Congress falsely alleges ‘misuse’ of railway safety fund over purchase of items for running rooms

Congress falsely alleges ‘misuse’ of railway safety fund over purchase of items for running rooms

Ever since the tragic triple train accident in Odisha, the Congress party has been trying to pin the blame for the accident on the Modi government. Even though the work done on expansion, efficiency, safety and passenger amenities of railways by the Modi govt is much more than what Congress governments did in over half a century, the party is somehow trying to prove that not enough is being spent on safety, often using misleading data and half-baked information. In such an attempt, the Congress party posted a tweet on June 8, where the grand old party cried ‘misusing funds’ as Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) report from 2022 on ‘Derailment in Indian Railways’ showed some expenses on items including foot massagers, crockery, car rentals and more.

In a tweet, Congress said, “Modi govt. excels in misusing funds! According to CAG reports, the Indian Railways spent extravagantly on foot massagers, crockery, furniture, car rentals, laptops & much more from the ‘Rashtriya Rail Sanraksha Kosh’.” It is notable that the Rashtriya Rail Sanraksha Kosh (RRSK) is a special fund created in 2017, apart from the regular budget, with a corpus of ₹1 lakh crore.

The tweet was picked by Telegraph and mixed with the CAG report to claim that the funds were “misused” to buy foot massagers, crockery, electrical appliances, furniture, winter jackets, computers and escalators, develop gardens, build toilets, pay salaries and bonuses and erect a flag. Calling it a “horrifying detail” that was tugged away in the CAG report, Telegraph claimed, “This may prove to be the tip of an iceberg in a tale of villainy and deceit that have undermined the noble principles that underpinned the creation of the Rashtriya Rail Sanraksha Kosh (RRSK), a dedicated fund to improve railway safety.”

Congress leader Jairam Ramesh then used the report to propagate the agenda further. He wrote, “Read here how funds earmarked for railway safety from 2017 have ACTUALLY been spent. Shocking & Scandalous are understatements,” while quoting the Telegraph report. The choice of words indicates Congress may eventually call it a scam.

The Congress claim that “Indian Railways spent extravagantly on foot massagers, crockery, furniture” using the Railway safety fund suggests that such items were purchased for ministers or senior officials. However, the Congress party and The Telegraph chose to crucial information which show that there was no real scam or misuse of funds. Moreover, the CAG report cited by Telegraph and Congress also just points out just some regular accounting anomalies, and the amounts involved in such anomalies are minuscule compared to the total fund amount.

The case of misclassification of funds

Twitter user Aviral Sharma shared a detailed thread on how Congress and the Telegraph were making a mountain out of a mole. First of all, the CAG report took a minuscule sample size of Rs 2,995.58 crore out of Rs 1 lakh crore corpus of RRSK. Out of this, CAG found alleged misappropriation of funds of worth Rs 48.21 crores. Furthermore, CAG pointed out that out of these 48.21 crores, Rs 30.84 crores were spent on passenger amenities like escalators, lifts, raising/extension of platforms and more. CAG also said that ₹7.82 crore were spent on revenue items, which is not allowed under RRSK.

Upon reading the CAG report, OpIndia found that CAG remarked the funds were misclassified leading to reduced funds availability. A total of Rs 4.54 crores out of the said 48.21 crores were spent on the development of a garden/waiting hall/circulating area, imprest, sewage treatment plant, stationary purchase, provision of ACs, temporary electricity connection, intercom, power cable, CCTV, LAN, LED/Street lights, the fee to the pollution control board, foot massager and winter jacket. Furthermore, Rs 0.085 crore was spent on the hiring of vehicles. Rs 1.48 crore was spent on furniture, utensils, crockery, and kitchen/electrical appliances. Only Rs 0.35 crore was spent on the purchase of computers, xerox machines, printers, laptops, AMCs, cartridges, toner etc. If we deduct Rs 30.84 crore that was spent on passenger amenities from the total of 48.21 crore, it makes Rs 17.37 crore or 0.57 per cent of the sample size.

The report further noted, “Items of Revenue expenditure were booked under RRSK in contravention to Para 7.7 of the RRSK Deployment Scheme which states that revenue works are not proposed to be funded through RRSK. The incorrect bookings have resulted in misclassification of expenditure between Revenue Grants and RRSK, amounting to Rs 7.82 crore.”

It added, “Thus, though prioritization principles have been clearly laid down for deployment of RRSK, bookings not falling under RRSK category have been accepted under RRSK. These incorrect bookings denote misclassification of expenditure and consequently end up with reduced fund availability for RRSK priority works.”

While the CAG report clearly mentioned that it was a case of misclassification, Congress used it to attack the Modi government and claim misuse of funds.

Items necessary for train crews

While items like foot massagers, utensils etc may seem unusual, they are actually necessary items for the Railways. The items pointed out by the CAG were purchased for Running Rooms, the resting facilities meant for train crews. Major junctions and railway stations have running rooms, where loco pilots assistant loco pilots and train managers take rest between their shifts.

