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Bansal aimed to insulate fares from politics

May 11, 2013 08:50 IST

Bansal's exit came at a time when some good investment and policy decisions were expected.


When Pawar Kumar Bansal skipped Thursday’s Cabinet meeting, officials in Rail Bhawan rebuffed speculation he was on way out. “He is unwell,” was the official comment. However, by 6.30 pm Friday, news broke the railway minister had resigned.

While Bansal’s exit may be the first admission of corruption in government appointments, for the Railways, it came at a time when some good investment and policy decisions were expected.

Bansal, who took charge late last year, is credited with breaking the tradition of announcing a fare rise only in the Railway Budget. He took over as minister at a time when the Railways was in a weak financial spot. Despite a freight rise of around 20 per cent in 2012, it was creaking under losses of Rs 25,000 crore (Rs 250 billion) in the passenger segment.

The subsequent diesel price rises for bulk consumers also pinched the Railways. In the Rail Budget presented in February this year, Bansal introduced a fuel adjustment component (FAC) in freight rates to offset the fuel hikes, and a review of FAC in passenger fares was underway. He was also pushing ahead with the proposal of a Rail Tariff Authority to de-link fare fixation from politics.

A Member of Parliament (MP) from Chandigarh, Bansal, 64, preferred to maintain a low profile even after assuming charge of the high-profile ministry. After decades of the ministry being with a non-Congress minister, Bansal gave the Railways a commercial identity, by allowing it to fix user charges independent of political considerations.

Bansal was the sixth railway minister, including Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who briefly presided over the ministry, in the second term of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government at the Centre. The bane of short tenures, which was till now confined to the Railway Board members, appears to have spread to the minister’s office as well.

Trinamool Congress chief Mamata Banerjee took over as railway minister in the start of UPA-2 in 2009 but exited once she became chief minister of West Bengal.

She was followed by another MP from TMC, Dinesh Trivedi, who had an unceremonious exit when he announced passenger fare hike to the displeasure of Banerjee. After this, another MP from TMC, Mukul Roy, was hand-picked by Banerjee. Roy spent most of his time in Kolkata, neglecting the railway portfolio.

As TMC withdrew its support to the UPA government in September 2012, Congress’ C P Joshi took over the ministry for less than a month. With Joshi taking the temporary charge, the railway ministry came back to the Congress for the first time after a period of around 16 years. However, with a Cabinet reshuffle, Bansal became the new railway minister in October.

Bansal’s nephew Vijay Singla’s arrest on May 3, after being caught accepting bribe money of Rs 90 lakh as part of an alleged deal to appoint Mahesh Kumar, Railway Board member (Staff), to the post of member (electrical), turned the tables on Bansal.

In a week’s time, the Central Bureau of Investigation interrogated more than 10 persons in the case. Bansal’s family business -- Chandigarh-based Theon Pharmaceuticals, owned by Bansal's wife Madhu and sons Amit and Manish, and three other companies namely Iva Healthcare, Isis Packaging and Bansi Raunaq Energy -- has been under public scrutiny over the past week.

Photograph: Courtesy, PIB

Disha Kanwar & Jyoti Mukul In New Delhi
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