Thursday, June 24, 2010

Mamata Banerjee is India's Railway Minister and the woman who wants to be chief minister of its eastern state of West Bengal. here are some impressions of her I jotted down last year :

New Delhi, July 11: It began as an informal chat with reporters, then turned into an impromptu decision making session on a host of problems related to the railways -- from ticket reservations to former railway minister Lalu Prasad Yadav's bid to award himself extra gold passes (which she hinted would be scrapped) to toilets at rail stations.
Didi started the `adda' over tea , paneer pakoras, chips and `malai cham-cham', ticking off journalists who said there was an impression she was turning into a minister for Bengal. ""I have not been able to give enough time to Bengal ... in this age of globalised communication, we can run a government from anywhere but I have spent more time here," she pointed out.
"I will work for all ... not just for Bengal," Mamata told journalists who she had invited for the tea session, before inviting suggestions to improve or streamline the functioning of the railways. "Don't ask me to comment on the railway budget ... I am not allowed to talk on that... you know that. Instead of asking me questions, give me your suggestions to improve the railways."
After suggestions started turning into complaints on the quality of food served, delays in the running of trains, computerised 139 railway enquiries, Lalu Prasad Yadav awarding former railway ministers extra gold passes for companions, she called in her Member Traffic Shri Prakash and executive director Jayanta Saha to join her special officer Ratan Mukherjee in taking down notes.
But Mamata despite displaying a great deal of diplomatic skill at the begining of the meeting in handling journalists who would have her say she opposed the government's disinvestment policy ("this is a meeting on railways not on my party ... my party's stand on the issue is well known and given in our manifesto"), could not resist taking a large number of instant decisions based on feedback from her reporter `friends'.
A complaint that the last railway administration had added an uncomfortable third bunk on the sides of some trains to earn extra money, prompted her to say that she had given orders for its scrapping. Another complaint that trains like Rajdhani running late did not serve meals to passengers, saw her telling Prakash to ensure that this did not happen in future.
Complaint that kiosks selling cheap food and drinks had been banned from most railway stations and only transnational or big restauranteers like MacDonald were allowed to sell under a new catering policy, had her say that this could not be allowed and had to be addressed.
Lalu's last budget had brought in a new catering tendering policy which had seen many amll kiosk owners being thrown off railway stations and replaced by organised restaurant chains.
Some suggestions saw almost instant justice being meted out. "There should be no waiting lists on Tatkal tickets ... we did not have that when we were running railways earlier and tatkal passengers to Kanpur on a Delhi-Calcutta train should pay only till Kanpur and not till Calcutta," Mamata told her officers after being told that these were the practice now.
The came a ticklish one about former railway minister Lalu Prasad Yadav signing an order in his last days in office which allowed all former railway ministers to get two more gold passes on top two gold passes which they were already entitled to. "Madam, you must have read a letter written by another former railway minister Ram Naik on this, whats your reaction."
"I have great respect for Laluji ... (but) no new changes (in rules on complimentary passes) should be made (in these difficult times)," Mamata said, squirming a bit in embarassment.
Complaints that the computerised railway information service on telephone number 139 had been outsourced and te agency running it was trying to add calling time of those who accessed it by adding a series of unnecessary instructions and ad jingles, had her tell her officers to look into this and muttering "vital things should be done by us."
Somebody wanted to know her policy on public-private partnerships, trying to lead her to say that the Manmohan Singh government's PPP model was flawed. She squinted her eyes and looked at the reporter before slowly replying with a smile "I started PPP in railways in my last tenure as railway minister and we welcome that mode in new projects but not in existing railway facilities."
But perhaps her instant promise to update toilets and build new ones and not necessarily pay toilets which have started becoming the norm at most railway stations, in reponse to numerous complaints on toilets, was the one which would go down best with the masses Mamata wishes to lead.
New Delhi, July 2: After presenting her rail budget, Mamata Banerjee, Minister for Railways, has a plane to catch at 8.10 pm.
She had called a few journalists for an evening cup of tea and a tet-a-te in her office, before flying back to her home town. While the reporters waited, Mamata dealt with a scrum of television crews in an adjoining room for their 2 minutes of bytes on the budget.
