Saturday, February 28, 2009

The Indian Railway King

Source: The American

How did India’s Huey Long become its Jack Welch?

NEW DELHIIn his boyhood, long before Lalu Yadav became India’s most unlikely management guru, he sometimes strayed from his cows and scampered barefoot to the railroad tracks. Dodging crowds and porters, he made his way to the first-class cars and, for a few glorious moments, basked in the air conditioning that blasted from the open door. Then the police would spot him and shoo him away, into the moist trackside cowflap where he belonged.

The boy has grown up, but when I meet him in his New Delhi office, he’s still barefoot, and a headache for train conductors everywhere. Lalu Yadav, 61, is now the boss of all 2.4 million Indian Railways employees. When he wants air conditioning, he nods, and a railway employee hops up to twist the dial. As minister of railways, he rules India’s largest employer—one with annual revenues in the tens of billions—from a fine leather sofa, his sandals and a silver spittoon on the floor nearby and a clump of tobacco in his cheek.

Lalu is a happy man: happy to have risen to become rich, beloved, and reviled all over India; happy that a grateful nation credits him with whipping its beleaguered rail system into profitability; and happy that he’s managed to do all this and somehow stay out of jail. Under his leadership, Indian Railways has gone from bankruptcy to billions in just a few years. When Lalu presented his latest budget to Parliament on February 13, he bragged, "Hathi ko cheetah bana diya" ("I have turned an elephant into a cheetah"). What’s his secret?

“Cow dung,” he says. “I have 350 cows, including bulls. Cow dung—no need of gas.” Everyone tells me about Lalu’s “rustic common sense,” though I’m unsure how burning manure for fuel has made Indian trains suddenly run profitably. But his point is a broad one, about systems efficiency and country wisdom and resourcefulness. “Railways is like a Jersey cow. If you do not milk it fully, it gets tenail,” a swollen and infected udder. Milk every last drop out of Indian Railways, Lalu told his subordinates, and it will prosper.

Only Bollywood does more to unite India than its railways.

The folksiness is no pose. Lalu really did begin as a cow-boy, and he has spent (or misspent) a 40-year career in politics exploiting his bovine roots. Since he became nationally famous in the 1980s, Lalu has been known throughout India as a corrupt and unapologetic yokel, eerily canny in his political maneuvering and cleverer than he looks and sounds.

In his home state of Bihar, where he first rose to power, the common touch served him well. Bihar is India’s poorest and most backward state. In the 1980s and 1990s, Lalu knitted together a coalition of poor Biharis that elected him chief minister. The Lalu years wrecked Bihar further. When corruption allegations surfaced, critics demanded that Lalu resign on moral grounds. The scandal that brought him down, known as the “Fodder Scam,” effectively amounted to a government-wide ruse under which taxpayers paid for nonexistent hay. But Lalu held on for a long time. “I have heard of football grounds and cricket grounds, but not moral grounds,” he said. When the pressure became too great for him to stay in office, he responded with a nepotistic masterstroke, bold even by his standards, and appointed his wife, Rabri Devi, to rule in his place. (“Who do you want me to appoint?” Lalu asked. “Your wife?”)

Lalu may have been corrupt, but he was also a laugh riot. He speaks in an outrageously backwoods Hindi dialect, full of barnyard metaphor and hick wisdom. Even his detractors admit his speech is often charming. “He’s a hugely charismatic man,” says Sankarshan Thakur, a Bihari journalist and Lalu critic. “His ability to reach out beyond language barriers is amazing. He charmed the pants off the Pakistanis,” Thakur says, during government-to-government talks in 2006. On any given day on India’s flourishing array of cable channels, the chances are high of seeing Lalu’s face on a news show, or even on an entertainment show. I clicked randomly to see him guest-judging what looked like an Indian knock-off of “American Idol.” In 2005, a popular Indian film based on “A Fish Called Wanda” took Lalu’s name for its title—“Padmashree Laloo Prasad Yadav”—even though it had nothing to do with Lalu, other than having main characters with his names.

The rest of India chuckled at Lalu, and more often with him. But Bihar remained the most lawless state in the country. “He never tried to do serious business in Bihar regarding development,” says Sushil Kumar Modi, Bihar’s current deputy chief minister, and a Lalu acquaintance for nearly 40 years. “Lalu Yadav is not a serious man. Not a single state-sponsored scheme happened under his rule. He thought, ‘If I can rig the elections, there is no need to do any work.’” Thakur is more damning: “He arrived promising to dismantle the Establishment, an anti-hero out to snatch power from Patna’s bungalows and deliver it to the people, but he ended up a creature of the Establishment himself.” By the time Rabri—a semiliterate buffalo herder who did Lalu’s bidding, and whose name, incidentally, means “Custard Goddess”—left office in 2005, everyone in India knew Lalu, and his name was a byword for incompetence, cronyism, and the abject failure of government.

Even then, Lalu commanded enough of a following among his coalition of “extremely backward castes” (or, in the wonderful semiofficial abbreviation, “EBCs”) and desperately poor Muslims to secure a role for himself in India’s 2004 Congress Party government. He wanted the interior ministry, but the new government wasn’t ready to have a rube in charge of such a powerful portfolio. They gave him the railways ministry, and many expected the same pitiful misrule that had characterized his time in Bihar.

Indian Railways was in trouble: in 2001, a report by the BJP—a government dominated by the Brahmins who are Lalu’s permanent foes—predicted it would hemorrhage cash at a rate of $12 billion annually by 2015. (The whole budget of the Indian government, by comparison, is $128 billion.) Indian Railways was barely managing to cover its daily operating costs, to say nothing of paying for the new equipment and strengthening bridges. The report concluded: “It is very likely that Indian Railways would be a heavily-loss-making entity—in fact one well on the path toward bankruptcy, if it were not state owned.” Outsiders whispered the word “privatization” but were hushed: Indian Railways has been a source of national pride since before independence, and statist sentimentalists could never let it fail.

