Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's request for a status report on the railways from Minister Mamata Banerjee — a request more in the nature of a gentle rap — is eerily timely. Dr Singh is acting upon a report of the Planning Commission's documentation of the drift in railways. The railway minister must take the hint and shape up. Or ship out.
The prime minister's wake up call coincides with yet another horrific railway disaster, a disaster that took place on Banerjee's watch. On Saturday, the Mandor Express derailed, killing seven. The cause of the accident is to be ascertained. But here's a reality check on our railways. Apart from poor equipment, a staggering 90,000 safety-related posts are still vacant. Reforming all of this requires, at the very least, a minister who shows up and takes responsibility, and thereby sends the message all the way down that railways staff are to be held accountable. But Banerjee's focus on the 2011 West Bengal elections — even at the cost of her ministerial work — has been evident from the early days of this government, when she spent 20 of its first 31 days in Bengal. She has attended less than half the cabinet meetings held so far, even skipping those where her own ministry's work was on the agenda. The few railway events she turns up for are in her home state, and her absurd opposition to changes in the Land Acquisition Act (voiced in one of the few cabinet meetings that she did, in fact, attend) was based less on principle than on the electoral arithmetic in Bengal.
Mamata Banerjee is hardly the only Union minister to be preoccupied with her own state. New Delhi has a long tradition of ministers using their national pedestal for narrow geographic ends. It was hoped that with the new UPA government less beholden to regional satraps, rent-seeking would be diminished. But Banerjee's indifference flies in the face on any such hope. It is hoped that the prime minister's action jolts her into action. Either way, she must know that she is on notice.