July 18, 2002


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The Rediff Interview/Ram Vilas Paswan

'Railways shouldn't become a Bengal vs Bihar issue'

The railway ministry's decision to bifurcate Eastern Railway to create a new East-Central Railway with its headquarters in Hajipur, Bihar, has resulted in deep divisions amongst the main players.

While former railway minister and Trinamool Congress chief Mamata Banerjee, who hails from West Bengal, is demanding a review of the order, political parties in Orissa and Bihar have supported the bifurcation. The high-profile spat between Banerjee and Bihar Samata Party leader Nitish Kumar has turned the issue into an inter-state dispute, with a few railway unions also opposing the move.

As the bifurcation generates another controversy, Ram Vilas Paswan, former railway minister and leader of the Lok Jana Shakti Party, discusses with Sheela Bhatt the merits of creating new zones and the politics of his successors -- Mamata Banerjee and Nitish Kumar. Excerpts:

On why he created new railway zones:

I, as the minister for railways, proposed the creation of six new zones in the very first Cabinet meeting of the Deve Gowda government in 1996.

Before I became the minister, I was a member of the railway consultative committee of Parliament. Since then I had been demanding the decentralisation of nine railways zones. Most members felt the zones were too huge and unmanageable. Whenever accidents occurred near Delhi, a manager from Mumbai rushed in well after two days! The last zone was created around 1966-67. After that so many new states, districts and blocks have been created in the country, but not a single new rail zone.

When all sectors are witnessing decentralisation, why not in the railways?

In 1984, the Railway Reforms Committee had recommended the creation of four new zones.

After 12 years, when I became railway minister, I recommended a total of six zones.

Our Cabinet also took a decision to improve the condition of backward areas through this decision. If you look from the railway's perspective, Bangalore and Jaipur are in the category of backward zones. Please visit the Hooghly area and you will understand what I am saying.

In the same year, I managed money for the new proposed zones and the budget for it was passed in the Railway Budget.

I must add here that CPI leader Inderjit Gupta was also present in the Deve Gowda Cabinet, which passed the resolution to create six new railway zones.

To emphasise more the importance of the bifurcation of existing zones, let me add that when the British were ruling us they created 48,000km of railways, but it's a shame that after Independence we have added just around 14,000km.

Let the public know this fact. The prime duty of the government is to develop backward areas. Without communication and railway tracks, how can you do it?

At that time we wanted to have a railway headquarters in Patna, but as everyone knows, Patna's Laloo Prasad Yadav is averse to the word 'development'. He didn't allot the 1000 acres of land that was needed to construct the headquarters.

In my constituency of Hajipur, the railways had land, which they offered for the new construction. To tell you frankly, all politicians crave for the benefit of their own state. I did a little to benefit my state, but I also did a lot for J&K in the national interest. I inaugurated a Rs 2,500 crore railway line in Baramulla. When no minister was visiting Kashmir because of the fear of militants, I went and inaugurated railway projects in those areas where not an inch of track existed.

On why the controversy has erupted now:

Nitish Kumar succeeded me as railway minister. He has played mischief.

I don't find Mamata [former railway minister] guilty when she protests against my decisions taken in 1996. Mamata's protest is justified. When I left in 1998, I had fixed the jurisdiction of all the new railway zones. But to create controversy Nitish Kumar changed my plan.

On January 1, 1998, the rail ministry had issued a notification of the jurisdiction of new zones. According to it, the new East-Central Railway zone with its headquarters at Hajipur was to have consisted of Sonpur, Samastipur, Danapur and Katihar divisions. Nitish Kumar played a dirty game and changed the jurisdiction of the East-Central Railway by adding Dhanbad to it and removing Katihar division from the proposal.

I had left cash-rich Dhanbad with the Eastern Railway Zone.

This is not a small issue. The controversy centres on this mischief of Nitish Kumar. I took care of the interests of West Bengal while giving something to Bihar. As a result nobody opposed my move in 1996.

When Nitish became railway minister, he hardly worked for a year. Later, he resigned and Mamata Banerjee took charge of the ministry. After his resignation, when Nitish went back to Bihar he was condemned for not helping Bihar enough, as much as I did. Most of the things I initiated in Bihar, Nitish Kumar put them under review.

I had appointed a general manager in Hajipur. He reduced the post and put an officer on special duty in charge of the new zone. Mamata didn't do anything new. She didn't initiate a move to scrap my decision to create new railway zones because everyone was playing politics.

On whether Nitish Kumar has been checkmated:

After six years Nitish Kumar put in operation my proposal of new railway zones because he thought he would be asked to vacate the railway ministry in the Cabinet reshuffle.

He would have faced an embarrassment in Bihar because of not moving an inch on my proposal. I met Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee five times about the new zones. Nitish Kumar did nothing till he got wind that his seat was unstable. He was then compelled to take up the issue though he knows that it benefits only my constituency of Hajipur in Bihar.

Same is the politics of Mamata. When she got a clue that she would not get the railway ministry, she started protesting against the decision loudly and made it a prestige issue for West Bengal.

Both are least interested in developing the new rail zones. Both are interested in their ministerial berths. They both had a total of six years to raise this issue, but they sat on it quietly till PM Vajpayee announced publicly his intention of reshuffling the Cabinet. Both leaders have made a development issue into a Bengal versus Bihar issue.

On the possible solution:

I feel that Mamata Banerjee should insist that Dhanbad division be included in Eastern Railway and should not make this a Bengal versus Bihar issue.

Meanwhile the Bharatiya Janata Party is enjoying the fighting between the Trinamool Congress and the Samata Party. It benefits them.

People like us will see to it that the BJP or others do not arrest the growth in my constituency. We will fight for it. New zones are a reality. They cannot be scrapped under any excuse.

Design: Dominic Xavier

Nitish Kumar ready for debate in Parliament on bifurcation controversy
Eastern Railway Union calls for agitation against bifurcation
Orissa supports bifurcation of Eastern Railway
Bifurcation issue turning into an inter-state dispute

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