Lalu’s term as railways minister has been shockingly successful. Instead of turning India’s most prized national institution into a basketcase and a ruin, Lalu has led one of most spectacular economic turnarounds in a country bursting with economic miracles. Indian Railways began raking in cash and posting surpluses in the billions. And the intelligentsia and technocracy, at first shocked and dismayed that a shameless populist had seized a fragile and unwieldy national institution, have largely come around to acknowledging that India Railways has been transformed into a respected institution—and so, possibly, has Lalu.


Only Bollywood does more to unite India than its railways. The statistics beggar belief: every year, Indians take 5.4 billion train trips, 7 million per day in suburban Mumbai alone. New Delhi Station sees daily transit of 350,000 passengers, which is roughly five times more than New York’s LaGuardia Airport, and enough to make Grand Central look like Mayberry Junction. The railways’ total track mileage rivals the length of the entire U.S. Interstate Highway system, even though the United States is three times the size of India. Among human resource problems, the railways of India are an Everest. Its employees outnumber Wal-Mart’s by a figure comparable to the population of Pittsburgh. The world’s only larger employer is the People’s Liberation Army of China. (The third-largest employer is the British National Health Service.)

The cerebral cortex of the whole system is the Rail Bhavan, a pinkish monolith near Parliament in New Delhi. The Rail Bhavan is, in a way, surrounded by its own competition: its street is permanently filled with the traffic of taxis, trucks, buses, and rickshaws that for a time seemed poised to steal away the rails’ business altogether. Outside, a decommissioned green locomotive and the railways’ mascot, Bholu the Elephant, announce to the mess of traffic that the railways are not to be counted out.

Inside, the conditions do not inspire confidence. The building is big, disordered, and honeycombed with offices that bear stultifying bureaucratic titles (“Manager, Zonal Railways, Deputy”). The hallways all have torn-up ceilings. Some are so dark that I have to use a pocket flashlight to read names on the doors, and inside the offices the level of technology is shockingly low. Employees’ business cards have Yahoo! addresses. P.K. Sharma, the bright and competent director of personnel, has on his desk a foot-high pile of green folders bound together with shoelaces. From that desk, 2.5 million lives are managed, and there is not a computer in sight.

The world has few centrally managed organizations as large as Indian Railways, and surely none maintains the same level of performance.

Indian Railways is a government enterprise, and it has the dead weight characteristic of state organs. Employees live in housing provided by the Railways, send their kids to Railways schools, and visit Railways doctors when sick. Nearly a million are pensioners, and therefore provide no value to the ministry at all. Those who do work encounter predictable bureaucratic headaches: the ministry’s departments (six in total, for electrical, staff, engineering, mechanical, traffic, and financial concerns) operate in a stovepipe fashion, with minimal cross-pollination and little effort to coordinate and ensure that the railways as a whole run well. And ultimately Indian Railways has to answer to the taxpayers and citizens who support it, and who quite understandably want assurances that their train set will keep its fares low enough for them to afford.

Somehow it all works out. The world has few centrally managed organizations as large as Indian Railways, and surely none maintains the same level of performance. Delays are inevitable. But even when disaster strikes—as when terrorists bombed tracks in Mumbai in 2006—the railway heals itself quickly, usually within days, like a starfish growing back its arm. To grasp the difficulty of the operation, just imagine running a much bigger version of Wal-Mart, and then add a few wild cards, such as an employee literacy rate of 60 percent and terrorists trying to blow up your stores.


As chief minister of Bihar, Lalu may have been a buffoon and a grifter, but he didn’t fail entirely. And the ways in which he courted failure, but didn’t quite succumb to it, offer a clue as to how Lalu has succeeded at the railways ministry.

He plundered Bihar like every Bihari leader before him. Lalu’s great innovation was to entertain the masses, and to dignify their suffering with a show of attention. He held court at the chief minister’s residence and listened to common people’s grievances. Even if he ultimately did nothing to ease their pain, they left knowing that they had spoken to the most powerful man in the state, and he had responded in the same dialect they spoke to their own friends and family. When his children fell sick, Lalu himself stood in line with them at the public clinic. Never mind that the lines were long, and the treatment horrifying, because kleptocrats had looted the public coffers: Biharis saw their chief minister waiting like a poor, ordinary man, so they forgave him for being rich and extraordinary.

At Indian Railways, Lalu retained that popular touch and remade the passenger experience accordingly. A key feature of train travel, even in the cheap seats, is tea service. Lalu banned plastic teacups, which had been littering the countryside, and replaced them with peasant-made kullhars—earthen mugs that after a single use can be smashed on the ground, where they then return to the mud from which they are fired. He employed weavers to make bedding out of khadi (homespun cloth). And to avenge his childhood eviction from the air-conditioned cars, he introduced a new class of service: garib rath, “the poor man’s chariot,” on which the single frill is air conditioning. Despite boasting this once unimaginable luxury, garib rath is extremely cheap, within reach of even the backward castes from which Lalu himself hails.

But his single most important innovation at Indian Railways was not a populist move at all. It was an elite one: the hiring of a prodigiously talented civil servant named Sudhir Kumar. Kumar, 50, is from a Gujarati family in Punjab. The family knows business: “If there is money lying around, we can smell it,” Kumar says. His father was a clothing wholesaler, and his brothers and sisters have, according to Sudhir, made a fortune in business for themselves. Sudhir takes pride in having given up the joys of free enterprise to work for the government, a calling he regards as nobler and more satisfying than work done for personal gain. He clambered over thousands of competitors to land in his current job as a member of the Indian Administrative Service (IAS), a sort of Delta Force for Indian civil servants. Every year, out of 300,000 aspirants, no more than 60 make the grade. They fan out all over India to solve the subcontinent’s most intractable problems, before heading back to New Delhi to regroup and take their next assignment.

