihar assembly adopted an unanimous resolution supporting the new zone.

The matter gained national prominence when the former Railway Minister and Trinamul Congress leader Mamata Banerjee refused to join the cabinet unless the decision to split the Eastern zone was taken back. (But no one seemed to be complaining from the North Eastern zone, which would end up serving only eastern UP).

With all this hot air floating about, the real economic issues of improving management by creating new zones got lost. Was there anything really sacrosanct about nine zones? Perhaps some changes were really required, but the creation of six new zones was a joke. It was also pointed out that the argument in favour of smaller zones which would improve management was not really true, as the Railways had a good communication and IT facilities which made distance less relevant than it had been in the past.

Mamata Banerjee had also stated that the decision to create 'state railways'; such as the East Central was a direct threat to the unity of the country. The opponents of the new zones also pointed out to the Comptroller and Auditor-General's report that the creation of the new zones would result in over Rs 700 crores in unproductive expenditure. It was also probably the first time that unions had protested against changes which had the potential to substantially increase jobs and promotional avenues.

The last word has not yet been heard yet.

Material provided by Ajai Banerjee, Copyright © 2002.
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