‘Leakage’ in Railways must be plugged

 A shocking revelation made by the man behind the Delhi metro, E. Sreedharan, that cartels in procurement loot the Indian Railways of Rs 10,000 crore a year should make one of the world’s largest employers sit up and take immediate remedial action.

Claiming that there is a cartel in the procurement of every item bought for the Railways the much-heralded expert has warned that the Railways has reached peak levels in centralization, non-transparency, inordinate delay and non-accountability and that unless there is a shake-up of the system there would continue to be huge leakages that would line the pockets of the corrupt.

Sreedharan’s is indeed a clarion call for decentralization of procurement to save the Railways of the loot which is bleeding it white.

If the Narendra Modi government is serious about rooting out corruption and defeating vested interests it must act on Sreedharan’s report without delay to stop this brazen activity.

There is no reason to disbelieve Sreedharan’s estimate that this switch to decentralization with delegated powers to zonal general managers and sharper accountability would result in an annual saving of Rs 5,000 crore in stores procurement and an equal amount in works contracts.

The Sreedharan committee’s observation that procurement is currently through cartels for every item and that this gives a chance to vendors to “fleece at will” cannot be ignored. If it is, it would bear out that vested interests have penetrated even to crucial decision-making levels.

While making out a strong case for decentralization the committee feels that the government ought to trust its general managers more than it does. The Railway Board  is the second biggest procurement agency after defence, spending almost one lakh crore a year even though the board was set up originally to “make policies, plans, to lay broad principles of railway management and to frame rules to inspect and guide the Railways,” which it virtually ignores.

Significantly, the Sreedharan committee points out that in the case of diesel of which the Railways is the largest buyer in India, the new tender has not been finalized for the last 15 months. In case of ‘weldable-CMS and ‘thick-web switches’ contracts have not been finalized for a decade, says the committee.

Evidently, the shroud that covered the procurements for Railways is coming off. The ball is now in the government’s court to resist pressures from vested interests and to clean the system. Simultaneously, it must make sure that if the task is assigned to general managers, a fool-proof system of accountability is implemented for them.

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