New Delhi: Railway Minister Mukul Roy's long absences from office, much like his once removed predecessor Mamata Banerjee, have become a cause for concern with insiders saying that key decisions are being delayed, thereby impacting on the safety and security of the world's second largest train network.
Eyebrows are being raised about the handling of the ministry - overseeing the network that carries 22 million passengers in 11,000 trains per day - that is generally seen as the preserve of the Trinamool Congress with the last three ministers being Banerjee, Dinesh Trivedi and now Roy.
"The absence of the minister sends wrong signals...it impacts the entire network," a former Railway Board chairman told IANS on condition of anonymity.
His view was echoed by many former Board officials IANS spoke to. They said the railways, the lifeline of the nation, could not be run by remote control as close coordination is required with key economic ministries, the home ministry and the Prime Minister's Office.
Since taking office on March 20, Roy has followed Banerjee in spending most of his time attending to party work in Kolkata. That's because he holds the No.2 slot in the Trinamool Congress.
According to railway ministry sources, like in Banerjee's tenure, important files are being regularly sent to Kolkata for Roy's information and approval.
As a result, he has missed many cabinet meetings and even did not attend a meeting of an Empowered Group of Ministers on drought July 31.
Roy, in fact, had come into office in extremely controversial circumstances. Banerjee had vacated the portfolio after the Trinamool Congress ended more than three decades of Left rule in West Bengal and became the state's chief minister.
She nominated Trivedi as railway minister last year but recommended his dismissal in March when he promoted hikes in certain classes of passenger fares in the railway budget for 2012-13. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh gave in, despite the fact that Roy, as a junior railway minister, had refused to visit the site of a major train accident in Assam in July 2011.
Ironically, Roy took more than 12 hours to visit Nellore in Andhra Pradesh where a fire in a sleeper coach of the Tamil Nadu Express claimed 32 lives July 30.
According to former cabinet secretary Naresh Chandra, although the prime minister constitutionally has a free hand to appoint or remove a cabinet minister, he cannot take "action" against a "delinquent" Roy as the problem in this case is caused by the compulsion of coalition politics.
"Banerjee is responsible for the situation and not the prime minister. It was an error of judgement on the part of the Trinamool chief to have nominated Roy as railway minister," Chandra told IANS.
Theoretically there is nothing wrong in transporting files, but the minister's absence indicates the lack of a sense of responsibility, said sources.
"The minister's presence ensures that senior officials are on the alert. Being a cabinet minister is a full time job, but Roy's attitude is akin to that of a feudal lord," said a senior railway ministry official.
Roy's absence has come in for sharp criticism from parliamentarians too, who charge him with giving preference to party over portfolio.
Communist Party of India-Marxist MP Basudeb Acharia, who heads the parliamentary standing committee on railways, said the minister's absence affects crucial decision making.
"The minister's absence affects the functioning of the ministry and delays decision making. This in turn impacts the safety of the network," Acharia told IANS.
Sources said there is no forward movement on railway safety after an expert panel, headed by former Atomic Energy Commission chairman Anil Kakodkar, suggested a slew of major steps in February.
Congress MP from Baharampur (West Bengal) Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury termed Roy a "rubber stamp" and said the railway ministry was being run by his party boss from the Writers' Building in Kolkata.
"The railways are a huge organisation but it is in a state of inertia. The absence of leadership is affecting the functioning of the network," Chowdhury told IANS.
Repeated attempts to get a comment from the minister's office were unsuccessful.
(Amit Agnihotri can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)