Briefing reporters after the Cabinet meeting, information and broadcasting minister Sushma Swaraj said, “The decision was not based on any zonal consideration as the matter did not pertain to any inter-state dispute. It was done taking into account the need to reduce workload, increase accessibility, the geographical sprawl and administrative and operational requirements.”
The creation of Hajipur-headquartered East Central zone by taking away two divisions — Mughalsarai and Dhanbad — out of the Kolkata-based Eastern Railway had led to Ms Banerjee declaring it a war against Mr Kumar. The Cabinet was forced to discuss the issue after Ms Banerjee threatened to launch a state-wide stir against what was termed as bifurcation of the Eastern Railway. It decided to stick to 1996 decision of the United Front government to create the new zones.
Ms Banerjee had earlier not only refused to join the Cabinet till the decision was reversed but had also called for Mr Kumar’s resignation for inflicting “another division of Bengal”.
She was supported in her demand for withdrawal of June 14 notification by even her arch rival the Left Front government of West Bengal. Mr Kumar, on the other hand, managed support among his rivals in Bihar with chief minister Rabri Devi leading a delegation to New Delhi in support of his decision. The Bihar legislative assembly also passed a resolution welcoming the creation of a new zone with Hajipur as the headquarter.
The issue had, in fact, become a Bengal vs Bihar affair with protests in both the states. But, with the Cabinet support behind him, Mr Kumar appears to have taken the credit for ‘doing something for his state’ though it was former railway minister Ram Vilas Paswan who had wanted to nurse his constituency of Hajipur by creating a zonal headquarter there. Ms Banerjee, who has been left sulking, had few supporters in the Cabinet except for National Democratic Alliance convenor George Fernandes, who had been trying to mediate. In the political drama, which followed issue of a notification by the Railways demarcating the territories of the new zones, the impact of such a decision on railway finances was left unaddressed.
The Railways now has 16 zones instead of just nine earlier. While Mr Kumar claimed that smaller zones are needed for smooth functioning of the railways, there were murmurs of protests within the official ranks. “This will not only mean additional expenditure in terms of administrative costs but will also lead to problems of coordination,” said an official.