23 May 2009
New Delhi: It will be a second homecoming at the railway ministry for Trinamool Congress chief Mamata Banerjee, who said Saturday that she wants to issue free rail passes to students and vendors.
But Banerjee will have her task cut out as she steps into the shoes of Lalu Prasad, who earned wide credit for the dramatic turnaround of the world's largest rail network under a single management despite lowering fares.
But from her first remarks, minutes after she was allotted the ministry, it was evident that populist policies of her predecessor were likely to continue.
"I would like to bring out the humane face of the railways," she told reporters, before leaving for Kolkata in the evening to seek her mother's blessings before taking charge of her ministry here Monday.
"I would like to issue free passes to students and vendors. I want commercialisation of railways but commercialisation with human face. What is the use if there is no human resource," said the 54-year-old known for her simple lifestyle.
Industry will watch her moves closely as she had led major protests at Singur near Kolkata against what she termed was forcible acquisition of land from farmers for a small car project of Tata Motors. The agitation resulted in the company shifting the car project out of West Bengal.
Among her first tasks will be to present a regular rail budget - an area in which Lalu Prasad made a mark by earning a cash surplus before dividend of over Rs.90,000 crore (Rs.900 billion/$18 billion) in the five years he was at the helm.
Banerjee will oversee how to expand India's rail network of 108,706 km, on which run more than 11,000 trains daily, including 7,000 for passengers, to ferry 14 million travellers. There are 6,853 stations in the country.
First elected to the Lok Sabha in 1984, when she was barely 30, Banerjee, who was railway minister between Oct 13, 1999 and March 16, 2001, has seldom served her full terms as minister.
She first became minister of state in 1991 and was given the human resource development portfolio with the charge of youth affairs, sports, women and child development. But she quit two years later, saying she wanted to be with the "oppressed" Congress workers.
In October 2001, she was given railway ministry with cabinet rank, this time in the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government of Atal Bihari Vajpayee but resigned 17 months later over an arms purchase scandal from which she wanted to distance herself and her party.
She returned to the Vajpayee cabinet in September 2003 as a minister without portfolio and was given the coal and mines ministry in January 2004 but this innings was also short-lived as the NDA was defeated in elections that summer.
Author of as many as 17 books in English and Bengali, Banerjee has bachelor's degrees in English, education and law. She lists painting and writing songs among her favourite pastimes