Ajai Banerji
(Disclaimer: although the essential facts are correct, there may be some minor errors)
The Indian railway system in 1947 was extremely complex-which could be seen from
any Bradshaw of this period. There were large systems like the East Indian and North Western
which covered more area than any of today's zones, while there were also tiny systems mostly
associated with the princely states; an extreme case was the Sangli State Railway which had a
route length of less than 10 km.
Most of the larger systems had been taken over by the government by 1947, although
hardly any attempt was made to rationalize the systems. The new government decided to
combine the railways into a smaller number of zones which would result in viable zones.
In the early 1950s, the following zones came into being:
Remnants of the North Western; the three northern divisions of the
East Indian (Allahabad, Moradabad and Lucknow), Bikaner and
Jodhpur state railways.
Bengal Assam, Oudh Tirhut, a small part of BBCI, Coochbehar
(There had been a large number of changes prior to independence)
East Indian (minus the three northern divisions), part of East
Bengal, Bengal Nagpur
Madras & Southern Mahratta, South Indian, Mysore State, Sangli
Great Indian Peninsular, Nizam's State, Scindia State
Most of Bombay, Baroda and Central India (BBCI), numerous state
railways including Baroda, Jaipur, Saurashtra etc.
The above table is greatly simplified; anyone who wants to know details about the preindependence changes could refer to the Hugh Hughes books on locomotives (which are
arranged railway-wise, so some brief historical details are given. )There is also the official
"History of Railways Constructed" published by the Railway Board, although this has not come
out since the 1950s.
There were also a small number of narrow-gauge railways which were listed as nongovernment railways. These were, however, listed in the All-India time table apart from
Bradshaw. The 1964 timetable listed nine such railways-run by Martin Burn and McLeod and
Co. Some of these lines no longer exist (e.g. Arrah-Sasaram) while others have been
absorbed into the regular zones. The Saharanpur-Shahdara line of Martin Burn was closed for
about 10 years and then converted to broad gauge. The Howrah-Amta and HowrahSheakhala lines (which were on the rare 2-foot gauge) are in the process of being converted to
broad gauge (and that too with electrification)
As one might imagine, there were protests against some aspects of this reorganization
right from the start. The main problem was on the northern divisions of the East Indian, where
a significant proportion of the staff as well as the general public did not like the idea of having
their headquarters at Delhi rather than Calcutta. According to G.S. Khosla, the fact that these
divisions were going to Northern Railway was deliberately not mentioned in the Prime
Minister's inaugural speech. However, not much trouble occurred afterwards in this regard.
Other reorganizations occurred within the zones-some, such as Western, did not have
a divisional system so this was introduced for all the zones.
The need for reorganization was felt rather quickly on the Eastern Railway, where there
was a large volume of goods traffic as the bulk of our county's coal and mineral resources lay
in this zone. In 1955 it was decided to create a new zone, South Eastern, which almost exactly
corresponded to the old Bengal Nagpur. This is the only one of the old railways which survives
almost intact. Even its headquarters is at Garden Reach in Calcutta, where the BNR had been
Problems were also felt in administering the North Eastern, which in those days was a
fully metre gauge system stretching all the way from Agra to Tinsukia and beyond. Thus in
1958 the Northeast Frontier was created, with headquarters at Pandu, Gauhati. Later the
headquarters was shifted to Maligaon, another suburb of Gauhati.
Thus there were 8 zones in the early 1960s. The next change was in 1966, when the
South Central came into being-apparently as the Southern and Central were too unwieldy to
handle. (Certainly, the geographical spread of Southern was quite large-it stretched up to
Visakhapatnam (Waltair), Raichur, Goa and Poona (on the line from Banglaore.) Similarly,
Central stretched from Bombay to Allahabad (it still does) and from Vijayawada to the outskirts
of Delhi.) The new zone consisted of the Secunderabad and Sholapur divisions of Central, and
Vijayawada and Hubli divisions of Southern.
Perhaps this new zone was justified by traffic considerations, but it was also said that it
was to give Andhra Pradesh a zone of its own. (However, the Guntakal division which lay
mostly in AP remained with Southern, while the Sholapur division of South Central lay mostly
in Maharashtra).
In the 1970s there was a constant agitation in the Sholapur area demanding its transfer
to Central-this essentially was because people from Maharashtra felt that there interests would
be better served by a zone based in that state. Finally, in the late 1970s this division did go to
Central while Guntakal division was transferred to South Central. In this way, almost all
railways falling in AP did go to the South Central.
