Mamata Derails Hurried Revival Of J&K Link

21 July 2009
The Times of India

New Delhi: Mamata Banerjee has scuttled the Railway Board’s hurried attempt to revive the Jammu & Kashmir link project without paying heed to the safety and security concerns that had led to the suspension of all work on the mountainous stretch from Katra to Banihal about a year ago. Had she not objected to a file sent to her on this “national project” in the course of her Budget preparations without any comments from senior officials, the board would have in all likelihood succeeded in getting Banerjee to announce resumption of work on the “existing alignment” on the basis of a controversial report from an expert committee. Documents accessed by TOI show that in her riposte on June 25, the railway minister made no secret of her displeasure that the note put up before her on the expert committee report was entirely by a section officer while seven senior officers, including board chairman S S Khurana, had only put their signatures on it. Banerjee returned the file saying, “I am surprised to see that there are no considered views of the board on the recommendations of the expert committee.” Further, in an oblique reference to the deficiencies of the committee report submitted on June 10, Banerjee wrote to Khurana that she also wanted a feedback on “its usefulness and relevance in terms of commencement of the project work.” Although it had been asked to compare the existing meandering alignment with the proposed straighter alignment, the committee came out in favour of the status quo without touching upon the benefits offered by the alternative approach based on new engineering concepts. Worse, even as it conceded that three-fourths of the existing alignment would have to be abandoned, the committee passed it off as “localized changes” in keeping with the board’s anxiety to play down the financial losses already suffered. Out of the Rs 570 crore spent on construction, railways have abandoned work worth Rs 200 crore. Besides, there are claims to the tune of Rs 1,000 crore from sub-contractors. Given that only 10% of the work could be executed on a project that was launched in 2002 with a five-year deadline, Banerjee insisted that the board chairman should “frame specific time lines with a strict monitoring mechanism for completion of the project for my further consideration.” The minister’s exertions to raise the bar of decision-making has exposed the cavalier manner in which the board was trying to undo the decisions of its earlier member engineering S K Vij, who had not only suspended the work from Katra to Banihal but also scrapped the much touted plan to build the world’s highest bridge on Chenab at an unstable gorge 50 km from the line of control with Pakistan. Although Banerjee asked Khurana on June 25 to revert “at the earliest”, the board hasn’t been able to take a fresh decision even after the lapse of almost a month. This is despite the detailed inputs obtained from board members, including Vij’s successor Rakesh Chopra, who is the main proponent of the existing alignment as he was part of the team involved in the conception and execution of the bungled project. Significantly, Khurana has also sought to make amends for the expert committee’s failure to consider the views of India’s best known railway engineer, Delhi metro chief E Sreedharan, even after he had expressed reservations about the existing alignment in a letter written to it on May 19.