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NEW TWIST IN THE TALE

A dark haze cloaks the sluggish Damodar river as the train hurtles along the bridge. Wisps of grey smoke, curling out of inky coal pits, dot the vista beyond the river. Small ridges of sedimented carbon slag, heaped by miners for well over a century, break the undulating plain. The township looming in the distance is Dhanbad, Jharkhand’s coal capital. It houses one of the country’s richest coal reserves and churns out more than 40 per cent of the nation’s total coal yield.

The city and adjoining districts like Bokaro, Hazaribagh, Koderma, Giridih and Ranchi form the Eastern Railway’s “golden flock”, generating more than 10 per cent of the railway’s total annual earnings of Rs 4,000-Rs 5,000 crore. In the last fiscal, Dhanbad alone accounted for over 11 per cent of the railway’s total freight traffic; the target for the current financial year has been fixed at 53 million tonnes. However, expenditure on the division is only Rs 400 crore per annum.

Ironically, it is its rich coal reserves that have proved to be Dhanbad’s bane. The division is the bone of contention among several interest groups with divergent motives.

The Union railway minister, Nitish Kumar, wants to tag Dhanbad to the new East Central zone, headquartered at Hajipur. Eastern Railway, which has profitted from Dhanbad’s riches all these years, refuses to part with it, citing “injustice’’ and a drain on the exchequer.

Bengal sniffs foul play in the move. The former railway minister and Trinamool Congress chief, Mamata Banerjee, sees it as a conspiracy by the Centre to bleed “economically-ravaged” Bengal.

To prove her point, Banerjee took to the streets and held a series of bandhs and rail blockades to highlight Bengal’s loss. Her workers even threatened to stall the movement of trains to Bihar. The split in the Eastern Railway has provided her with the firepower to fan public sentiment. For Banerjee, almost on the verge of slipping off the public consciousness, the issue was like a straw which she clutched at to survive in the maelstrom of politics.

This apart, the proposal led to a strain in the ties between Bihar and Bengal. Bengalis residing in Patna and Gaya complained of “cold vibes” overnight while Biharis in Bengal were victims of a blatant show of hostility.

According to Eastern Railway sources, jittery employees from Bihar, who were posted in Bengal, opted for the “proposed zone” even before its creation.

But Nitish Kumar remains resolute. For him, it is the passport to chief ministership in his Kurmi home-turf in the 2004 assembly polls. Marginalized from state politics for over a decade, Nitish Kumar has been making desperate manoeuvres to find a toehold in Bihar politics. Strangely, he found an ally in the Rashtriya Janata Dal, which supported the proposal, if not the man himself.

The East Central zone, comprising Dhanbad, Mugalsarai, Sonepur, Samastipur and Hajipur divisions, had the potential to turn around Bihar’s sagging fortunes in terms of revenue and employment, riding piggy-back on the riches of the Dhanbad, Ranchi and Bokaro divisions. As a result, the RJD chief, Laloo Prasad Yadav, refrained from making any inflammatory statements against the new “contender” to 1, Anne Marg.

For sometime, at least till last week, Nitish Kumar seemed a hero. “Gareebon ka naya massiah,” (the new messiah of the poor) gushed a backward caste rickshaw-puller at Patna railway station, echoing the popular mood.

But uncertainty now clouds Hajipur’s prospects. With the Jharkhand assembly passing a resolution for the creation of a separate zone comprising Dhanbad, Ranchi and Chakradharpur, the prospects of the East Central zone has dimmed. The main objective behind the creation of the East Central zone was to grab a lion’s share of the freight traffic and boost Bihar’s cash inflow.

Nitish Kumar’s gameplan was sound. It would have catapulted him back to prominence in state politics and shored up the Samata Party’s flagging prospects. Since the split in the Kurmi-Koeri lobby in Bihar, after veteran Koeri leader Shakuni Chowdhury fell out with Nitish Kumar, the latter had been cornered. The beleaguered railway minister faced a two-pronged threat — the Ram Vilas Paswan-led Lok Janshakti-Nationalist Congress Party (led by Jagannath Mishra and Tariq Anwar) axis and the threat posed by the RJD. He was finding it difficult to breach the rigid caste lines. The only option available to Nitish Kumar was to use his ministry to reach out to the “development-starved” north Bihar, by hijacking an issue initially raised by Paswan.

Though Hajipur has improved Kumar’s ratings in the ballot mart, he has courted fresh controversy in the process. The Bharatiya Janata Party-Samata Party rift at the regional level has become wider. The BJP, which was a mute spectator to Nitish Kumar’s publicity drama over the split in railway zones in Bihar, hijacked the issue in Jharkhand from the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha to beat the railway minister at his own game.

The BJP had an axe to grind in Jharkhand where five of its ministers, led by the urban development minister, Bachcha Singh, and unit chief, Raj Kishore Mahto, quit the Babulal Marandi government only to “compromise” later. Though the crisis blew over, the dissidence was a blow to the chief minister’s claim to stability. After the Dumka polls, the Samata Party had blamed the BJP for the combine’s poor show at the hustings, thereby exposing the chinks in the National Democratic Alliance. Insiders say the BJP was just waiting to get even with the Samata Party. The ratification of the Dhanbad zone resolution has widened this rift further. Nitish Kumar now cuts a sorry figure, for Hajipur without Dhanbad is a dead horse.

The BJP in Jharkhand is leaving no stone unturned to prove that it can do the railway minister’s “job better” than Nitish Kumar himself. The day the house passed the Dhanbad resolution, the chief minister also announced several new schemes in the state. Marandi announced that his government had signed a Rs 2,000-crore agreement with the railays (the state exchequer would chip in Rs 1,300 crore) to boost rail connectivity in the next five years. The new network would connect Hazaribagh, Koderma, Ramgarh and Giridih, along with Dumka-Deoghar and Rampur.

The vexed railway minister is now scouting for new issues. Over the past two weeks, Kumar has been lobbying for the revival of the Food Corporation of India unit in Sindri, another issue close to his heart. The plant officially downed shutters last month.

Murmurs of disillusionment are already being heard in Bihar. The “beneficiaries-to-be” — the civil contractors, small time politicians, goons-on-the-reform-path, nurtured by the Samata Party — are feeling the pinch. A pall of gloom shrouds the sprawling new zonal office at Hajipur. As Nitish Kumar scouts for yet another carrot juicier than Hajipur, it seems Mamata Banerjee may yet have the last laugh.

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