Bengal: Why This Man Should Go!
Between Mamata Banerjee and Mukul Roy, stationed forever in Kolkata, Indian Railways, the lifeline of India, is in a terrible mess. Every moment, millions of passengers’ safetylies in stark jeopardy. So why is the PM not sacking the railway minister?
Akash Bisht Delhi
In a recently held Cabinet meeting, the ministers in attendance were in for a surprise when they saw Railway Minister Mukul Roy walking in. Known to be eternally stationed in Kolkata, Roy has seldom attended crucial meetings since he took over from Dinesh Trivedi who was removed by Mamata Banerjee for proposing basic fare hikes in the Indian Railways. As the meeting progressed, it was Roy’s turn to speak. Ironically, all through his ‘monologue’, he apparently kept mentioning Mamata Banerjee as if she is still the railway minister!
In the last four months of his stint as railway minister, Roy seems to have willfully played second fiddle to Banerjee when it comes to inaugural functions. Except for one, most of these functions were held in West Bengal where Banerjee was bestowed the honour of flagging off trains or laying foundations for projects. Only in Jharkhand, the guest of honour of one such inauguration was Chief Minister Arjun Munda. Predictably, Roy was nowhere to be seen.
In the month of June, Roy was in the capital for only 11 days and was mostly seen accompanying the West Bengal chief minister in Kolkata. He even missed an important meeting of the Empowered Group of Ministers on drought. He also skipped a significant meeting of infrastructure ministries called by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and attended by Planning Commission Chairman Montek Singh Ahluwalia. It was scheduled to discuss important issues concerning the railways, but Roy’s absence reportedly hurt the prospects of several projects.
Despite the abysmal state of one of the world’s largest railway networks, insiders point out that the railway minister’s conspicuous absence from Delhi has become a talking point for many politicians. JD (U) leader Sharad Yadav recently took a jibe at Roy in Parliament. He said that the railways was suffering while Roy is not even attending his office. Amidst shouts of ‘where is the railway minister’ in Parliament, Yadav said, “I appeal to Mamataji, you call him (to Kolkata) on Saturdays and Sundays and let him remain here (in Delhi) rest of the time. … Railway minister ko khabar kar dena, subah shaam hum unki yaad karte hain.”
Following the precedence set by Banerjee as railway minister, Roy, her loyalist, spends most of his time in Kolkata. His prolonged absence from Rail Bhavan in New Delhi has become a cause of concern for most railway officials. Officials admit that his absence makes it difficult to take key decisions that need the consent of the minister. They say that this is jeopardising the functioning of railways, including the safety and security of millions of passengers. Banerjee, too, during her tenure as railway minister, paid more attention to local politics in Bengal, while the railway ministry was literally being run from Kolkata. She had railway officials flying frequently to Kolkata to get her consent on any important issue.
“During her tenure, an officer was designated to fly to Kolkata and get the papers signed. A recent RTI filed by an activist reveals that in one year more than Rs 11 crore was spent to get the signatures of the railway minister based in Kolkata. Following the footsteps of her leader, Roy too has left the railways to its own fate. On the one hand, you are short of funds, on the other, you are spending crores to get files signed,” says Basudeb Acharia, CPM MP and former chairman of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Railways.
Overseeing one of the largest railway networks in the world, the railway ministry is in charge of networks comprising 1,15,000 km of tracks over a route of 65,000 km and 7,500 stations. It carries close to 20 million passengers and 2.8 million tonnes of freight every day. Once considered the pride of the nation, Indian Railways is clearly loosing its sheen and is now on the verge of a financial collapse. The downturn became transparent after Trinamool Congress (TMC) took over the ministry in 2009.
A recent internal report has revealed that the finances of the railways for the financial year are in the red and its earnings are short by Rs 1,783 crore. A re-assessed plan outlay for 2012-13 has been devised. Lower by Rs 3,150 crore, the reassessed plan also includes downward adjustments in capital fund, development fund, development reserve fund and ordinary working expenses. This downward spiral is in-turn affecting the spending on infrastructure projects, including new tracks, signaling systems and safety mechanisms. Despite the financial mess, Mukul Roy has maintained an eerie silence.
