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Smoke behind Bihar rail backlash

33 halts scrapped without Mamata’s knowledge,

board aware of order

Wednesday, June 03, 2009 03:58:59 PM, The Telegraph

 

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Mamata Banerjee faced her first long-distance test as railway minister today — for a decision taken just before she assumed office.

 

Angry villagers torched two trains, uprooted tracks and ransacked a station in Bihar to protest a decision by East Central Railway to cancel 33 “uneconomic” halts across the state.

The formal order to scrap the halts — opened during the tenure of her predecessor Lalu Prasad — came on May 26, the day Mamata took charge of railways, leading her aides to suspect a bid to “sabotage” her second stint at Rail Bhavan.

 

In Calcutta, Mamata said the railway ministry “did not issue any notification” on withdrawing the halts.

 

“I spoke to Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar to clarify it. We are Indians and Bihar is one of our neighbours. The railway halts will continue like in the past and I am not going to remove any of the existing facilities.”

 

She said some people with an “ulterior motive to malign” her had fanned the violence “to give it a Bengal-versus-Bihar look”.

 

“The mischief was deliberately done to spark tension after I took over as railway minister,” she said and ordered a departmental probe before leaving for the capital.

 

In Delhi, the railway board said the “decision on withdrawal of stoppages was taken by the zonal railway without consulting the ministry of railway”.

 

“No directive for the withdrawal of these stoppages was given by the ministry and the board today directed the zonal railway that these stoppages that were withdrawn be restored with immediate effect,” board member (traffic) Shri Prakash said.

 

However, a copy of the East Central Railway order dated May 26 acquired by The Telegraph shows that copies had been faxed to the railway board executive director.

 

Railway ministry sources confirmed that railway board officials were aware of the decision to scrap the halts but it was “never communicated to the minister”.

 

The sources said Lalu Prasad was still in charge as interim minister when the decision to scrap the 33 halts was taken but added that the RJD chief was too caught up with the election results, and it was more a case of overzealous officials acting on their own.

 

The RJD disassociated itself from the violence on a “national property” and said the party had “no reason to doubt” the new railway minister’s concern for Bihar.

 

"Mamata Banerjee has played no role in halting the railway halts in Bihar,” Lalu Prasad said.

 

“Bihar and Bengal are like brothers, and the RJD will not support any action that raises doubts on Mamata Banerjee’s concern for the state,” said national spokesperson Ramkripal Yadav.

 

“We are sure that Mamataji will take into consideration the ideas which had inspired her predecessor to open the halts in Bihar,” he added.

Sources close to Mamata said they would look into the “possibility of someone trying to sabotage the government” by taking such decisions independently. “On her part, she has till now taken no decision to either introduce or stop any halts,” said a source.

 

Officials claimed the railway board had directed the zonal railway to cancel the notification on May 28, but the decision to suspend the notification had not been publicised.

 

Among the 33 halts cancelled were Tetulmari on the Dhanbad-Gaya Intercity Express route; Ismailpur on the Patna-Dehiri-on Sone Express route; Neora on the Howrah-Sriganganagar Toofan Express route; and Khusrupur on the Shramjivi Express route.

 

Railway board member Prakash said the zonal railway had started these halts as a “temporary” measure in 2007 and enjoyed the right to scrap them if they turned out to be money-losers.

 

He added that if the railway board, “recommends a halt at a particular station, it normally does so after a commercial viability study”.

 

In Khusrupur, 20km from Patna under Danapur division, officials said angry villagers armed with rods forced passengers out and set the trains on fire.

 

The mob torched AC III bogies of the Danapur-Patna-Jainagar Intercity train and two bogies of the Rajgir Danapur passenger train. “They uprooted railway tracks and assaulted our staff when they intervened,” a senior railway official said.

 

Train services were disrupted between 8.30am and 1pm.

 

In Calcutta, Mamata said she had ordered a departmental probe after talking to railway board chairman S.S. Khuruna. “If rail officials are found to be involved, they won’t be spared. Showcause notices will be slapped.”

 

The minister appealed to people not “to get provoked by wrong information”.

 

“I have come to know that some ads had appeared in local dailies about cancellation of railway halts in Bihar…. I would request people to talk to us instead of being carried away by mischief mongers.”

 

WITH INPUTS FROM R. SURYAMURTHY AND JAYANTA ROY CHOWDHURY

 

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