Bad News from Below

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The crumbling Metro Rail of Kolkata is hurting Mamata Banerjee’s image in the state

Metro Rail, Kolkata’s lifeline and its pride, has been hit by technical glitches almost every day over the past couple of months. Old rakes, lack of maintenance, shortage of manpower and the hasty opening of new stretches have brought India’s first Metro Rail to the verge of collapse. In the process, Railway Minister and Trinamool Congress Chief Mamata Banerjee’s image has been adversely affected, on her home turf. 

The frequent snags—trains getting stuck, doors not closing because of passenger overload, signal failures and more, capped by a train derailing inside a tunnel—were waiting to happen, primarily because of the lack of planning and foresight. Most of the rakes are more than 25 years old, there is an acute shortage of maintenance staff and technical manpower, and while the number of passengers has increased exponentially after a 5.85 km stretch was inaugurated by Mamata Banerjee last year—and another 2.85 km stretch earlier this month—there has been no increase in the frequency of trains, due to non-availability of rakes. 

Understandably, the CPM has pounced on these disruptions to attack Mamata, who, they contend, is not paying attention to her ministry and is concerning herself exclusively with Bengal politics. “She can’t even run trains properly, and she wants to run the state,” taunted the state’s Finance Minister Ashim Dasgupta. A miffed Mamata found an easy scapegoat in the Metro Rail Chief and replaced him in a bid to shift the blame. But the ploy backfired when more disruptions greeted the new incumbent’s first day in office. 

To be fair, Mamata cannot be blamed fully for all these snags. Even routine maintenance of this system had been neglected over the past many years. She only compounded it by inaugurating the new routes when infrastructure for the additional load was not there. Senior Metro Rail officers say that Mamata brushed aside rail officers’ misgivings about opening the new stretch and even adequate trial runs hadn’t been conducted. “She wanted to open this stretch as a sort of Puja gift to the people,” an officer says. 

When CPM leaders targeted her after the Metro derailment, she accused them of derailing the entire state. But such retorts are unlikely to impress Kolkatans, for whom it is their lifeline.