It’s not without reason that railway minister Mamata Banerjee often draws flak for favouring her home state of West Bengal. On Monday she flagged off six new trains from Kolkata -- and over the past seven months, she has inaugurated or laid foundation stones for more than 120 projects in West Bengal.
But a closer look at the actions of previous railways ministers shows that Banerjee is no exception. From Lalu Prasad to Ram Vilas Paswan, ABA Ghani Khan Chowdhury to CK Jaffer Sharief – railway ministers have displayed unabashed partiality towards their home states.
Jaffer Sharief, for example, had launched Project Unigauge -- converting all tracks into broad gauge -- pumping in huge investments in his home state Karnataka between 1991 and 1995.
“The irony is that most of these projects have not materialised and are not likely to. The entire countryside is littered with foundation stones laid by railway ministers. It is a graveyard,” said Vivek Khare, author of a book on the Indian Railways.
Pending for Decades
Despite being announced with much fanfare, a large number of railway projects are facing cost and time over-runs. As many as 376 projects worth more than R1 lakh crore were pending across the country until April last year, official documents show.
Minister of state for railways KH Muniyappa told Parliament on November 11 that the accumulated cost of railway projects in the last three years is R31,245 crore.
Many projects have been pending for decades. The Howrah-Amta-Champadanga project in West Bengal has remained unimplemented since 1975.
“Because of peer pressure or for political considerations, several projects are announced by railway ministers. But everybody knows these have no future,” said a senior ministry official.
But what of the hollow promises made by railway ministers? Is it not time to scrap non-viable projects?
“A large number of these projects need to be knocked off. But who will bell the cat?” said Sumant Chak of the Asian Institute of Rail Transport.
Because of its “people-connect” profile, the railways portfolio has remained much sought after. Upset with Lalu Prasad’s refusal to concede the railway portfolio to him, Ram Vilas Paswan snapped his party’s electoral ties with Prasad’s Rashtriya Janata Dal in the run-up to the 2004 assembly elections in Bihar.
In 1983 ABA Ghani Khan Chowdhury set up a divisional headquarters of the railways in his home constituency of Malda in Bengal by carving out parts of the Dhanbad division in undivided Bihar.
Twenty-two years later, Lalu Prasad hit back by carving out parts of Samastipur and Malda areas in the newly created Bhagalpur division.
With Malda now being among the tiniest railway divisions, CPI-M leaders of West Bengal have been vociferously demanding that parts of the Katihar region of Bihar be merged with the Malda division.
Banerjee has not conceded the demand because of obvious fears that the CPI-M could take credit for bringing justice to Bengal.
When Paswan created the Hajipur railway zone, Dhanbad was yanked out of the Kolkata-based South Eastern Railway and attached to Hajipur. As a result, Barkakhana – the centre of coal movement – became part of the Hajipur division although it is 24 hours away from Hajipur and 45 hours from Howrah.
In 2007, minister of state for railways R Velu was instrumental in creating a new railway division at Salem in his home state of Tamil Nadu by parceling out regions of the Palghat area of Kerala — sparking an intense political agitation in that state.
Although the Kerala government provided 1,000 acres free of cost for the construction of a proposed coach factory four years ago, project work remains is yet to be initiated.
Any way out?
In this tussle between vote-bank politics and developmental concerns, is there a way out?
“There are no easy solutions. The bureaucracy and the political class need to be made more accountable. Everybody, including the judiciary, media and civil society, needs to play a role to ensure that governmental decisions are made more transparent,” said Basudeb Acharia, CPI-M leader in the Lok Sabha.
“The Late Madhavrao Scindia had started the computerisation process in 1984, launched the premier Shatabdi express trains and created the Indian Railways Finance Corporation. After him, the country has not had a railway minister with as forward-looking, modern and nationalistic approach as his,” said Satish Vaish, former chairman of the railway board.
Politics and the art of using the railways
Here are a few examples of mega projects several railway ministers have carried out in their home constituencies to endear themselves to their voters
Term: 1980-81 Kamalapati tripathi set up a diesel locomotive factory in Varanasi.
Term: 1983-85 ABA Ghani Khan Chowdhury built a sports stadium at Malda.
Term: 1991-95 CK Jaffer Sharief set up a wheel and axle factory at Yelahenka near Bangalore.
Term: 1996-98 Ram Vilas Paswan created a railways zone at his constituency, Hajipur.
Term: 2004-2009 Lalu Prasad launched projects worth more than Rs 30,000 crore for Bihar.