It is notable that like airline pilots, there are stipulated hours of total duty at a stretch and rest between shifts for loco pilots and train managers (formerly known as guards) also. It is notable that even though some long-distance trains run for 2-3 days, the same crew does not operate them. The crew have a running duty hour of 8 hours at a stretch, while the total duty hour can extend to 11 hours. The crew of such trains are changed at regular intervals at major stations after their duty hours are over, and a new team takes over from such stations, who have to be ready by the train arrives. Therefore, running rooms are provided at such stations so that they can join duty without causing delays to the running train.

The loco pilots and train managers keep standing for hours together on trains. After their shift is over, they go to the Running Room for their mandatory breaks before their next duty.

Apart from basic accommodation facilities, running rooms have a kitchen and cooks, who prepare food for the crew. Moreover, according to Railway guidelines, running rooms must have adequate facilities so that the crew can get proper rest before their next shift begins.

Running a train for up to 8 hours is a very tiring job, and the pilots and managers have to be on alert the whole running time. And it is essential that they receive proper rest between running hours. That is why things like cooking facilities, utensils, crockery, foot massagers etc are essential items for the running rooms.

The union government has also clarified there was no misuse of funds and only a small amount was spent for facilities at running rooms. Govt sources said that such spending was in no way “diversion” or “misuse” of the Rashtriya Rail Sanraksha Kosh (RRSK) fund, as facilities at resting places for the crew are also meant for safety. According to the govt, ensuring proper rest for the crew between duty breaks is crucial, because investigations into several past derailments and accidents have pointed out human errors, and fatigue of loco pilots and assistant loco pilots as among the main reasons.

According to reports, the railway ministry will soon submit its response to the CAG with details of expenditures made for the running rooms. It is notable that several official presentations and reports on running rooms, including one from 2013, mention the need to provide several facilities such as foot and eye massagers, gym equipment etc for the crew.

Talking on the issue, Shiv Gopal Mishra of All India Railwaymen’s Federation slammed politics over the issue. “Our loco pilots, assistant loco pilots and train managers put in hard work. The facilities of food and foot massage at running centres are meant for their sound health,” he said.

South Western Railway also said that these items were procured for use in Running Rooms meant for the mandatory rest of loco pilots and guards after continuous duties of 9-10 hours. These are as per the recommendation of the safety committee and not infructuous expenditures as wrongly assumed by some media outlets, the railway officials said.

Provisions included in RRSK

Officials also noted that while the RRSK fund is mainly meant for major projects to improve the safety of railways, there were provisions for improving working conditions to reduce fatigue and human error. “Every crew member must get good facilities for rest and these must be better than that of what they get at home. This has been the guiding principle to run fully-equipped running rooms. The loco pilots and assistant loco pilots need to be fully attentive about signal, track and the machine when on duty. So, we need to ensure that when they are back on duty, they are fresh,” said an official.

In fact, while CAG flagged the expenses on passenger amenities and running rooms as “diversion” or “misuse”, the govt notification on Rashtriya Rail Sanrakshan Kosh (RRSK) clearly mentions passengers amenities, training/HRD as among the heads of expenses for the fund.

In the guidelines for the use of RRSK funds by the railway board, staff welfare and passenger amenities have been included in the minor Heads classification under capital outlay. The guidelines mention platforms, booking offices, waiting and refreshment rooms, running rooms, goods sheds, post and telegraph offices, latrines, etc for which RRSK funds will be spent. The guidelines clearly state that there is a clear provision for expenditure on reducing chances of human errors in critical areas of operations, by improving working conditions and training of loco pilots and other relevant employees.

It is also notable that only a small amount is allotted and spent under these heads, while the majority of the allotments have been made for works under Level Crossings, Road Over/Under Bridges, Track Renewals, Bridge Works, Signalling and Telecom, Electrical Works, Machinery & Plant, Workshops etc, all vital for improving railway safety.

Running room facilities were suggested in reports

While the Congress is using the CAG report on some purchases for running rooms to attack the Modi government, an interesting fact is that Railway Board had suggested improvements in running room facilities during the UPA govt. In guidelines issued in 2011 by the Railway Board for the improvement of running rooms, various facilities were suggested, including telephones, lockers, cooking facilities and utensils, coolers etc.

In 2014, CAMTECH under Indian Railways suggested several measures to improve the facilities of running rooms. The recommendations included relaxation facilities for railway crew, which included Foot massagers for relaxation, gym equipment and gym ball, Treadmill equipment, Eye massager, Acupressure equipment etc. The report also suggested Light music system, Concentration boards, Recreation Facilities etc in the running rooms.

Therefore, items like foot massagers, crockery, utensils etc for running rooms were recommended much before the RRSK was set up. The Railway officials have clarified that the expenditure pointed out as ‘misuse’ by CAG are for procurement for upgradation of Running Rooms and training staff and other heads, which are directly related to the safety of trains. Therefore, these are not fripperies but part of the mandate.

Furthermore, the amount spent under these heads from RRSK is minuscule. The majority of the fund is already being spent on works directly related to railway safety. If Railway is spending 0.57 per cent almost Rs 3,000 crore to provide some relief to employees so that they can perform better at their job, it should not be seen as “misuse” or get denoted as a “scam” at later stages, as the Congress party is suffesting.

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