New Delhi, Nov. 21: Sparks flew in the Lok Sabha today when Trinamul Congress chief Mamata Banerjee and railway minister Nitish Kumar clashed over passenger safety and the probe into the recent Rajdhani disaster.
Mamata, who demanded a CBI inquiry into the accident that claimed over 100 lives, created a stir by alleging that the probe was carried out by a tainted officer to “cover up” the real causes.
At one point, Mamata, who was not given a chance to raise the safety issue by Speaker Manohar Joshi for some time, left the front row in a huff and sat down on the last row. She returned to her seat after about five minutes when Joshi allowed her to raise the question.
The Trinamul leader said she objected to Kumar prematurely “announcing” that sabotage was the cause of the accident. “Why the minister without going into the details of the cause of accident made a public statement that it was sabotage and why is the railway safety commissioner, man who is inquiring into the accident, is the man who is facing a vigilance inquiry,” she asked.
Opposition MPs, especially from the Congress and the Rashtriya Janata Dal, thumped their desks in approval as a disconcerted Kumar prepared to answer the charges. The minister said his statement was based on prima facie evidence and versions of railway officials. He accused the Opposition and Mamata of “trying to create an atmosphere of doubt” and said they were “not interested in finding out the truth”.
On the charge that a tainted officer carried out the inquiry, Kumar said the probe was instituted under the Railway Safety Act and procedures were followed in appointing the inquiry officer. The officer, he added, belonged to the civil aviation ministry and had no say over his appointment.
But Mamata, who limited her queries to railway safety and did not rake up the controversial bifurcation issue, said the commissioner originally belonged to the railways, hinting that he was an interested party.
But Kumar said the practice of sending an official to the civil aviation ministry after being appointed railway safety commissioner was not new and such commissioners had inquired into accidents in the past.
Regarding his statement that the accident was caused by sabotage, Kumar said he had only expressed his apprehensions on the basis of prima facie evidence and the version of railway officials. “I was never categoric,” he added.
The matter was raised during question hour when CPM members Basudev Acharya and A.K. Premajam wanted to know whether the H.R. Khanna committee report on railway safety review had identified 262 rail bridges as “distressed” and needing immediate repairs.
Acharya said the committee had recommended that bridges over 100 years be subjected to special checks by a task force.
Kumar said there were over 50,000 major and minor bridges that were over 100 years old and their rehabilitation was being studied. He said an expert committee was sent to the US, UK, Canada and Italy to study rail bridge scanning technology to determine the extent of stress and strain.
Earlier, Kumar told the House that the Prime Minister’s Office has not ordered scrapping of any railway projects approved over 10 years ago. “There is no such order from the PMO and there is no plan to scrap projects though work on three projects approved over 10 years ago has not started yet,” he said.
Kumar said there is a plan to add over 5,000 km of broad-gauge track by way of new lines and gauge conversions during the Tenth Five Year Plan. He also ruled out any change in the bifurcation of zones.