Kumar’s first big assignment was Bihar. Bihar broke up into two smaller states in 2000: Jharkhand, which contained rich mineral and coal deposits, and Bihar, which had the larger population by far. Bihar stood to lose over half its tax revenue. (When Japanese businessmen expressed interest in the mineral wealth and promised to bring prosperity to the stricken region, a joke circulated: “Give us mineral rights,” the businessmen told Lalu, “and within six months, Bihar will be like Japan.” “That’s nothing,” Lalu said. “Give me Japan for six weeks, and it will be like Bihar.” It’s a testament to Lalu’s brazenness that this exchange seems plausible.) Kumar’s job had been to separate the two states in a way that allowed each to establish a sufficient tax base within seven years. He did it in 30 months by closing loopholes in the tax code, cutting deals with tax cheats, and in general collecting taxes with an intensity most Indians would reserve for a cricket match or a ground war.

Lalu noticed. When he ascended to the railways ministry in 2005, he requested Kumar as his deputy. Kumar had risen to an IAS position so elite that his move required parliamentary approval, which quickly arrived. The Congress Party’s coalition government, now led by the Oxford-trained economist Manmohan Singh, prized technical competence and was happy to appoint a shrewd bureaucrat to watch over its most unlettered cabinet member.

Lalu plundered Bihar like every Bihari leader before him. His great innovation was to entertain the masses, and to dignify their suffering with a show of attention.

Since then, Kumar has labored in an office immediately opposite Lalu’s, but completely unlike the minister’s opulent, wood-paneled lair. The minister lounges on his sofa, watching NDTV, a TV news network. Kumar’s two flat-screens show real-time data on the country’s main routes. Periodically, a minion walks into Kumar’s command center to present a 20-page stack of papers that represent the day’s statistics on passengers, freight, and on-time arrivals. “Like Jack keeps a daily tab, I also keep a daily tab,” Kumar says, referring to Jack Welch, one of his idols. The contrast with Lalu’s own listless inattention is jarring. When Lalu tells me about his success, mumbling vaguely about winning “the confidence of the business classes,” Kumar shouts from the back of the room, citing revenue figures from memory. And when Lalu drifts off on earthy tangents about dung or latrine systems (“urine—it fall all over the platform”), Kumar winces.

Lalu and Kumar rule the railways ministry as twin consuls, and they rule it well. Officers snap to attention and salute when they pass in the corridors. In his relatively spartan office, Kumar’s sole concessions to luxury are a private bathroom, an attendant who refreshes his tea constantly, and an unshakeable air of dry superiority that would be less tolerable, were he not the brains behind several industry-changing decisions.


None of the innovations was original. All sound, in retrospect, like no-brainers: make the trains faster, heavier, and longer. Kumar wrinkled his nose when I pointed this out. “A five-billion-dollar no-brainer!”

Political considerations precluded hiking fares, which in any event were often so low that a huge increase would bring in only a little more revenue. (With unlimited-travel passes in Mumbai costing as little as $2 per month, it’s a mystery why Indian Railways collects passenger fares on some routes at all.) And none of the standard remedies for weak businesses—selling off under-performing assets, or laying off employees—could happen, because Lalu forbade anything that could make him look unfriendly to the poor. “People used to say about Jack that he will nuke every damn thing which is not profit-making,” Kumar complains. “But I can’t nuke anything, because of the political imperatives. I had to serve an omelet to the nation without breaking any eggs whatsoever.”

The first and most crucial change was born from the minister’s own whimsy. In his first month as railways chief, Lalu visited a railway stop in Danapur, Bihar, for a spot inspection of the freight. The demand was ridiculous: since the station lacked an in-motion weigh bridge, railwaymen had to remove every item from a train and weigh it on a small industrial scale. Lalu lounged nearby, supervising the workmen from his chair, like a zamindar in the days of the Raj. The scale pinned at just a couple hundred kilos, and the train was rated for a thousand tons of freight. “My minister was new,” Kumar says, “and no one had the courage to tell him that this wasn’t the way it could be done.” Eventually, the station manager mustered the courage to inform Lalu that he would have to sit for a full week watching the operation, and that he should give up, go home, and rest. Lalu, showing the stubbornness of a newcomer, instead demanded that the whole train re-route to Muri, roughly 250 miles away, whose station had a larger scale.

When the workers weighed the car and found it overloaded, Lalu demanded that every train in India be weighed at once, at one of the 30 weigh bridges. Overloading turned out to be rife, and the minister, incensed at the possibility that employees and customers were defrauding the railways, visited Kumar. “If you are carrying this load in any case, and I haven’t seen your tracks damaged, why are you not charging for it? If your locomotives are in any case carrying this load, why the hell you can’t increase the axle load?”

“The only disgruntled element in this exercise was the employees and customers who were part of this hanky-panky,” Kumar says. (Lalu himself is more triumphant: “Some mafias were working in this business. I caught them and punished them!”) The spot inspection served as a pivot from which Indian Railways as a whole could reform itself. The change ultimately became a billion-dollar improvement in the revenues of the railways.

The decision did entail some risk: heavier axle loads mean greater wear on tracks and bridges, and therefore greater need to replace infrastructure. If a train derailed, the public would blame heavier axle loads, and the minister would have to resign. But Kumar says Lalu’s friendly relationship with his public gave him more room to accept risk. “My mother has taught me to take the bull by the horns,” Lalu said. “If you try to take it by the tail, it will kick you in the ass.” “No other minister could summon the courage to do this,” Kumar explains.

