SRESTHA Is Not A Regressive Step But An Honest Attempt At Course Correction

by Sujeet Mishra - Jun 18, 2017 11:06 AM +05:30 IST
SRESTHA Is Not A Regressive Step But An Honest Attempt At Course
CorrectionRailway officers during the second trial run of Talgo Train. (Raj K Raj/Hindustan Times via GettyImages)  
  • With Aadhaar, Information Technology Research Academy and disbanding of Planning Commission, the government has demonstrated a clear intention to explore, experiment and correct course, using talent pool from outside.

    A beginning had to be made and the beginning has been made.

The counterpoint SRESTHA begins the process of debate which is the essence of ‘New India’. Decisions are no longer taken with ‘government-guys-know-the-best’ attitude but by inviting or crowdsourcing the ideas from the entire citizenry.

The counterpoint article, unfortunately is contrafactual.

Decades of lost opportunity weigh heavily on the nation and hence the angst of the author is understood, but does that mean we should sit back refusing to step out of the morass we found ourselves in? Should there not be even an attempt at course correction? The government continues to be the key driver of public investments and biggest spender. Thus, who, if not the government, will take the call on course correction?

Never before in the past have such major decisions signalled the intent of giving a level-playing field to private capital. Development of stations, procurement of energy, procurement of rolling stock, a framework for private train operators are, but a few decisions, which underscore the direction.

The current leadership has boldly shifted the centre of gravity of new rolling stock production to private sector, signaling course correction would it all work flawlessly? One cannot say. One has to step out, decide and correct the course dynamically. Meanwhile, elsewhere in the government, the private sector talent is increasingly brought into senior positions.

Defence Research and Development Organisation, Indian Space Research Organisation, Department of Atomic Energy, Research Designs and Standards Organisation all of these have their set of lessons. What went wrong and what has worked. SRESTHA too, as a framework, seeks to avoid the ‘bloat’ and the ‘gloat’ that typically gets associated with research in India. The mentors of the endeavour are accomplished achievers, who have made the country proud, and have delivered despite the debilitating bureaucratic procedures. Can there be a better way to initiate a course correction?

The issues of service and product aspect that the counterpoint raises are a matter of debate. A service, however, is enabled on a layer technology. Should railways produce? Decisions to do that were taken ages ago. It is indeed time for a relook and putting lessons into use.

Salient Provenance

People who have led much-acclaimed missile programmes and contributed to the cryogenic engines for Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV) affectionately and resolutely mentor the creation of new organisations. These are the people who have been team builders and not empire builders. Given this, the counterpoint hitting out at individuals was plain unfortunate.

The author of the counterpoint points towards Israel and DARPA-I, wish he had also included NASA in this list. As part of the Detailed Project Report (DPR) preparation exercise, global experience, even from non-railway domains is being studied. How DARPA did it; why the moon mission of NASA had to adopt a new management structure; how China and South Korea took leadership in railway domain etc. All of these issues combine to make the grist for the mill of the intellectual exercise behind SRESTHA. The author of the counterpoint is possibly not aware that resources from private sector are being regularly tapped into. Mobility of talent, the flexibility needed to support research, ability to be nimble-footed, these are the challenges which need a different organisational DNA. DARPA is an aspiration for SRESTHA. However, DARPA and its predecessors experimented heavily before it could become what it became and even that is in a phase where it may need a rejig.

The vehemence of the counterpoint in decrying the technical capabilities with India in the railway domain is way off reality. India’s metro man is a railway man to say the least. The rigidity of the railways comes from its DNA of being rule bound to operate a network; at the same time, the organisation’s ability to embrace change is no less and can be seen in how Indian Railways is embracing an organisational overhaul.

Bridging The Technology Gaps

The counterpoint misses the role of Transfers of Technology (ToT). The point is, unless we have the absorptive capacity and the will to make these ToTs work, these would yield zilch. China and South Korea have built their technical prowess by creating deep absorptive capacity by leveraging academic and research institutions and bridging the technology gaps, a development of recent vintage. As the piece ended, there are lessons to be learnt in how these countries did it. To summarily run down ToTs is contrafactual. Railways in every country have a pronounced historical overhang. If one sees Sweden, Switzerland, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Japan, South Korea and China leadership in railway technology has been actively facilitated by the government and academia.

Moving from ‘know-how’ to ‘know-why’ needs interdisciplinary studies. New India is being built on ‘silo-less’ shared consciousness, which in today’s complex world is inescapable. As noted in the piece, investments which run into lakhs of crores are in the pipeline in the guided transport domain. SRESTHA is a sincere attempt to create absorptive capacity and to help India take leadership in railway technologies.

That SRESTHA should be lean and nimble in its constitution is not lost on the government and that is the reason that a management consultant has been chosen to give his perspective. If the planners wanted to create just another people shop, it was as easy as signing an executive order and indeed starting a ‘gold rush’ of what the author calls influential people to grab the sinecures.

The individuals attacked in the piece bear in their hearts the pain of what the country could have achieved if they were heard and permitted the freedom to act. They are now doing their bit to remedy that.

With Aadhaar, Information Technology Research Academy and disbanding of Planning Commission the government has demonstrated a clear intention to explore, experiment and correct course, using talent pool from outside. A beginning had to be made and the beginning has been made. The word of advice and caution that it should learn from what has, and has not worked, is well appreciated.

(Views expressed are personal)

Also Read: SRESTHA: Is Indian Railways Only A Few Steps Short Of An Innovation Leap?

Dr Sujeet Mishra is a railwayman and currently the OSD of the National Rail and Transportation Institute, which is in transition to become Gati Shakti Vishwavidyala, a central university.
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