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Derailing railways and nation

 | March 16, 2012

One of the most pressing issues today concerns railway safety, and the past few years have seen several accidents

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Undoubtedly the Indian Railways is gasping for breath. The Railway Minister Dinesh Trivedi announcing an across-the-board passenger fare hike during the Railway Budget he presented in Parliament on Wednesday was not off the track when he quipped that he had pulled the state transporter out of the intensive care unit.

He minced no words when he averred that without this rise it would even becomedifficult to pay salaries.

What is more, he added that if ticket prices were not revised, the Indian Railways would have gone the Air India’s way. This national carrier has been in deep red for several years now, part of the malaise plaguing the nation’s aviation sector.

However, the railfare increase — in the region of 35 per cent (in some cases more), and coming as it does after nearly a decade when passenger tickets were never touched – angered West Bengal Chief Minister and head of the Trinamool Congress Mamata Banerjee.

Trivedi belongs to this party and is one of the 19 members in Parliament whose support is essential for the coalition government in Delhi headed by the Congress Party.

With Banerjee demanding a rollback within minutes of the Budget being announced under the veiled threat of walking out of the coalition, the Congress seems to be ready with a contingency plan.

It could possibly get the support of 22 members of the Samajwadi Party and even 21 members of the Bahujan Samaj Party. However, will these two parties have the courage to back the fare hike so close on the heels of the Uttar Pradesh elections? The Samajwadi Party won the polls there with the Bahujan Samaj Party conceding defeat.

Be that as it may, one of the most pressing issues today concerns railway safety, and the past few years have seen several accidents. Many lives have been lost. Though the Budget has a provision for Rs 17,000 crores for safety, it is not clear where this is going to come from.

Beyond this are political questions. It is quite likely that Trivedi’s Budget was also part of his defiance of Banerjee, who has been contemplating replacing him as the Railway Minister.

He has now sent his resignation to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Mukul Roy will take over.

Putting the brakes on everything

In fact, Trivedi was not Banerjee’s first choice. Roy was. But the Congress was averse to an inexperienced Roy taking charge of a portfolio as vital as the Railways. So, it went to Trivedi, who has since then drifted away from his own Trinamool Congress – and ostensibly closer to the Congress.

Banerjee is likely to have her way on the rollback.

Of great concern is Banerjee’s continuous attempt at playing to the galleries by putting the brakes on just about every reform the government planned.

Whether it was land acquisition or the Teesta settlement with Bangladesh or the multi-crore foreign direct investment in retail, Banerjee has pressed the red button –stopping the government from moving ahead.

In short, Mamata Banerjee is more a liability than an asset for the government. And, certainly for the country that urgently needs to get its reforms programme moving.

Gautaman Bhaskaran is a Chennai-India based author, columnist and film critic, and can be contacted at [email protected]


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