Other minor changes included the transfer of the Bina-Guna and Guna- Maksi sections
from Western to Central. A number of new divisions were formed in various zones. Some, like
Malda and Trivandrum, did not seem to have enough traffic to justify a new division.
The subject of new zones came up in the early 1990s, when the unigauge system had
resulted in considerable redrawing of traffic patterns. An expert committee suggested that 4
new zones should be created:
North Western: HQ, Jaipur
North Central: HQ, Jabalpur
East Central: HQ, Allahabad
South Western: HQ, Bangalore
Reactions to these proposals were mixed. Perhaps the traffic did justify the creation of
new zones, but this had to be weighed aginst the huge costs involved in creating the new
headquarters and administrative structures. A section of railway employees would have
welcomed this as their promotional prospects would have improved.
This committee also recommended the creation of several new divisions such as
Guntur and Singrauli, although nothing more was heard about these.
When Ram Vilas Paswan became the railway minister in 1996, his name soon became
a byword for patronage and job creation. It was not surprising that he soon hit upon this
proposal for new zones as a good way of creating more jobs and widening his power base. He
promptly modified the proposed zones-the jurisdictions were changed in some cases. The
most glaring was the shifting of the HQ of East Central from Allahabad to Hajipur, a rather
unimportant place in Bihar which just happened to be his Lok Sabha constituency. The lame
excuse was that the railways had a lot of surplus land in Hajipur.
Possibly, he and other vested interests started thinking more of "state zones", perhaps
inspired by the earlier case of South Central. For instance, the North Western zone was to
include the Jodhpur and Bikaner divisons of Northern and Jaipur and Ajmer divisions of
Western, with headquarters at Jaipur. This would have made it easy for politicians and
bureaucrats of Rajasthan to manipulate things, which they could not if the headquarters of
railways were at Delhi or Bombay.
In Paswan's regime, there next emerged a planned East Coast zone with headquarters
at Bhubaneswar. It is pertinent that this was not in the scheme suggested by the expertsperhaps it had more to do with people in Orissa demanding there own zone. Finally,
continuous agitations in Bilaspur which caused large damage to railway property resulted in
one more zone (name?) being promised with Bilaspur as HQ.
Not much was heard about this once Paswan ceased to be the railway minister; his
successors Nitish Kumar and then Mamata Banerjee probably felt that there other more
effective ways of distributing patronage. Although it appeared that these new zones were
permanently shelved, a small number of officers and staff were indeed deputed to these
zones. Some zones like North Western even had their name on inspection saloons.
Meanwhile, agitations began in Karnataka on the question of whether the HQ of South
Western should be in Bangalore or Hubli.
The matter came to a head again in June 2002 when the minister Nitish Kumar
suddenly announced that the East Central zone, with HQ at Hajipur would start functioning
from October. This was to consist of Samastipur and Sonpur divisions of North Eastern along
with Danapur, Mughal Sarai and Dhanbad divisions of Eastern. Thus most of Bihar and
Jharkhand would be covered by this zone. The North Western zone, which was described
earlier, was also to start functioning from October.
This immediately had an effect of antagonizing virtually all the workers and officers
unions who protested against this move as it would add costs without any increase in revenue.
The Bengal government also protested against the weakening of the Eastern zone, while the
Bihar assembly adopted an unanimous resolution supporting the new zone.
The matter gained national prominence when the former Railway Minister and Trinamul
Congress leader Mamata Banerjee refused to join the cabinet unless the decision to split the
Eastern zone was taken back. (But no one seemed to be complaining from the North Eastern
zone, which would end up serving only eastern UP).
With all this hot air floating about, the real economic issues of improving management
by creating new zones got lost. Was there anything really sacrosanct about nine zones?
Perhaps some changes were really required, but the creation of six new zones was a joke. It
was also pointed out that the argument in favour of smaller zones which would improve
management was not really true, as the Railways had a good communication and IT facilities
which made distance less relevant than it had been in the past.
Mamata Banerjee had also stated that the decision to creat “state railways” such as the
East Central was a direct threat to the unity of the country. The opponents of the new zones
also pointed out to the Comptroller and Auditor-General’s report that the creation of the new
zones would result in over Rs 700 crores in unproductive expenditure. It was also probably the
first time that unions had protested against changes which had the potential to substantially
increase jobs and promotional avenues.
The last word has not yet been heard yet.