Thursday, May 9, 2013

The Bansal episode and the backward journey of Indian Railways

By Soroor Ahmed (
Railway is a very big ministry with its own separate budget, which is tabled every year in Parliament. Yet of late it appears that the ministry has got somewhat jinxed.
Pawan Kumar Bansal, now in trouble, was the first full-fledged cabinet rank Railway Minister of the Congress party after 16 long years, in which the country had almost seen as many number of changes. Barring the five years of Lalu Yadav’s stay in the Rail Bhawan between May 2004 and May 2009 no minister could last even for three years during this period.
Ram Vilas Paswan of the then Janata Dal was the first non-Congress Railway Minister during this 16 years period. He served for less than two years between 1996 and 1998 under the prime ministership of H D Deve Gowda and Inder Kumar Gujral. Then during the prime ministership of Atal Bihari Vajpayee between 1998 and 2004 the portfolio changed hands several times between Nitish Kumar (Janata Dal United) and Mamata Banerjee (Trinamool Congress). In between Ram Naik of the BJP also served as the Minister of State for Railway Independent charge. The Nitish years were known for some shocking rail disasters, including the one which involved Rajdhani Express in Bihar on Sep 9, 2002 following a bridge collapse. Over 110 died.
In that way in the five years period between May 2004 and May 2009 the ministry witnessed a sort of stability with the Railways not only earning some profit, it saw much fewer accidents and the punctuality also improved. Besides, the Ministry launched some big projects.
But with Mamata Banerjee becoming the Railway Minister after May 2009 the backward journey started once again. The Indian Railways witnessed some tragic accidents. On Jan 2, 2010, in one single day five express trains were involved in three accidents in Uttar Pradesh. Fog was blamed for them. Only 15 people died because all these trains were running at slow speed because of inclement weather. Later two devastating mishap took place in West Bengal, that is Railway Minister’s own home state. On May 28, 2010 Gyaneshwari Express got derailed and was hit by goods train coming on the parallel track. Vananchal Express and Uttar Banga Express were involved in rear-on collision in July 19, 2010 at Sainthia station. About 150 and 70 passengers respectively were killed in the two mishaps.
However, Mamata blamed the Marxists and Maoists for the disasters.
She quit the cabinet in May 2011 when she became the chief minister of West Bengal. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh took the portfolio briefly. But then Kalka Mail, one of the most prestigious trains of north india, got derailed in July leading to the death of about 100 passengers. Soon Dinesh Trivedi of Trinamool Congress was made the Railway Minister.
When Mamata was the Railway Minister Mukul Roy of her party was the minister of state. But when Trivedi propsed hike in the rail fare for the first time in about a decade while presenting the budget in 2012 Mamata forced him to resign though he belonged to her own party. Mukul Roy was elevated to the cabinet minister on March 20. Later on September 21, 2012 he, along with other Trinamool ministers, quit when the party withdrew support from the UPA over FDI.
On Sep 22 the Prime Minister entrusted the additional charge of Railway to Road Transport and Highways Minister C P Joshi of the Congress. However, it was only on Oct 28, 2012 that Pawan Kumar Bansal of the same party became a full-fledged minister of Railways––the first after 1996. He was earlier the Minister of Parliamentary Affairs and Minister of Water Resources.
Just after six months the Railway Minstry once again got derailed when on May 3 Vijay Singla, the nephew (sister’s son) of Bansal, and a General Manager rank officer, along with others, were virtually caught red-handed by the CBI.
Whether Bansal should resigns or not may be the issue for opposition parties to highlight, sources within the Ministry fear that the onward journey of the Indian Railways may be seriously hampered.
After the appointment of Bansal people started looking with some hope after three years of uncertainty and chaos in the ministry––thanks to Mamata Banerjee and her TMC.
But then Mamata or her Railway Ministers or their relatives were not involved in at least any such corruption deal.
As Bansal is facing such a serious charge he may not be able to deliver or will have any moral authority on the officials.
Thus the Railways may have to go a long way to once again to see some stability, which was provided during the UPA-I.


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