New Delhi: Prolonged absence of Railway Minister Mamata Banerjee from her headquarters continues to draw criticism, particularly after a spate of train accidents in recent months and apparent lack of ability of her deputies to handle the situation.
"The Railway Ministry is not an aeroplane that you put in an auto pilot mode and go off to snooze," said Ram Vilas Paswan, who was himself a railway minister in the past, upset over the state of affairs at Rail Bhavan here, which he once lorded over.
"Mamata Banerjee must set her priorities and decide whether she wants to be a minister or further her political career in her home state," Paswan said, referring to her constant presence in West Bengal, which goes for Assembly Elections soon.
What has irked experts more is the fact that there have been as many as 13 major train accidents this year that have claimed 251 lives, as opposed to some 225 deaths in the whole of last year.
Yet, by the ministry`s own admission, the railways have a whopping 89,024 vacancies in what they call "safety-category" - something which, they maintain, calls for immediate attention at the top to set the system right.
Official data indicates that overall, against the total sanctioned strength of 1,566,964 employees, the vacant slots in Indian Railways amount to 172,444, including 35,288 slots for gangmen and 7,190 locomotive pilots, two key workmen categories.
In other words, the total vacancies are 11 percent of the approved strength - a rather large gap for the world`s second largest rail network under one management, which runs 18,518 trains daily to ferry 19 million passengers and 2.3 million tonnes of cargo.
"A cabinet minister`s presence in the ministry may not be required for the day-to-day running of Indian Railways," said former Railway Board chairman Ramesh Chandra, who retired three years ago.
"But the minister`s intervention is certainly required for laying down the long-term policies, setting priorities and taking expeditious decisions on pending issues, like appointments and purchases," Chandra said.
Banerjee, who has otherwise been comfortable with opposition parties -- except for the Left Front members, who cannot see eye-to-eye with her on any issue -- has also invited criticism from lawmakers cutting across party lines for the inability of her deputies in fielding queries.
She was particularly conspicuous by her absence last week with Minister of State for Railways E Ahamed fumbling for words in the Lok Sabha, the lower house of parliament, while answering questions posed by lawmakers on Indian Railways.
The other minister of state is KH Muniappa.
"It`s a not a question of attending office daily. Many ministers do operate from home," said Bharatiya Janata Party spokesperson Prakash javadekar. "The crux lies in how your ministry is performing. Under her, the railway is going down, down and down."
Added Paswan, a railway minister from June 1996 to March 1998 under the Janata Dal rule: "You cannot depend on your officials. They only tend to sing lullabies to you that `all is well` in the ministry."
According to Chandra, a railway minister is the interface between Parliament and the bureaucracy and helps guide the ministry translate into reality the various policies and programmes that have been discussed and approved.
"Unfortunately due to the lack of proper guidance, Indian Railways has digressed from its core issues of transporting passengers and freight to non-core issues like running hospitals, schools and restaurants."
"These are better handled by private players."