Sudipta Bhattacharya of the department of economics and politics, Santiniketan, assesses Mamata Banerjee's performance as a disastrous railway minister in the backdrop of the 2011 budget. Cartoon courtesy, The Hindu newspaper.
When Mamata Banerjee was sworn in power in 2009 she declared her priorities: first, to run the railway viably and profitably. Secondly, to give comfort to passengers and third, to make adequate safety arrangements. Against the backdrop of the rail budget this year, let us see how far she has achieved her goals.
In the budget itself the poor financial health of the railway is mentioned and in her budget speech the railway minister squarely put all the blame on pay commission. However, if we go through figures from the last couple of years, we find that the last railway budget presented by Lalu Prasad in 2007-08 was left with a surplus of Rs. 25000 crores. Since then the magnitude of surplus declined steadily to Rs. 17400 crores in 2009-10, Rs.1328 crores in 2009-10 and ultimately a deficit of Rs.4000 crore. It should be remembered that there is a separate provision of Rail Budget as it is expected that railway should make some surplus and can assist nation’s economy as a whole. But in last couple of budget prepared by Mamata Banerjee it is seen that union government had to subsidize the railway. This year too, Mamata Banerjee sought Rs.40000 crore from Union Government. Sources says she ultimately she managed to get only Rs.20000 crores. The alarming concern that one should get is on seeing the massive decline of operating ratio. Operating ratio is the amount expenditure in order to produce income of Rs.100. During 2007-08 the last year of Lalu Prasad's regime it remained at Rs 75. At present it is Rs 95 which is the highest ever in history. In fact most the bills for the last financial year remained unpaid by the ministry and the burden is to be transferred to the next financial year. This is a trick that ministry of railway adopted to show the operating ratio below 100. Considering all the pending bills the operating ratio must be far high than 100. According to an estimate made by the Indian Express the operating ratio then should be around 115 and 10 out of 16 railway zones have effective operating ratio above 100.
The Railways have become an ever increasing source of irritation for the passengers. The main source of discomfort is the late running of trains. A case study shows that during the first twenty days of February 2011, 700 trains ran late in South-eastern railway. The railway produced enough discomfort in every aspects - cleanliness, food, crowds of unreserved passengers in reserved compartments, relentless entry of male passengers in ladies compartment and defunct role of RPF in all cases.
Safety and Security
There were unprecedented accounts of accidents in last two years resulting in death of 574 people in 250 accidents. This is a very big figure in comparison with Lalu Prasad 's regime. There were many accidents where human casualties was marginally escaped owing to the last minute efficiency of the drivers, because of some miracles and good luck. Mamata Banerjee blamed sabotage for all the cases. The sole case of sabotage proved only in the case of accident Gnaneswari Express derailment where 148 people died. However, the Central Government agency CBI investigated the case and found a Maoist/ Maoist front organisation conspiracy behind that. Consequently many Maoist activists linked with this massacre were arrested. Even then Mamata Banerjee did not lodge any FIR against the Maoists. Rather like all other accidents she blamed CPI(M) behind this massacre. To the utter surprise to everyone she made a joint rally in Lalgarh with the ‘Peoples Committee Against Police Atrocity’ which the judiciary accepted as frontal organization of the Maoists. In that rally the main accused of Gnaneswari express massacre Asit Mahato was seen to roam about, which was reported with photos in the next day newspapers. In all other cases including devastating accident in Sainthia, no case of sabotage was established. In each and every case accidents took place because of the utter callousness of the railway. The engines, coaches and overall machinery become old and the railway ministry did not bother to replace them. On the contrary they in fact overused the old trains. One example – a train named up Agnibina Express starts from Howrah at 18.20 and reaches Asansol at night. Next morning the down Agnibina Express reaches Howrah in the morning and the same train starts for Bolpur as Santiniketan Express at 10 AM and will be back as down Santiniketan Express in the afternoon and becomes Agnibina Express again by evening. There are many such cases. Perhaps the railway ministry failed to understand that machines also needs some rest for proper functioning. According to railway experts most of the accidents that includes metro trains took place due to over use of the engines and rakes. The train lines and bridges also suffer from old age problems and needs replacement, without however, any hope. Apart from the machines, over use of the human capital is also a big factor behind accidents that we will discuss in the next section.
Mounting Vacancies in the Rails as a part of Neoliberal Joblessness.
From 2009 onwards the railway did not bother to fill up any vacancy. Particularly 90 thousand vacancies related to safety and security have not been filled up. With the fact that the number of trains increased from 13 lakhs to 16 lakhs after 1991, the ever declining number of skilled employees particularly attached to safety and security called for an alarming situation. The overuse of the skilled man power is another great cause for the mounting train accidents. It so happened that a driver of a particular train driver after not being relieved from duty for continuous 48 hours had decided to leave trains in the midway and went home. It was a wise as well as desperate decision of him as further performing duty may cause train accident as he felt extremely sleepy.
The railway did not fill up the vacancies precisely because the ideological paradigm of the ministry of railway was well-tuned with neo-liberalism of the union government. As a matter of fact 8-9% growth rate of the Indian economy for last few years were trapped in joblessness and this phase of the Indian economy is called as jobless growth. We have enough reason to believe that Mamata’s assurance of 1.75 lakh of employment generation is nothing but a pre-election gimmick.
Mamata’s promise for new train lines flopped precisely because she was trapped by her own politics of negation that she applied in Nandigram and Singur. In order to construct new train lines she had to evict land owners on the proposed track and they needed proper compensation and rehabilitation. Mamata desperately announced on 13 April 2010 in Furfura, Hooghly that she would give employment from each family to be evicted. This was a wild promise as she could not even fill up the regular vacancies in her ministry. But making such wild promises Mamata invited fresh trouble as everywhere railway tried to construct new railway lines, people protested heavily demanding new jobs in railway. As a result she could only construct 59 kms of rail line against the previous budgetary promise of 1000 kms.
Where the Promises have Gone?
There were lot of promises spelt in earlier budget that not only remains unfulfilled; there are no mention of these abandoned projects. Take the case of Bengal only. As she felt ‘proud’ to do something for her own state ‘along with other states’. The following projects did not have any progress except receiving foundation stone through some festive cultural programmes: (1) Shalimar Automobile Hub, (2) Kanchrapara EMU Coach Factory, (3) Kishan Vision Project at Singur where 13 out of 16 shops remained permanently closed. (4) Railway Excel Factory at Jalpaiguri, (5) Dankuni Industry for Manufacturing of Petrol and Diesel Component, (6) Noapara Metor Rail Coach Factory, (7) Purulia Anara Factory, (8) Adra Power Project. Most of this industry did not progress after the foundation stone precisely because they did not have approval from Planning Commission, and Montek Singh Ahluwalia categorically said that the projects without the prior approval of Planning Commission should be built from the self-finance / alternative sources of finance by the railway. Some of these industries supposed to be built up on the basis of public-private partnership. However, no private partner showed their interest to make joint collaboration with railway.
In Lieu of Conclusion:
In the history of Indian Railways there has never been such a peculiar, whimsical and retrogressive regime. Mamata is chasing the Chair of the Chief Minister of Bengal. This is the reason she remained absent in Rail Bhavan for most of her tenure. Railway had to waste Rs11 lakh per month from his exchequer only to transport railway files from Dalhi to Kolkata and back. Under this grave situation it is difficult to spell to what amount of timethe ministry of railways needs to implement all the promises spelt in the budget. Nitish Sengupta, a former MP of Mamata’s TMC said that it takes 40 years to implement all the budgetary allocation. But 40 years is a very long time, by when “we would all be dead” as the famous economist Keynes remarked.