It is a Jekyll and Hyde syndrome: The politician in Mamata Banerjee has remained at conflict with her role as Railways Minister.
In the first year of UPA-II, the Railways have not performed badly. Revenue earnings are up by approximately nine per cent as compared to her predecessor Lalu Prasad’s term.
Banerjee’s pet “Duranto” have been a runaway success, while preliminary loan agreements for the ambitious Dedicated Freight Corridors project have firmed up.
Structural issues in the functioning of the Railways are also being identified — with Banerjee having released a white paper on the organisation’s functioning of the last five years and presented a “Vision 2020” document.
But Banerjee’s biggest drawback has remained her image. The minister in her has somehow always remained subsumed by her image as a street-fighter politician determined to uproot the Left rule from West Bengal.
Reasons are not misplaced. Banerjee spent approximately half of the 365 days of last year in West Bengal (only Chemicals and Fertilizers Minister M.K. Alagiri beats her to home sickness).
When the motorman strike threw Mumbai local train out of gear, Banerjee was preoccupied with electioneering for the civic elections in West Bengal.
“Functionally, as well as in her mental makeup, she had not moved out of her home state. At best, Banerjee is the Railways Minister of West Bengal,” former railways minister Ram Naik said.
The result: Despite good intentions, several schemes announced in the last budget have only been tinkered with.
Projects that have generated marginal response include the “Yuva” train (for unemployed youth), the only ladies
“Matrabhumi’ local specials and the “Izzat” scheme for poor travellers. Almost 28 per cent of the respondents to the
opinion poll say her allocation of resources is politically motivated.
Safety has remained a problem —both of trains as well as stations. Two people died in a stampede at the New Delhi Railway station earlier this week. Of the respondents, 17.3 per cent say lack of safety is the biggest weakness of the ministry — and 27.1 per cent say it's the declining standard of amenities.
India’s existing rail network of 64,099 kilometres needs expansion and the Vision 2020 document has set out a target of adding 25,000 kilometres of new lines over the next decade.
Targets also are to complete the electrification of 33,000 kilometres of routes by 2020, while completing the gauge conversion program also.
These are targets that require huge investments. As of now, the Railways have little clue on funding options.
Aiming to generate investments through the Public Private Partnership (PPP) route, Banerjee set up an experts panel headed by industrialist Amit Mitra. “Several committee meetings have been held, but investments have not come in,” said Shiv Gopal Mishra, an ex-officio member of the panel.
But with 42.1 per cent respondents saying Mamata is speedy and effective in her decision making and 33.1 per cent seeing her firmly in charge of the situation, the minister might not have done as badly as its image might suggest.