Mukul Roy was shunted out as the minister of state for railways after he refused to visit the accident sites at Fatehpur in UP, and Rangiya in Assam. “There is no need for me to go now,” Royhad said after the PMO directed him to visit Rangiya
Roy has been at the centre of controversy for his brazen indifference towards this crucial ministry with Indian Railways as the lifeline of the entire country. He was earlier shunted out as the minister of state for railways by the prime minister after he refused to visit the accident sites at Fatehpur in UP, where the Kalka Mail derailed killing 69 people on July 10, 2011, and Rangiya in Assam, where the Puri-Guwahati Express derailed after an explosion on the same day, July 10, 2011. “There is no need for me to go now,” Roy had reportedly said after the PMO directed him to visit Rangiya.
Another controversy erupted after Roy took 12 hours to reach Nellore in Andhra Pradesh from Kolkata. A second class sleeper coach of the Tamil Nadu Express caught fire killing 40 people on July 30, 2012. Roy then indicated at the possibility of a sabotage theory which became a butt of jokes. Comparisons were drawn on how Banerjee had similarly blamed the CPM for the twin train tragedies in Bengal-Jnaneshwari Express (May 28, 2010) in which 141 passengers died, and the Sainthia train accident (July 19, 2010) in which 66 people died. Roy had then said at a rally in Kolkata on July 21, 2010: “I am clearly saying some workers and members of the CPM… who can do these sabotages... there is nothing that the CPM can’t do... they can even conduct scientific killings.”
Adding fuel to the fire was the royal treatment that was conferred upon Roy who was on his way to the accident site in Nellore. A saloon (luxury coach costing Rs 1.5 crore with modern amenities) was waiting to ferry the railway minister to the accident site. Much before Roy’s arrival, railway employees were spraying room fresheners on the platform.
Since 2008, 385 train accidents claiming 590 lives have rocked the country and despite the repeated rhetoric of a safe journey the railway ministry has have failed to take concrete steps to avert such disasters. Roy’s indifference can be assessed by the fact that few corrective measures have been taken even when the cause of these accidents has been revealed. Several commissions and safety reports have recommended crucial steps to improve rail safety, but these are not being implemented because the ministry is rudderless, non-committal and without direction. “I have not seen such frequent accidents in anybody’s tenure and it is going to get worse,” says Basudeb Acharia.
“Successive governments realised the importance of railway safety and had even released funds for implementations of some of these recommendations. But, nothing has moved till date and this shows the apathy of the railway minister towards his ministry,” a former Railway Board chairman told Hardnews.
He added that the Centre has already cleared an exhaustive railway plan wherein old rail tracks and rolling stock were to be replaced. “It has happened in bits and pieces and is yet to be implemented across the entire network,” he said.
Another ambitious project that was undertaken by Mamata Banerjee as railways minister was to use anti-collision device to avoid accidents. The project is yet to take off and is still being tested on a pilot basis. Train protection, warning systems and fog safety devices bear a similar fate.
“The anti-collision device would have immensely helped the railways in avoiding such accidents, but with no political will, the project is suffering. The recommendations of the High Level Safety Review Committee led by former Atomic Energy Commission chairman Anil Kakodkar are gathering dust in the ministry and no follow-ups are being made to ensure the safety of passengers. These are all signs of how the current railway minister and his mentor in Kolkata have left Indian Railways to its fate while they try to reap political dividends in their home state. If this status quo remains, then the prime minister should certainly take a call and not let the nation suffer in the garb of coalition dharma,” says a former railway minister. The Kakodkar committee, which made a rigorous and scientific study of the problems afflicting the Indian Railways, and provided long term solutions, was later dissolved by Mukul Roy.
As the meeting progressed, it was Roy’s turn to speak. Ironically, all through his ‘monologue’, he kept mentioning Banerjee as the railway minister!
The Committee was formed at the behest of former railway minister Dinesh Trivedi who was forced to resign by Banerjee after he decided to go ahead with the fare hike despite her ‘populist’ disapproval. This, insiders believe, was the last coffin in the nail for the railways that has been struggling to get back on its feet. “The fare hike would have done wonders to the railways with the money needed for its revival, but Mamata’s populist agenda blocked this. Everyone except her wanted a hike. Even the passengers understood the importance of this hike. Even the common man agreed provided they were given better facilities. As a result, the railways is in a terrible mess; with the current political leadership, the dream of transforming Indian Railways seems like a mirage,” says another former railway minister.