The clock kept ticking, Mamata could miss her flight or the journalists their chat. Suddenly she bursts, in. "Oof, I never knew there were so many channels ... am I tired." She plonks her trademark blue jhola in which she had carried her budget speech to Parliament.
"See if you can get another flight for tomorrow morning," the minister tells her aide. "Get us all tea," she asks someone else. "You did a great job with the TV crews," she tells her press advisor, shaking him by the hand.
Mamata has been fasting all day, she nibbles at a biscuit as she relaxes and lapses into her mother tounge after a day of speeches and press conferences in English and Hindi. "Everybody congratulated our budget ... Soniaji, PM, Pranabda. I don't know why people are upset about Mumbai suburban trains. thats no longer under the railways ... its a misunderstanding, it was hived off to a separate urban body" she tells the half a dozen journalists present, with a sunny smile, followed by a frown.
She beams again and points out she has given trains to Orissa and Kerala, two states which always uysed to complain they did not get enough attention from any railway minister, given all MPs the right to decide where they would have a reservation counter in their constituencies. "The North eastern MP, who wanted trains ... did he get them. I have given more trains to the north east than ever before."
Her party colleague and junior minister, Mukul Roy, tells her that the finance minister is on the line. She gets up and moves into an ante room to discuss matters of state.
Someone asks about Duranto, the new high speed train for the common man. "We took that initiative after a lot of thinking. Poor people, students etc, can avail this train at a far cheaper price than the Rajdhanis," she points out.
Someone else remarks CPM has called her budget an election budget. "Oder katha baad din tho ( forget what they say)," she shoots back.
"The budget is really all about giving the railways a human face .... The Rs 25 pass will allow people to move from Calcutta to mednipore, from calcutta to Durgapur for instance, its all about empowering small businessmen, ordinary people ... we are looking at setting up nursing and medical colleges attached to our hospitals. private partners will build it on a PPP mode, railwaymen's sons and daughters will get prefernce in studying there."
The Lalgarh line has been done to link a remote part of the country, Adra is getting a power station to develop a tribal district.
"The eastern freight corridor from Ludhiana to Dankuni will have industrial enclaves on railway land ... there will be jobs. Look at the number of factories we are planning. Its really a lot of work."
Her aide comes back. The next morning's flight is at an unearthly hour. She has to leave early. Someone has a last few questions.
"Aachcha shoot," she smiles as her aides fidget and look at their watches. The flight may be caught, but just.
New Delhi, June 2: Mamata Banerjee turned into anti-smoking activist today, ticking off ministers and MPs who were smoking inside her office in the Parliament House.
Trinamool ministers and Mps were letting down their hair after a long swearing ceremony in the Lok Sabha at her Parliamentary office. A few were smoking, some were just longing around or chatting up journalists, while waiting for fish fries, Vadas and tea which Mamata had ordered for them.
Suddenly Mamata flared up, "who is smoking here?". Minister of State for Urban Development Saugato Roy, sheepishly stubbed out his cigarette and hid it, the way he would have if he had been still in his college and been confronted by one of his professors. Another MP, quickly made an escape to smoke in the cramped passage leading to her secretary's office.
Mamata walked around the room, smiling at her MPs but at the same time checking out known smokers to see whether someone was breaking the law which forbids smoking in a public place.
Calcuttan Dinesh Trivedi, newly appointed minister of state for health, was the party member who provoked Mamata into policing her flock on the smoking issue and must have earned quite a few dirty looks from them for it. Trivedi first tried to stop party colleagues from stealing a smoke and then frustated by their attitude appealed to his leader "Madam our people are breaking the law of the land."
The law which forbids people from smoking in public places, came into effect from October 2, Mahatma gandhi's birthday, last year, making India one of 78 countries which has done so.
Though government studies blame tobacco for 40 per cent of India's health problems and estimate that 250 million are tobacco users, the law which forbids lighting up in bars, offices, bus stands and other public places has been more widely flouted till now than followed. Fines for violating the law is a punitive Rs 200 and till now no one has been fined for it in the capital city of Delhi.
Most officials and many ministers do smoke in the privacy of their office, away from the glare of the media, though these offices are defined as public places by the government.
The Indian Parliament too is defined as a public place, though journalists and MPs sometime share a smoke in the Varendah outside the Press gallery. The British Parliament is possibly one of the few which are exempt from the ban orders as the British government has defined it as `residence'.

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