His single most important innovation at Indian Railways was not a populist move at all. It was an elite one: the hiring of a prodigiously talented civil servant named Sudhir Kumar.

The move to heavier axle loads looks like an obvious move in retrospect, but similar actions at other railways have required years of study and bureaucratic maneuvering, says Steve Ditmeyer, an American railroad expert who has studied the Indian Railways turnaround. To move to heavier loads means making sure the part of the surge in revenue from the extra freight—really the same amount of freight, just more paid freight—needs to be set aside for a faster rate of track replacement. Lalu demanded from on high that axle loads increase. Kumar studied the problem and implemented the order, coordinating with department heads and India’s independent safety commissioner.

“The Railways was struggling with this problem for the last 25 years, but they didn’t have the consensus” necessary to make the change, Kumar says. “This one small inspection brought about that consensus.”

In addition, Kumar and his team began examining the competition more closely. In the 1990s, Indian Railways had so exasperated customers that even cement manufacturers, whose dense product is perfect for rail travel, had shifted their share of the logistics market to trucking. Indian Railways’s share of their business fell from 71 percent in 1991 to 30 percent in 2004—even though Indian roads are terrible, and unlike trains, trucks must clear customs, pay taxes, and pay off tax inspectors at the borders between each of India’s 33 mainland states and union territories.

The system had been rigged to handicap trucks by imposing bureaucratic requirements at borders. But in most other respects, trucks were simpler: Indian Railways maintained a complex tariff card, which the British drafted in the 1860s and which still included a range of archaic commodities. With corrigenda, it fattened to the size of a phone book.

“If you have to hire a truck driver, he’ll just ask, ‘If you want to hire my truck, I’ll charge 40 thousand rupees,’” Kumar says. “Even if you’re carrying an empty box, you have to pay full charge. So we said, ‘Why the hell Railways are getting into this mess?’” The tariff card shrunk to the size of a postcard (even though it still specifies rates for jute and “edible salts”). With that reform Kumar and Lalu began working closely with industry to recapture market share, and to outsource the difficulty of filling freight cars efficiently to their customers. “Whatever you carry,” Kumar says, using a favorite phrase, “it’s your funeral.”

In previous regimes, Indian Railways assumed a monopoly position. “We are not in the business of railways,” Kumar says. “We are in the business of transportation. And we have competitors.” Industry members echoed the position. One told me that the previous leadership of the ministry had rationed out the railways’ services, whereas now close attention is paid to customer demand. A logistics manager at a Calcutta manufacturing giant likened the succession of business-friendly measures to the succession of record-setting pole vaults by the Soviet athlete Sergei Bubka—an endless series of efforts to outdo oneself.

At the same time, Kumar engineered a system under which inspections of trains took place after a fixed number of kilometers of service, rather than after every trip. Trains languished for shorter times in railyards. And increased freight and passenger business—in part the result of cozier relations with industry and passenger enthusiasm for innovations such as Lalu’s garib rath—meant that each train could add several extra cars, and unit cost plummeted by as much as 50 percent. Adding cars generated plenty of bottom-line revenue: the trains were already going, so the cost of adding an extra car was marginal.

Underlying all this, Kumar tells me with undisguised pride, working off a PowerPoint presentation seemingly designed to show up the BJP committee that predicted doom for Indian Railways seven years ago, is an insight borrowed from India’s telecom boom: bigger is better. “Which is a bigger play on scale or volume?” he asks. “If you were to build Indian Railways today, it would cost you not less than a trillion dollars. But once the network is laid”—like the initial outlay for India’s mobile towers—“the less one unit costs. What applies to telecom equally applies to me.”


Lalu’s success owes everything to Kumar, but Kumar deflects the praise back to the minister—most of it, anyway. “This is a democracy. I have only the power and clout that he gives me, and I am a big zero without him. The day he decides he does not need the services of Sudhir Kumar, within hours I am gone.”

But there’s glory in the turnaround for Kumar, too. During our conversations, a bespectacled young doctoral student from Columbia University interrupts us to show Kumar manuscript pages from a book they are coauthoring about the turnaround. And Kumar’s agenda included a meeting with a major commercial publisher. Kumar has brought in American and French experts on railway management—including Ditmeyer—and solicited reports from them that invariably mention his own role in the transformation.

‘Boys and girls from Harvard, they come to me,’ Lalu bragged, slapping the soft sole of his bare foot with a crack to stress the irony.

I asked Kumar whether the temptation of private-sector work would eventually draw him out of the IAS. His response was curt. “There is no temptation, sir. The kind of satisfaction you get there is nothing compared to the satisfaction of serving my country.” He put down his papers, and his offended expression melted into a look of pain. “My father,” the prosperous clothier, “said, ‘Go to serve the people.’ He uttered these words, and within four hours, he was no more. I am living with that every single day.” He put down his stack of papers. “When you are giving shape to the dream of your father—what better way to self-actualize?” Even in the language of Tony Robbins, the speech is affecting. At this the tears welled up, and the prince of the railways wept into his tea.

Bringing in Kumar clearly helped Lalu instill professionalism in the ministry. But it was equally vital that he did not bring the crew his critics expected. Lalu’s first acts included an outright ban on his own cronies and family members in the Rail Bhavan. In Bihar, they had lurked on the sidelines, awaiting patronage from the chief minister. The corruption reached ridiculous levels: when I visited in 2001, media murmured about malfeasance in the state’s smallpox eradication program. It was regarded as suspect that the state employed several people to guard against a disease that since the 1970s had existed only in heavily guarded vials in Atlanta, Georgia. Bandits (“dacoits,” in Indian English) plagued the countryside and kidnapped anyone with money. Sometime, they put obstacles on the train tracks, so they could plunder the cars, each a curry-scented movable feast of defenseless passengers and freight.