People across the spectrum believe that Dinesh Trivedi had his heart in the right place and was genuinely concerned about the plight of Indian Railways. “He had the vision and the intent, but Mamata put her ego before the well-being of the railways. She chose Roy because of his proximity to her and since then the railways has been literally sent to the gallows. The kind of investment that is being witnessed for roads, ports, airports and other infrastructure projects is unprecedented, but the railways, despite the massive traffic load, is being neglected. Only Roy should be blamed because he is not making any representations on behalf of the railways, nor does he know how to run the ministry,” says a parliamentary standing committee member.
Even the trade unions are unhappy. They believe that railways has become a victim of the whims and fancies of the Trinamool supremo. “There are close to 200,000 vacancies that are yet to be filled. We are running short of staff and that is taking a toll on manpower. Every year we lose lot of men, but no one wants to talk about it. On a stretch, railway men are working for more than 16 hours. They are overworked and overstressed and that is a danger to them and public safety. Long working hours lead to stress and this leads to human errors,” says Gopal Mishra, the General Secretary of the All India Railwaymen’s Federation.
Other trade union leaders too are terribly miffed. “If the price of fuel is constantly on the rise, how do you compensate that without raising fares? We are suffering because of political compulsions. Roy, who was dumped out of the railway ministry for being irresponsible, was taken back as the railway minister,” said a trade union leader.
Even Mamata Banerjee’s ‘Vision 2020’ that was released with much fanfare, has failed to see the light of the day because of financial constraints. The ambitious Railtel project launched by the NDA government and then taken over by Banerjee as her favourite project failed to take off despite its potential. “Railways would have been making great financial leaps if a certain degree of seriousness was accorded to the project. Intended to create a nation-wide broadband, telecom and multimedia network to modernise Train Control Operation and Safety System of the railways, Railtel has failed to live up to the hype. While Trivedi promised to revive the ailing project, Roy has chosen to maintain silence over its non-performance,” says a former railway minister.
An inefficient and indifferent Roy’s way of functioning is being criticised in all quarters and the chorus for his removal is getting louder. “His main business is that of a scrap dealer of railway parts, and with his stint he is ensuring that the railways turn to scrap so that his business can benefit,” said Acharia.
Some Congress MPs, especially from Bengal, have severely criticised TMC for its non-performance. “The railway ministry is drawing huge flak from all walks of life and this is embarrassing the government. A full-time minister needs to oversee this huge organisation but the time that he spends in the ministry is just not adequate. I think the negligence towards the railways cannot be tenable. A good leader can change the entire scenario and this is what Roy should be doing. For this, Roy will have to spend more time in Delhi, not in Kolkata,” said Adhir Sumar Chaudhary, Congress MP from Bengal.
The harshest criticism comes from his home state where political leaders call him an “errand boy” of Mamata Banerjee, who doesn’t even have a bachelor’s degree. A TMC leader told Hardnews that Roy is running a “recruitment racket” with support of his son. “A Bengali news channel did a sting on how the father-son duo is minting money by recruiting people in the railways,” said a TMC MP. Earlier, when Roy was the minister of state for shipping, his party colleague, Somen Mitra, blamed him of financial irregularities while granting lease for a piece of Port Trust land at low rates.
Others allege that the biggest qualification Roy has is that he is the TMC supremo’s “Man Friday” and has been phenomenal in raising funds for the party. “It’s a shame that someone who doesn’t have any educational qualifications, no mass base, and possesses poor oratory skills, should become the railway minister. His only skill, of being totally subservient to Mamata, should not be the only reason for getting this crucial job. Now, the PM must have realised about the harm his coalition dharma has done to the railways. Why is he hesitating to throw him out,” asks a TMC MP.
A former chairman of the Railway Board added: “Everyone can learn, but he won’t, because he is always looking for directions from Mamata.” It is very sad, he said, that competent people are being made to work under a man who has no intellectual depth, skill or understanding. “What have the people of this country done to deserve someone like him?”
Others express similar sentiments. Many are gunning for Roy’s removal. Even the PM is reportedly unhappy. “I will not blame anyone else but the PM; he knew that the TMC will take the railways to the cleaners. Time and again, the TMC is putting the railways at stake for their party’s interests. The PM should take a harsh decision and not let the railways suffer to please an ally,” said a former railway minister.
He added that PM should have learnt a thing or two from his experience with Praful Patel who destroyed Indian Airlines with his dubious policies as the Civil Aviation Minister. “He should not repeat it with the railways. He should simply tell Mukul Roy — Please Go!”