New Delhi: Last week, former Railway Board chairman Ashwani Lohani joined the GMR Group’s Services Business as chief executive officer (CEO), at a time when the company is seeking to expand its presence in the railway sector including in major projects like private trains, station redevelopment plans and dedicated freight corridors (DFC).
Lohani, a 1980-batch Indian Railway Service Mechanical Engineering (IRSME) officer, served as the Railway Board chairman from August 2017 to December 2018.
Barely two months after retirement, he took charge of Air India as its chairman and managing director (CMD), in the rank of secretary to the central government.
After a one-year stint in Air India, Lohani was picked as the chairperson of the Andhra Pradesh Tourism Development Corporation (APTDC).
Lohani’s appointment as the CEO of GMR, a company that has stakes in both civil aviation and the slowly opening-up railway sector, comes 19 months after he retired as the Railway Board chairman, well after the stipulated one-year cooling-off period for government servants seeking commercial employment.
But it is only the latest in the long-existing trend of senior retired railway officials, especially the railway board chairpersons, members and even general managers of the different railway zones, taking up private or public sector unit (PSU) jobs in sectors directly linked to what they dealt with while in the government.
While seeking private assignments is only a natural extension of their work for some, as domain specialists after retirement, the question of conflict of interest is hard to miss in many cases.
Either way, the practice remains widely prevalent.
Consider some of Lohani’s predecessors in the board. While his immediate predecessor A.K. Mittal died, Arunendra Kumar, who served as the board chairman from July 2013 to December 2014, joined as advisor to the Dedicated Freight Corridor Corporation (DFCC), a PSU under the Ministry of Railways, just two months after his retirement.
In 2016, Kumar joined as the president, rail and urban transportation arm of the JBM (Jay Bharat Maruti) Group, an autoparts company that supplies doors to the Indian Railways for premium coaches like Shatabdi and Rajdhani.
Both Lohani and Kumar declined to comment on the matter.
Vinay Mittal, Kumar’s predecessor in the board, was appointed as member, UPSC, after his retirement in June 2013 — unlike several of his contemporaries who take up employment in the railway sector. Mittal finally retired from the UPSC as its chairman — a constitutional position — in June 2018.
Vivek Sahai, who served as the Railway Board chairman from June 2010 to June 2011, is advisor with Rail Logistics, a cement company based out of Mumbai.
Three years after his retirement as CRB, Sahai had joined Karamchand Thapar and Bros (coal sales) — part of the Thapar Group — as independent director on the board of directors, a position he still holds.
S.S. Khurana, who was the Railway Board chairman before Sahai, too joined the board of directors of NALCO (National Aluminum Company Limited) and the Food Corporation of India after his retirement.
Post-retirement gigs not confined to just chairpersons
The trend is not limited to chairpersons alone. Members of the Railway Board too are known to take up full-fledged commercial assignments in private companies or as consultants and advisors on the boards of private groups or PSUs.
Consider these examples.
Ghanshyam Singh, a 1979-batch officer of the Indian Railway Service of Electrical Engineering (IRSEE), retired as Member Traction, Railway Board, last year.
Singh is now working as an advisor with Jindal Steel and Power (JSPL), one of the leading rail manufacturers for the Indian Railways.
Similarly, Rajesh Agarwal, a 1980-batch officer of the Indian Railway Service of Mechanical Engineering (IRSME), retired as a member, rolling stock, in February 2020. According to sources, Agarwal had then joined as advisor with Braithwaite and Company Ltd, a PSU under the Ministry of Railways — an assignment he is no longer associated with.
Finally, M.K. Gupta, another IRSE officer of the 1979 batch, who retired as member, engineering, in May 2020, is also set to join JSPL as an advisor.
ThePrint contacted Lohani, Kumar, Singh, Sahai, Agarwal and Gupta for a comment, but only three of them agreed to speak.
Sahai, who is also a distinguished fellow with the Observer Research Foundation (ORF), said there should be no problem with retired railway officials taking up post-retirement jobs in the private sector as long as government rules are followed.
“As long as the government’s rules are followed, there is nothing wrong with post-retirement jobs,” Sahai said. “In the government, there is a one-year cooling-off period, which takes care of any possibility of quid pro quo.”
Asked about the question of conflict of interest, Agarwal said it was a separate debate altogether, since nobody is a “holy cow”. “Politicians, administration, judiciary, media all have conflict of interest…Nobody is a holy cow as far as a professional integrity is concerned,” he said.
Conflict of interest — the elephant in the room
For all the talk of rules and regulations, the elephant in the room — conflict of interest — only gets bigger with each passing post-retirement job.