In 2008, I returned to see how Bihar had fared under three years of rule by Nitish Kumar, a longtime Lalu foe and, not coincidentally, the minister of railways who preceded Lalu. I mentioned to Lalu that I planned to visit Bihar. He seemed unconcerned about dirt I might dig up, and said I should greet the manager of the Maurya Patna, the city’s only international-standard hotel. “They buy my milk.” When I added that I would not fly, but would take his “poor man’s chariot,” he jerked to attention and warned me gravely, with a wag of the finger, to hold my belongings tightly and to avoid accepting food from strangers on the train, lest I be poisoned and robbed.

I arrived in Patna safely. In Lalu’s absence, everything had improved—even the railway station itself. It is still no Grand Central, and if it had an Oyster Bar I’d probably skip the raw ones. But its third-class waiting room can no longer be described (in the words of my old guidebook) as “an underground car-park for human bodies.” The city of Patna had once resembled a medieval warren. Now, in the busy streets, pissy stenches singe the nose not constantly, but only in a few informally designated areas. The hotels have sold out their rooms for wedding parties. And at night, the Mayfair Ice Cream Parlor is packed with kids, and the ice cream probably won’t give you the runs.

Years after Biharis voted him out, Lalu’s picture is still everywhere—in shops, on banners over the road, and even, I am told, on bathroom doors (in lieu of men’s and women’s stick figures, they sometimes use portraits of Lalu and Rabri). But the people who speak to me do not remember Lalu fondly. In the years since Nitish Kumar came to power, the city has flourished, and the state government has fought against the gangsterism that pervaded the countryside. Eight years ago, in Patna and the rural areas alike, murders and kidnappings were common. Now, as in most Indian cities, the greatest safety risk is the traffic. On the train back to New Delhi, a man in my railway berth offered me raisins, and I felt safe enough to try one.


Lalu mismanaged Patna terribly. So how has he managed a gargantuan state organ so well that students from Kellogg and Wharton are taking notice?

Part of the answer lies in India’s recent economic growth spurt: Lalu stood on the shoulders of an economy that never grew by less than 6 percent per year during his whole tenure as railways minister. (India’s economy has slowed considerably since the global downturn began.) With a boom like that to fuel demand, how could he fail? All he had to do was sit back and let the market propel him forward. Indeed, Sushil Kumar Modi, the politician who claims to be picking up after Lalu’s mess in Bihar, notes that Lalu still spends all his time in Bihar, and rarely visits his own New Delhi office. The railway turnaround began before he took over the ministry, during Nitish Kumar’s reign, although few predicted that it would continue as it has. The most cynical of his critics expect to discover after Lalu has left the ministry that safety corners have been cut, and that his successor will have to deal with a series of derailments and bridge collapses. But outsiders such as Ditmeyer say that Lalu’s management has been fundamentally sound, assuming he’s making the proper investments in maintenance.

‘If he is held responsible for failure,’ Kumar complained, ‘he should be responsible for success as well.’

The other half of the explanation, though, seems to be a simple case of democracy and markets working. One of the salutary effects of India’s recent boom is that people such as Lalu have more opportunities to be measured, and even civil servants such as Kumar are eventually subjected to the same pitiless bottom-line scrutiny that businesses face. Only recently did India really begin to shake off its penchant for state-owned enterprise. By the time Lalu took over, it was no longer possible for Indian Railways to run as if it were a monopoly in the transportation sector, or as if it were a Lalu fiefdom, as Bihar was for so long.

Sankarshan Thakur, the journalistic gadfly who wrote a caustic account of Lalu’s failure in Bihar, says Lalu is managing the railroads competently as penance for his mismanagement of Bihar. “Lalu got insecure,” Thakur says. “He was sorely wounded by defeat in Bihar, and he needed to recover.” The railways ministry is a constituency-building ministry, one that allows a politician to be observed succeeding. He had failed in Bihar, and if he hoped ever to recover the leadership he once enjoyed, he had to run the railways ministry with exemplary competence. Everyone is watching, including the peasants. Lalu’s constituents are now not only voters but customers. Biharis kicked him out once already, and he’s acting responsibly so they don't do it again.

Lalu is aware of his new publicity, and he courts it. David Blair, a railways expert from Washington, D.C., brought a delegation of students to meet Lalu and was shocked to discover that a camera crew lay waiting to record their visit. “Boys and girls from Harvard, they come to me,” Lalu bragged, slapping the soft sole of his bare foot with a crack to stress the irony.


After our conversation, Kumar joined me for lunch at the Shangri-La Hotel. The Shangri-La competes with Imperial and the Oberoi for New Delhi’s business visitors, and on that summer day, foreigners in navy and black suits waited with us for the buffet to open. To wear a suit in India during the summer bespeaks either total ignorance of the oppressive humidity, or—surely the case with these men—an expectation of door-to-door travel from one four-star air-conditioned paradise to the next. These men lived the life Kumar passed up when he joined the civil service, and which his brothers and sisters apparently still enjoy.

While a waiter filled our glasses with ice water, Sudhir kept making the case for his boss. Be wary of Lalu’s critics, he said. They’re a jealous bunch, and hypocrites to boot. They criticize him for his Bihar failures, but then overlook his railway success. “When Lalu presented his first budget to Parliament, everyone said Lalu had been busy campaigning in Bihar, so Dr. Manmohan Singh”—India’s current prime minister and former finance minister—“had drafted this budget. They could not internalize that it came from Lalu-ji, because he’s a shepherd or farmer or whatever.”

