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Nitish sniffs and rail stinks

Patna, July 8: The fan whirred overhead on a sultry afternoon as a man snored, slumped on a wooden bench. A couple of record books lay untended on the table next to him. Otherwise, the parcel room in Patna station was empty yesterday.

“Who is this gentleman'” asked Nitish Kumar, the railway minister, pointing at the sleeping figure. The question was thrown at the senior officials accompanying him on his surprise visit to the station in his hometown in the presence of reporters.

A silence followed as the officers looked away in embarrassment. Unperturbed, the railway employee was snoring till he was shaken awake.

“Take your nose closer to his mouth and see if he is drunk,” the minister commanded. The officers confirmed he was.

Nitish Kumar asked the divisional railway manager to take disciplinary action against the man, identified as Ganga Lakra, commercial supervisor of the parcel department.

Lakra was suspended, and at the end of the hour-long inspection, three other officials, including additional divisional railway manager H.K. Singh and senior divisional operating manager S.J. Sinha, were transferred.

Nitish Kumar was on a mission to “discover how the lower level railway officers work” and stumbled on the malaise that affects many other services in the country as he chose to abruptly enter the parcel section.

“I am not going to let the employees sleep,” he said. The minister said he would introduce a surprise-check clause in the reports filed by departments concerning safety and smooth functioning of the railway.

Under fire from the NDA partners for the spate of accidents, the minister said he would lend his ear to the ground-level workers now to find out what had gone wrong in the system.

The RSS mouthpiece Panchajanya has published an article demanding that Nitish Kumar either improve safety standards or quit. “If I quit, it is called political drama. After Gaisal, this is what had happened. If I don’t, they say what is the point in holding on to power' These are not serious talks,” Nitish Kumar said here today, pleading ignorance about the RSS article.

He believes the alternative is to put a finger on the problem and launch an honest effort to reduce the number of accidents.

“For the first time I am trying to get the lower division officers and clerks heard for it is they who are actually involved in running the train,” he said. They will be allowed for the first time to participate in a safety seminar in New Delhi next week.

Reeling off statistics on how he was spending money on safety, Nitish Kumar said he wanted to assure the country that his ministry was awake to the challenge of preventing the mishaps. He also denied reports that few officials are punished for the accidents. “We have punished them and would be punishing them in future if they are not found discharging their duties properly,” the minister said.

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