“Such appointments would be jarring if they were not the norm,” said a serving Railway Board official, who did not wish to be named. “As chairpersons and members on the board, these officials are always involved in picking companies they later join…Of course, one can argue that why should they sit at home post 60 years of age if they are healthy, but what about conflict of interest? Who will sit and prove it for each officer who retires and takes up a post-retirement private job? Who has the time or the interest in doing it?”
The official added, “Without naming officials, I can tell you that there are so many tenders that are favoured for a certain company, and the next thing we know is the official pushing for it has joined that company after retirement. And the fact that they can join as consultants makes things even murkier because you don’t even need cooling off for that, since it is not full-fledged employment.”
One of the retired officials mentioned above too agreed that the trend is “problematic”.
“The best-case scenario is that you do not join a company related to your work as a government official because then the question over whether your work as a government official generated your future employment will always be there,” said the official, requesting not to be named. “But on the flipside, who will hire you for work not related to your experience as a government servant?”
By the book
However, several other retired officials ThePrint spoke to favoured taking up private jobs after retirement.
“People retire at 60, but are absolutely healthy…Why should they just sit at home? Being a government official is not a lifelong liability, is it?,” asked a former railway board chairman, who did not want to be named.
“I do not think cooling off should be there at all,” he added. “You have so many government agencies, put them to use, and let officers make use of their experience and age.”
In 2015, the Narendra Modi government had reduced the cooling-off period for government servants seeking commercial employment post retirement from two years to one year on the demand of officials. Those seeking employment prior to one year, need a special permission from the government.
According to rules of the Department of Personnel and Training (DoPT), “Commercial employment means ’employment’ in any capacity including that of an agent under a company, cooperative society, firm or individual engaged in trading, commercial, industrial, financial or professional business, and includes also a directorship of such company and a partnership of such firm, but does not include employment under a body corporate owned or controlled by the government.”
But it is not just a question of rules, argued Agarwal, former member, rolling stock, who was briefly an advisor with Braithwaite and Company.
“Government officials working post retirement help both sides…More often than not, the private sector has one extreme view, and the government has its own way of working,” he said. “Officers who join the private sector bridge both the worlds, and that is very important.”
As an example, he said, “Mr Lohani has a Midas touch. The government really wants to make private trains a success…If he’s at the forefront, it is more likely that it will be a success.”
Former IAS officer T.R. Raghunandan agreed.
“If there was a complete ban on government officials joining the private sector, then quid pro quo would take other forms,” he said. “It is not just joining private groups post retirement, we need to first define in clear terms what is conflict of interest, and then come up with ways to prevent it.”
‘Not just railway officials’
Railways is not the only government body whose retired civil servants join companies in specific sectors that they regulated when in government.
Former election commissioner Syed Nasim Ahmad Zaidi, who also served as the civil aviation secretary and the Director General of Civil Aviation between 2010 and 2012, for instance, joined the board of Jet Airways as a non-executive director in May 2018.
His colleague on the Jet board was National Stock Exchange (NSE) chairman Ashok Chawla, who also served as the civil aviation secretary as well as finance secretary. Chawla later went on to be appointed chairman of the Competition Commission of India, a role for which he was associated with several ministries. He is now chairman of the board of Yes Bank.
While several railway officials said the existing cooling-off rule does not quite provide the antidote to quid pro quo, they argued it is not just them.
“From Supreme Court judges to IAS officers, everyone seeks post-retirement careers,” said a retired Railway Board chairman. “These days if Supreme Court judges become Rajya Sabha members, and Chief Vigilance Commissioners (CVC) join the biggest corporate in the country, why single out just railway officials?”
It is a sentiment echoed by several of his colleagues.
Why news media is in crisis & How you can fix it
You are reading this because you value good, intelligent and objective journalism. We thank you for your time and your trust.
You also know that the news media is facing an unprecedented crisis. It is likely that you are also hearing of the brutal layoffs and pay-cuts hitting the industry. There are many reasons why the media’s economics is broken. But a big one is that good people are not yet paying enough for good journalism.
We have a newsroom filled with talented young reporters. We also have the country’s most robust editing and fact-checking team, finest news photographers and video professionals. We are building India’s most ambitious and energetic news platform. And have just turned three.
At ThePrint, we invest in quality journalists. We pay them fairly. As you may have noticed, we do not flinch from spending whatever it takes to make sure our reporters reach where the story is.
This comes with a sizable cost. For us to continue bringing quality journalism, we need readers like you to pay for it.
If you think we deserve your support, do join us in this endeavour to strengthen fair, free, courageous and questioning journalism. Please click on the link below. Your support will define ThePrint’s future.