Passenger amenities are Mamata’s top priority

June 7th, 2009 - 2:00 pm ICT by IANS  

By Anuradha Shukla
New Delhi, June 7 (IANS) Winds of change have already started blowing at Rail Bhavan here just 10 days after Mamata Banerjee took charge of the railways portfolio. Passenger amenities are her first priority, as opposed to generating revenue surplus that was the mantra of her predecessor Lalu Prasad.

Even as security guards at her ministry are getting used to the cabinet-rank minister driving in almost unnoticed in a small Maruti Zen, rather than a white Ambassador car with a beacon that is so much part of a minister’s life, senior officers are wary of any move that could clash with Banerjee’s own frugal lifestyle.

“Her priorities are very clear,” said Ratan Mukherjee, special officer to the minister, who not only owns the Maruti Zen in which Banerjee travels in the national capital but also drives it himself.

“Her focus is on improving passenger amenities at every level. Potable water and clean toilets inside trains and stations are some of the issues she has taken up. She also wants passengers to feel satisfied and safe,” Mukherjee told IANS.

In fact, all these and more are reflected in the letter that has been circulated to all the 1.4-million employees of Indian Railways who run the world’s second largest railroad network under a single management.

“I will urge all of you to provide service with a smile,” said her letter where she made it clear that none of the 14 million passengers who travel on 7,000 trains daily should go home disappointed.

“Railways are committed to protect and nurture the commercial interest, but it has to be done with a human face,” her letter said.

Even at the top level, Banerjee - who has preferred to stay in a small apartment rather than the ministerial bungalow she is entitled to - has conveyed in no uncertain terms that the focus should be on the average citizen and that she will also not fail to praise deserving officials.

According to her aides, in one of her first observations after taking charge, she told Railway Board Chairman S.S. Khurana that she had found the potable water dispensing system at the Sealdah station in Kolkata efficient and good and wanted it replicated all over the country.

“Quality of food, cleanliness, punctuality - the minister wants proper attention to be paid to all these issues that are often taken for granted,” said a close aide, adding top officials are now raising these issues at appropriate levels.

“She (Banerjee) has stressed that the quality of linen given in trains has deteriorated and there is an immediate need to bring about some perceptible improvements,” said one such follow-up letter from Khurana to a senior colleague.

Among the minister’s first decisions are reinstating the full menu on Rajdhani trains, with an added offer of regional cuisine. So a passenger to Kolkata will have the choice of fish and rice, while another to Chennai can savour idlis or upma.

Banerjee, who insists on paying for her afternoon cuppa and snack in her office, has also met the top brass of the Indian Railway Catering and Tourism Corp (IRCTC) and has told them that the quality of food served in trains must improve, while also calling for surprise checks and joint inspections to bring about necessary improvements.

With a cushion of the Rs.900 billion surplus that Lalu Prasad has left behind after his five-year tenure as railway minister, Banerjee has promised cheap passes for students and the elderly, double-decker air-conditioned coaches and higher wages to staff as recommended by an official panel.

Now, as she prepares to present the regular railway budget next month, Banerjee has also called for the views of every member of the vast Indian Railway family - a move that has gone down well with the staff.

“I would welcome suggestions on how to improve our own performance in different spheres of activities of the railways. I believe that every suggestion is important and useful.”

(Anuradha Shukla can be contacted at anuradha.s@ians.in)

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