Its Kolkata Jn for rail pre-Budget

Written by Rohit Khanna | ROHIT KHANNA | Kolkata | Updated: Jan 26 2010, 06:32am hrs
Leading industrialists from across the country will have to travel to Kolkata to attend pre-Budget consultations with railway minister Mamata Banerjee this year. The meeting, which has been called on February 2, according to Rail Bhavan sources, will be held outside the Capital for the first time in a decade. Last year, then railway minister Lalu Prasad held his consultations at New Delhis Rail Museum.

Unlike the finance ministrys formal pre-Budget meetings with industry, the railway ministry meetings are more detailed. It is often a day-long affair, where officials from user industries like coal, steel, cement and fertiliser, from freight companies and even from consumer goods industries pore over railway rules and rates.

Also present are a phalanx of railway officials who give their inputs. Shifting the venue of such a crucial meeting to Kolkata will mean very few of them will be able to attend the meeting in a year when the economy is only just climbing out of a slump.

Interestingly, Banerjee has not yet met with the Planning Commission to argue for her ministrys share of Plan support. In 2009-10, of the railways total Plan budget of Rs 40,745 crore, Rs 5,800 croreor 39%was financed from the central exchequer. The rail Budget will be introduced in Parliament on February 25.

Banerjee has routinely skipped meetings in Delhi. On January 20, she was absent at a crucial meeting on railway security. The meeting, according to railway officials, was held at her directions, while Banerjee herself was in Kolkata for Saraswati Puja at her home.

Rail Bhavan sources said Banerjee missed at least seven Cabinet meetings in the first six months of her current tenure as railway minister.

She was reportedly absent from a meeting on September 10 to discuss a Rs 17,700-crore Japanese loan to fund the western dedicated freight corridor project. She is more interested in West Bengal than her own ministry, it seems, said Basudeb Acharia, CPM MP and former chairman of the parliamentary standing committee on railways.

Banerjee, who chooses to inaugurate projects in West Bengal on Saturdays and Sundays, is not even in Delhi when Parliament is not in session. She was not present in neighbouring Bihar earlier this month to flag off two new trains. At Banerjees request, the states chief minister, Nitish Kumar, flagged off the trains instead. She attends office once or twice a week. She also seems oblivious to the declining loading and increasing operating ratios, Acharia alleged.

With Banerjee spending increasing amounts of time in her home state, files have been piling up at her office in Delhis Rail Bhavan. In January, the railway minister was in New Delhi for only three days to meet Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, said a Rail Bhavan official.

Sudip Bandyopadhyay, chief whip of the Trinamool Congress in the Lok Sabha, countered this, saying, Such allegations are politically motivated. She has always been present at meetings of the consultative committee of the railways. He added, Mamata Banerjee has kept all her promises in the rail Budget. She has been to places like Rae Bareilly to inaugurate train services.

Meanwhile, the Congress is also reportedly unhappy with Banerjee, especially after she opposed the Pension Bill. She has also riled against two other Bills--the Insurance Laws (Amendment) Bill and the Land Acquisition (amendment) Bill.