Thursday, November 17, 2011


No walking the talk on walkie-talkies

... What bullet-proof jackets are to law enforcement officers, walkie-talkies are to Indian Railway drivers and guards: The last resort for preventing a tragedy. Few items are more critical to Railways safety than walkie-talkies. They provide an emergency communication option to avert disaster or immediately summon an Accident Relief Train (ART) in case of a mishap. Compromising on the quality of this instrument by tampering with its purchase process can lead to more blood on the tracks. But does that put at least walkie-talkies beyond corruption? Apparently not.

The Statesman's investigations reveal that the Railways have a shocking history of corruption in the purchase of walkie-talkies ~ thousands of defective sets have allegedly been purchased and put to use over the past decade.

Railways began mass-procurement of walkie-talkies in the aftermath of the 1999 Gaisal accident, an incident that led to Mr Nitish Kumar's resignation as minister. Many lakh instruments worth hundreds of crore of rupees have since been purchased by the Railways via the Rate Contract (RC) through the Directorate General of Supplies & Disposals (DGS&D), a procedure wherein prices are set annually.

Highly placed sources said corruption in walkie-talkie procurement begins with the registration of suppliers at DGS&D and resurfaces during quality inspections. Particular to Railways, suppliers give bribes at the division-level to generate a demand, at the zonal level where technical suitability is recommended and orders placed, and again at the division-level at delivery time. Suppliers have agents across zones that negotiate percentages. Without bribes to officials, which aggregate close to 10 per cent of purchase value according to a senior official, no instrument can be supplied to Railways. Fixed prices and the burden of bribes have created fertile conditions for suppliers to compromise on quality, a well-respected retired official said on condition of anonymity.

Research Design & Standards Organisation (RDSO), central to most procurement rackets in Railways, has no business, as it were, in the DGS&D Rate Contract. However, according to sources, under the guise of checking instrument quality against a "military standard", senior telecom officials at RDSO have also allegedly extracted several rounds of bribes from walkie-talkie suppliers in the past year. RCs are safer for zonal officers to favour one supplier over another. Unlike tendering, RCs leave fewer incriminating paper trails. Initial quality inspections fall under DGS&D and complaints of even widespread defects can be "managed". The Statesman's discussions with drivers and field-staff reveal that sets supplied by particular firms have shown consistent defects. But even if complaints get documented, files are easily suppressed within zones.

The Statesman accessed one such suppressed file from the auditing department involving the purchase of thousands of sets in a zone from M/s Transceivers India. Nearly 50 per cent of these sets turned out defective, a fact that might have played a part in at least three rail accidents. According to the audit documents, in 1999, ignoring the warnings of the zonal Chief Signal & Telecom Engineer (CSTE) that such an act is "likely to put Railways in serious problem (sic)"', the Controller of Stores (COS) gave precedence to the technical opinion of a junior official and placed an order with M/s Transceivers India for 1,750 walkie-talkies. The CSTE's warning was that M/s Transceivers was only a trader, not backed by the original Taiwanese manufacturer, and therefore unreliable. Despite the issue reaching the GM, the CSTE's advice was ignored.

Soon after delivery, complaints of severe defects in hundreds of sets started pouring in from the field. A long-list of electronic defects apart, rubber bands had to be employed to keep batteries from slipping out. Some train drivers simply stopped using the walkie-talkies.

Shortly thereafter, the CSTE was transferred out. The new CSTE not only ignored the field reports, but curiously began praising the additional features M/s Transceivers was offering. Multiple orders resulted, which placed one malfunctioning set after another in the hands of drivers. Between August 1999 and July 2000, out of 5,714 M/s Transceivers sets costing nearly Rs 8 crore, 2,553 sets ended up unusable. So well protected was the trader that attempts at set replacement came to naught.

The CAG began following the case in 2005. Despite gathering incriminating evidence, the internal audit has still not been finalised and tabled in Parliament. The provisional report states that three accident inquiries of the time-period "reveal the absence or malfunctioning" of walkie-talkies. All the responses to the audit by Railways officials, sometimes delayed by years, are a master class on bureaucratic evasion, ranging from nitpicking to outright denial. By 2008, one Railways official was even arguing that all "5714 sets are in circulation and still in use" and that there is no reason for disciplinary action as "no individual is responsible".

The officials responsible climbed to the top of the Railways hierarchy. The COS, who dumped the technical advice of the earlier CSTE, rose in seniority, retired as Advisor Stores Railway Board, and today sits on a committee mandated to revamp stores procedures! The CSTE, who ignored the complaints from the field and bought thousands of more sets from the same firm, also had a rapid professional rise. A Mr Lalu Prasad favourite, he became GM of a zone and retired as Member Electrical, Railway Board, the second highest bureaucratic post in Railways.


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