The racket that fills the pockets of a large number of officials at various levels is run by a nexus of staff, RPF and agents, say sources.
A few insiders whom DT Next spoke to said it was not a small scam, but a multi-crore operation that involves smuggling contraband like gutkha into the state. It all begins at the entry and exit of parcel gate offices of Central station manned by Railway Protection Office (RPF) and the parcel offices manned by a pliable few. Last week’s case involving Charminar Express is a case in point.
“Even a new recruit would admit that no consignment enters or leaves the parcel office without the RPF’s knowledge. A paper trail should be created for all goods entries and exits from Central. Nonetheless, a consignment weighing 2.6 tonnes was found missing by vigilance on June 6. A memo was prepared. A few days later, a penalty for overweight was imposed for the missing parcel. Will this happen without RPF knowledge? This is why RPF refused to receive memo from the parcel supervisor at the inward parcel office on June 6,” said a source requesting anonymity.
The first interface between agents and Railway happens at the gate manned by RPF personnel who often know the agents and their representatives personally. “RPF personnel have better knowledge of every consignment more than the loading and unloading clerk in the parcel office,” the source added, putting the daily share of RPF somewhere between Rs 5,000 and Rs 10,000 per shift.
The nexus at the gate is complimented by posting of pliable officers at the office. “Only a select few are posted as supervisors, especially during the evening shift, which is the busiest parcel handling time. Only a few would conveniently accept morning duty to avoid getting to trouble. The rosters would be prepared at the insistence of an influential trade union and its branch secretary who calls the shots there,” said a staffer on duty at the parcel office.
“Rules say that a licensed loading agent has to bring the consignment three hours before loading on the train. But, consignments reach the parcel offices days in advance at Central. “From 2 days to 20 minutes, parcels reach the office for loading depending upon the rapport between the staff and agent,” the source added, revealing that the agents pay the staff and union office bearers on monthly and daily basis.
While some obtain transfer to the parcel office to make a quick buck, a handful of laidback ones choose it to maintain a comfortable work-life balance. Those in the first set work hand in glove with the agents and pay more than Rs 2,000 per day to the union office bearers to protect them. Sources say those within the Railways fondly call Howrah, GT Express and Tamil Nadu Express as akshaya patra of the racketeers who make around Rs 10,000 – Rs 15,000 per train every day. The express trains to the neighbouring states, too, go overloaded regularly, said sources, adding that manpower shortage and paucity of space work to the advantage of these staff.
“Once booked, a consignment should be in the custody of the parcel office where it would be stored on the basis of loading priority. But, at Central, consignors and loading agents handle them and even load them on to the trains in violation of rules. How can you check if the agent or loading contractor adds something to the consignment? Apart from overloading, it also jeopardises safety if the goods are in the custody of the agent even after booking,” said a former parcel supervisor of Central requesting anonymity.
“Goods should be loaded on trains on booking order, but here, the person who gives maximum commission gets to send his goods first,” he said, adding that an estimated Rs 3-4 lakh would be made by staff, while agents stand to earn a profit that would be about 15 times the amount. As per railway rules, a consignee or agent should clear the consignment from an 18 to 24-tonne luggage van from luggage siding in three hours, but it is hardly complied with. Any goods uncleared after the stipulated time would incur a storage fee. Such a case was reported on Jammutawi Express (24 or 18 tonne capacity parcel van) at Chennai Central on Wednesday. Roughly, a tonne of cargo was left uncleared from the parcel van, but a gate pass was issued and the consignment cleared.
Even on Thursday, a delivery clerk was caught loading 30 cartons without marking, which contained fish, on an express train. The issue would have gone unnoticed but for the surprise check conducted by the divisional commercial department on Thursday. “False declaration is another major fraud. Banned products like gutkha arrive marked as fish and sometimes hidden among fish and meat to Central and make their way into the state. The same applies to anklets and silver from Andhra and Telangana. The staff at the parcel office and RPF personnel are wary of the nature of the consignment. Such consignments will be described as sensitive goods, which fetch more revenue for all,” the source added.
Other sources admit that a few officials are aware of the scheme of things at Central, but are either party to it or rendered helpless by the influential union.
“What happened after the last parcel scam unearthed in November? The accused persons were initially suspended but after a while they went about their business. Now you see another parcel theft. But the whistleblowers and staff who protested then were transferred out of Central,” a railway officer requesting anonymity said, adding that the officers were hands tied.
Top level railway officials admitted that manpower shortage was one of the key factors contributing to irregularities at the parcel offices in Chennai. Only 65 employees man the parcel offices, against the required 100. To overcome the shortage, the division on Thursday reduced the business hours of outward parcel office at Chennai Central to seven hours. Parcels are booked from 7am to 2pm. Till Thursday, parcels were accepted till 8pm. “By reducing the booking time, staff can be diverted to platforms to restrict unauthorised entry of agents and their representatives into platforms,” a senior official said. Even during Thursday’s crackdown by the commercial department, 47 people were apprehended and over Rs 15,000 was collected as fine for entering the platforms for loading parcels without authorisation. “Parcel agents enter the platforms and staff turn blind eye to their presence only due to the shortage of manpower,” the official said, adding that the crackdown was aimed at plugging such holes.
Meanwhile, the division has not taken the latest parcel ‘theft’ episode lightly. Not content with suspension, the divisional railway manager and a team of commercial officers who have been inspecting the parcel offices at Central suspended parcel booking at the outward parcel office on Wednesday. The business hours of the parcel offices at Central have been reduced to seven hours. they would henceforth function from 7 am to 2 pm instead of round-the-clock. This has, however, reduced the parcel revenue of otherwise sought after trains, which ran half empty since Thursday.