Army called in to build foot-over bridges: Why the move exposes Indian Railways' inefficiencies

New Delhi: When the ruling NDA’s own members, not just the Opposition, begin to question the decision to seek the Army’s help in building railway foot-over bridges, then surely things have come to a sad state. Obviously, the phrase ‘building (bridges) on a war footing’ has been taken too literally. NDA’s Member of Parliament Rajeev Chandrsekhar has tweeted his dismay at the decision saying, "#IndianArmy is now building bridges in Mumbai ? Thn wht r PWD, Railways IRCON n richest muncipal corptn BMC doing? @CMOMaharashtra."

That is a question a lot of other people have been asking since Tuesday, after Maharashtra chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis announced that the Army has been roped in to build three foot-over bridges across Mumbai. This, by the way, includes the deadly Elphinstone FoB where a stampede snuffed out 23 lives in September this year. It seems the Army will complete the works by January next year, in just about two months. Would the Indian Railways have been able to deliver at such short notice? Would the famed engineering department in the Railways have been able to deliver quality bridges under such a tight deadline? Especially since even after the meager investment needed to rebuild the Elphinstone Road bridge was sanctioned two years ago, no attempt at beginning the construction was made by the authorities concerned.

It is no wonder then that current railways minister Piyush Goyal has little faith in his own engineering department to complete these civil works on time and he probably also doubts the efficiency of his engineers. Either way, this shows that the Railways bureaucracy in need of a vigorous shakeup. Remember, the engineering department of the railways is the largest among all departments, with some estimates putting manpower employed by this single department at 25-30 percent of the overall strength. Which means almost every fourth employee, working for the world’s largest employer, belongs to a department which is being overlooked in building foot-over bridges – not some complicated railway tracks on a difficult terrain.

 Army called in to build foot-over bridges: Why the move exposes Indian Railways inefficiencies

A file photo of Elphinstone Road foot bridge. PTI

The Central and Western Railways on Tuesday said the Indian Army was chosen to build three foot-over-bridges in Mumbai due to its expertise and reputation in building roads and bridges in unfavourable situations.

This article in The Indian Express quotes defence minister Nirmala Sitharaman as saying, “The Army has always been steadfast in provision of aid for disaster relief issues. This is the first time when we are calling the Army to help us in what essentially could be called civil work in the financial capital… As the Elphinstone Road tragedy was so big and considering their strong operational expertise in roads and bridges construction in a short span of time, it was decided to take the help of the Army.”

Not just sad, the decision to involve the Army in such a non-critical function is ironic too. Railway old-timers recall how the largest employer in the country was actually helping the Army with its vast knowledge of civil works and transportation in war time for decades. One senior retired Railway officer recalled how the Railways laid tracks – blown up by the Pakistani army during the 1971 war for liberation of Bangladesh – by moving ahead of the Indian Army to facilitate troop and armament movement. He also recalled how the Railways moved with lightening speed during the attack on the Kutch region in Gujarat in the 1965 war with Pakistan. He said overnight, the Railways moved 70-80 battle tanks, first transporting them on broad gauge lines till Gujarat and then on meter gauge lines within the state to repel the Pakistanis. The Railways has qualified engineers to oversee complicated civil works, it has been traditionally considered the front of civil engineering expertise. Why would it want mere foot-over bridges to be built by the Army?

Subhash Gupta, former member of the National Railways Users Consultative Committee, said, “This decision (to use the Army) is a slap on the engineers, engineering department and the bureaucracy of the Railways. The MMRDA and BMC also come across as completely incompetent.”

The Railways has been battling a spate of accidents, either due to derailments or due to creaky infrastructure which has lead to episodes like the Elphinstone Raod tragedy. Railway Board Chairman, AK Mittal, had resigned in September, taking moral responsibility for the spate of train derailments.

A retired senior Railway Board member pointed out that FoB construction does not require deep expertise and the Railways engineers should be competent enough to build these. He said the Elphinstone Road bridge, though, is one of the longest across the Indian Railways network, since it must connect one station from the Central Railway side to another reaching a Western Railway side, covering 12-14 train tracks. It could take the Railways 8-12 months to construct, given the glacial speed at which the whole process operates.

Former Railway board chairman Vivek Sahai said, “It saddens me to learn that the Railways has to take the assistance of the Army for such a mundane work like construction of an FoB, which has been the USP of the Railways. I wish the Railways had taken up the challenge to build the FoB in the time desired by the minister”.

This sentiment is being echoed by many Indians today.

Updated Date: Nov 01, 2017 15:33:42 IST