“If he is held responsible for failure,” Kumar complained, “he should be responsible for success as well.” Kumar was pleased with that line, and nodded across the table to the Columbia economist, as if to remind him to save it for their book. And as for Lalu’s successors, Kumar warned, they’ll be subjected to a higher standard than before. “If they revert back to two-percent growth, Parliament will not accept it. A democracy will not accept it.”

Lalu, in all his rustic ignorance, had chosen not only a shrewd businessman but a political philosopher, self-actualized equally by his business savvy and patriotic self-abnegation. Kumar stood up grandly, strode to the vegetarian entrees, inserted his shoulder firmly amid the businessmen, and triumphantly spooned out some korma.

Graeme Wood is a staff editor at The Atlantic.

Philosopy's great experiment

Source: Prospect

Philosophers used to combine conceptual reflections with practical experiment. The trendiest new branch of the discipline, known as x-phi, wants to return to those days. Some philosophers don’t like it

Katja Wiech is a cheerful young German researcher who is fascinated by pain. She’s discovered many things—for example, when devout Catholics are given electric shocks while looking at a picture of the Virgin Mary they feel less pain than atheists do when administered the same unpleasant treatment.

She works in a set of rooms at the end of a maze of corridors in the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford. In one room sits a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanner. The magnet of this machine is so powerful it can seize a mobile phone from your hand,sending it flying through the air.

Her subjects lie flat on the scanner’s bed, their head inside its white tube. A computer by their feet provides various stimuli—images, questions and so on—and is operated from an adjacent room divided off by a glass screen. The noise is very loud. There’s a panic button if her subjects freak out.

Wiech is a neurologist. But here’s the strange thing: she is working with philosophers. The caricature of a philosopher is of an otherworldly professor sitting in a comfy armchair in an Oxbridge college, speculating on the nature of reality using only his or her intellect and a few books. This has some basis in reality. Chemistry requires test tubes, history needs documents. In recent years, the main tool of the philosopher has been grey matter. The subject’s evolution can be painfully slow, tiptoeing forward from footnote to footnote. But not always. Every so often a new movement overturns the orthodoxies of received opinion. We might just be entering one of those phases.

A dynamic new school of thought is emerging that wants to kick down the walls of recent philosophy and place experimentation back at its centre. It has a name to delight an advertising executive: x-phi. It has blogs and books devoted to it, and boasts an expanding body of researchers in elite universities. It even has an icon: an armchair in flames. If philosophy ever can be, x-phi is trendy. But, increasingly, it is also attracting hostility.

Philosophers have always been informed by scientific research, history and psychology. Indeed, most of the giants of pre-20th century philosophy combined empirical and conceptual studies. Some drew on the research of others, while RenĂ© Descartes and John Locke performed their own experiments; this was a time when science had not entirely split from philosophy. David Hume mixed reason with experience, including psychological and historical observations alongside more abstract reasoning—A Treatise of Human Nature was subtitled “Being an Attempt to Introduce the Experimental Methods of Reasoning into Moral Subjects.”

But for many philosophers today the idea of experimental philosophy still grates. Conceptual analysis has been a dominant strain of Anglo-American philosophy in the past 100 years. Philosophy of this kind considers not so much how things are, but rather how we think about them: the way we carve up the world, the frontiers of meaning, of what makes sense. But for the x-phi fan, empirical research is not a mere prop to philosophy, it is philosophy.

Under the x-phi banner it’s possible to distinguish three types of activity. The first uses new brain-scanning technology, for which philosophers teaming up with neuroscientists, like Katja Wiech, to look for patterns of neuronal activity when subjects are presented with philosophical problems. In the second type, philosophers devise questionnaires to discover people’s intuitions and go out in the street with the trusty clipboard. In the third, they conduct field experiments, observing how people behave in particular situations, often without their knowledge. All three aim to test the philosophers’ assumption that they know from introspection what people are likely to say or believe. The traditional philosophical assertion, “we have strong intuitions that…” or “we can all agree that…” now have to be tested against the evidence. The idea of who “we” are is being challenged, for instance by surveys suggesting broad cultural differences about intuitions. The philosopher in his Oxford study may not share intuitions with the shopper down the road in Queen’s Street, whose intuitions, in turn, may differ from those in Queen’s Road, Hong Kong. Such research raises big issues about our moral education.


It takes most people decades to reach guru status. But Joshua Knobe managed it within a few years of being awarded his PhD in philosophy from Princeton in 2006. He has an infectious excitement for his research. In between his undergraduate and graduate days he published a few articles. One was about “intentionality”: when did people judge that behaviour was intentional? He and a collaborator tried to establish this by running a few experiments. Knobe says that his eureka moment occurred when a philosopher, Alfred Mele, responded to the article. Although he disagreed with Mele, the point was that Mele had “treated our work as a contribution to philosophy… I was too boneheaded to see for myself that the two disciplines [psychology and philosophy] could be brought together in this way.”

His work on intention soon attracted attention. Take one of his cases. A company chairman is told a new project will increase profits but harm the environment. He says, “I don’t care about harming the environment. Let’s start the new project. I just want to make as much profit as possible.” Meanwhile another company chairman is faced with a similar choice, except this time it will help the environment. He says, “I don’t care about helping the environment. Let’s start the project. I want to make as much profit as possible.” When asked whether the chairman intentionally harmed the environment in the first scenario, most people say “yes.” But did the chairman intentionally help the environment in the second scenario? Most people think not. This is weird. It led Knobe to conclude that people’s moral judgements play a role in their concept of intentional action.

Another of Knobe’s experiments—a collaboration with fellow philosopher Shaun Nichols—demonstrates x-phi’s ambition, and how widely its methodology can be applied. The issue of free will is a perennial of western philosophy. Is the world entirely governed by causal laws and, if so, in what sense can humans be said to be free? Is moral responsibility compatible with a causally determined world? The range of possible responses is mind-bogglingly complex. But researchers, using surveys, now know what people think.

Unsurprisingly, perhaps, the majority of people turn out to be “non-determinists”—that is, they think that humans are free to choose. But science seems to reveal a world in which every event is explained in terms of prior causes and prevailing conditions, with no apparent room for free will. So, are we responsible for our actions even in a determinist world? Those who believe we are, and see no contradiction between our actions being causally determined and our having free will are known, in the jargon, as “compatibilists.”

Oddly, however, the more details—or causes—survey respondents are given about a particular case, the more likely people are to deem an agent responsible. Thus, asked to imagine Universe A, where everything is fully determined, almost all subjects say that in this universe people can’t be held fully morally responsible. But when told about the same universe in which there’s a man named Bill who fancied his secretary and in order to be with her decided to bump off his wife and children (philosophical thought experiments tend to involve a lot of death), nearly three out of four subjects insisted that Bill was morally responsible. What we are witnessing here is believed to be an emotional response to the scenario or “affective impact.”

Knobe and Nichols tentatively suggest that people’s judgement in such cases results from “performance error,” Our rational response to determinism and free will is distorted; our emotional response leads us astray. If true, then they believe compatibilism loses some of its force.

In Oxford, philosopher Neil Levy is experimenting on a different topic, but along similar lines. Advances in medical science make it possible to improve ourselves both physically and mentally. Surveys show that we’re more squeamish about cognitive changes: more of us object to using psychotropic drugs to improve our brain functioning (although we don’t object to coffee), than, say, surgery such as tummy tucks or breast enlargements.

So why the difference? To access our intuitions, Levy and a collaborator use a technique called cognitive load, in which they ask questions while subjects are occupied on another task (such as subtracting three from 1,000, then three from 997, and so on). This supposedly allows a deeper and more accurate mapping of our intuitions because our cognitive capacities are otherwise engaged. The research is still at an early stage, but Levy suspects that most of us are intuitive dualists: we think mind and matter are distinct substances. This intuition contradicts the dominant view among philosophers of the mind, who believe (put simplistically) that there is no fundamental difference between mind and matter. If the philosophers are right and our intuitions just wrong it could change attitudes to cognitive and physical enhancements. Intuitions—even strongly held and apparently “natural”—can be misguided.


The 20th century saw an explosion in applied ethics—moral philosophers contributed to all manner of contemporary debates, from abortion to euthanasia, from the rules of engagement in war to the justification of punishment. In drawing out arguments, a traditional tool for the philosopher has been the thought experiment. These experiments tend to abstract from real cases to reveal the pertinent features of moral reasoning.

One of the most famous examples is the trolley problem. You are standing by a railway line when you see a train hurtling towards you, out of control; the brakes have failed. In its path are five people tied to the tracks. Fortunately, the runaway train is approaching a junction with a side spur. If you flip a switch you can redirect the train onto this spur, saving five lives. That’s the good news. The not-quite-so-good news is that another person is tied down on the side spur of the track. Still, the decision’s easy, right? By altering the train’s direction only one life will be lost rather than five.

Call this Trolley A. Now vary the scenario a little. This time you’re on a footbridge overlooking the railway track. You see the train hurtling towards you and five people tied to the rails. Can they be saved? Again, the moral philosopher has arranged it so they can. There’s an obese man leaning over the footbridge. If you were to push him he would tumble over and squelch onto the track. He’s so fat that his bulk would bring the train—Trolley B—to a juddering halt. Sadly, the process would kill the fat man. But it would save the other five people. Should you shove him over? Again, apparently an easy decision. Surely you shouldn’t. That would be an outrage. But what’s the difference? Both cases involve killing one person to save five.

Philosophers have pondered this for over three decades. One possible explanation for our different intuitions in the two cases is this: in Trolley A, if you were to turn the train onto the spur and the person on the track were somehow to untie themselves and escape in time, you’d be delighted. Not only would you have avoided crashing into the five, but no one else would have got hurt. But with Trolley B, you need to lead the fat man to his death to save the five. It would be a noble sacrifice if the fat man jumped of his own accord. But if you push him you are using him as if he were an object.

The doctrine of double effect—which says that it may be acceptable to do something good when there is a foreseeable bad side effect, so long as this bad side effect is not intended—is much debated. The literature on runaway trains has become so vast that it’s even been given a name of its own: “trolley-ology.” To an outsider it may all seem like harmless fun—crossword puzzles for philosophers. But it is designed to tease out whether we should ever sacrifice one person to save many and has numerous practical applications (for example, the issue of “collateral damage” in war).

Whether the doctrine justifies our conflicting intuitions over the trolley problem remains disputed. But what’s interesting is the twist that experimental philosophers have brought to the debate. Trolley-ologists of the past assumed that their intuitions coincided with those of others, including non-philosophers—civilians, perhaps we should call them. But now there are easy ways to check. The BBC conducted an online poll in which 65,000 people took part. Nearly four out of five agreed that Trolley A should be diverted. Only one in four thought that the fat man should be shoved over the footbridge. (Nobody has yet looked for a link with the fact that nearly one in four Britons are obese.)

Neuroscientists and psychologists have also jumped on the trolleywagon. Brain scans allegedly indicate that when people are confronted with Trolley A, the part of the brain linked to cognition and reasoning lights up; whereas with Trolley B, people seem to use a section linked to emotion. The few people who are prepared to use the fat man as a buffer take longer to respond than those aren’t, perhaps because they experience the emotional impulse and then reason their way out of it. Other experiments suggest people who have sustained damage to the prefrontal cortex, which is thought to generate various emotions, are far more likely than the rest of us to favour sacrificing the fat man.

Much of this work has been carried out in Harvard and Princeton. Meanwhile back in Oxford an Israeli philosopher, Guy Kahane, is poring over Katja Wiech’s scans. On his monitor are images of the brain showing parts lit up like stars on a dark night. He has devised and tested subjects on a set of moral dilemmas and questions the Harvard findings. He is unconvinced that emotion is the driving force behind our judgments in these cases. But he too is using the tools of neuroscience and MRI scans to build his case.

There’s a lot at stake. Peter Singer, the controversial utilitarian thinker and animal rights advocate, believes that while there are evolutionary explanations for why most of us recoil from pushing the fat man, reason should lead us to overcome our squeamishness. For him, there is no overriding moral difference between the two trolley examples, or between intentionally killing civilians in war and their deaths as a byproduct of a military objective. Other philosophers strongly disagree. If x-phi research could settle this debate, it would be quite an achievement.


Using state-of-the-art gadgetry to cast light on philosophical mysteries sounds like a breakthrough, and grand claims are being made on the basis of neuroscientific observations. But Raymond Tallis, a philosopher and medical scientist who used MRI machines for years to study strokes and epilepsy, is not so sure. He thinks that the accuracy and relevance of brain scanning has been overestimated. MRI technology is excellent for investigating physical damage to the brain, Tallis explains, but when it comes to more complex matters, such as localising particular thought processes, it is too crude. The data from these scans, for example, reflects average activity. When a section of a brain is illuminated this is because it is operating at a heavier load than usual compared with other areas. Changes happening over the whole brain are not picked up. And even sophisticated neural imaging cannot distinguish between physical pain and social rejection—they “light up” the same areas.

There’s a more fundamental problem still, says Tallis. The magnetic tube can never replicate the real world—so answers given inside it are of limited value in predicting decisions that would be taken outside. The hypothetical scenarios presented to volunteers are ingenious but implausible. Even when suspending disbelief, subjects are not gripped by the same panic, indecision, fear and anguish that genuine moral dilemmas produce. Real decisions depend on the particular situation; ethical choices are not like T-junctions, where there are only two choices.

Some philosophers quietly dismiss the movement as a cynical step by researchers to appear cutting edge and to tap into scientists’ funding. Interdisciplinary research can be a shrewd career move: it can, as Tallis notes, allow you to “rise between two stools.” David Papineau, professor of the philosophy of science at King’s College London, says that philosophers who want to know about the real nature of categories like mind, free will, moral value and knowledge should on occasion abandon their armchairs and pay attention to relevant findings. But that doesn’t mean that they should be in the street handing passersby questionnaires: “I don’t see that they’ll learn anything worthwhile from asking ordinary people what they think about these things.”

A philosophical problem is not an empirical problem, a fact is not an interpretation, an “is” is not an “ought,” a description of how we actually behave and think is not a rationale for how we should behave and think. Yet despite the critics, the clipboards and scanners are multiplying, with sometimes surprising effects on ancient debates. In the past few decades there has been a renewed interest in Aristotelian ethics and the notion that ethics is a matter of cultivating virtue. Many recent papers in moral psychology stress the ways situations and unconscious influences affect what we do. These seem more reliable predictors of our actions than our underlying character. There’s a link here with behavioural economics, which stresses our irrational and often hidden impulses.

Moral philosophy appears to be especially fertile ground for combining the conceptual and the empirical. Princeton philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah, in his recent book Experiments in Ethics, cites some experiments demonstrating the degree to which situations affect how we behave. Aristotelian virtue theorists stress consistency across situations: an honest person is likely to be honest when presented with different temptations in different circumstances, a compassionate person compassionate wherever appropriate, and so on. Is this, though, the way things really are? Empirical research suggests not. People asking for change for a dollar got a much better response outside a pleasant-smelling bakery than a neutral-smelling hardware store; unwitting subjects in an experiment who found a dime in a phone booth were far more ready to help someone pick up dropped papers than those who hadn’t had that tiny piece of good luck.

Situations have a bigger influence on how we behave than we think they do. Perhaps, then, rather than worrying so much about character building in an Aristotelian vein we should be making people more aware of how easily apparently irrelevant factors can shape what we do. As Appiah asks: “Would you rather have people be helpful or not? It turns out that having little nice things happen to them is a much better way of making them helpful than spending a huge amount of energy on improving their characters.”

Is this all a storm in a common room? The repercussions of the experiments cannot be so easily dismissed. Think of the impact on political liberalism. At the heart of liberalism is the idea that an educated adult is and should be capable of choosing how he or she lives. But if, for example, situations affect us more than the reasons we give for our actions, and we use those reasons to rationalise them retrospectively, this assumption may need revision. This branch of x-phi might be nudging us towards Nietzsche’s view that what we take to be the inexorable conclusions of clear rational thought are nothing but reformulations of our innermost desires—disguised as the products of logic. We are not as in control of our thoughts as we thought. Nietzsche fully grasped how profoundly unsettling this notion was.

Experiments in moral psychology may be making back-to-Aristotle ethics less plausible. But in another sense, the experimental philosophy enterprise is eminently Aristotelian. In Raphael’s famous painting, The School of Athens, Plato points up to the otherworldly realm: true reality, the world of the suprasensual Forms that can be understood only by pure thought. Aristotle, however, is reaching out to the world in front of him. X-phi looks like it’s here to stay, and contemporary philosophy should surely take notice.

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