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Mamata, the business mitra
Mamata, Mitra

New Delhi, July 9: Mamata Banerjee has tapped industry for advice to tone up the railways, perhaps taking the most sure-footed stride yet to smooth the sharp edges acquired during the Nandigram-Singur campaign.

She asked Amit Mitra, secretary-general of industry body Ficci, to head a panel that will draw up business plans for the railways’ public-private partnership (PPP) projects, including an industrial corridor alongside a vaunted freight corridor.

Mamata said she believed that business experts were needed to create a blueprint for her PPP plans of bringing the railways and industry together. Mamata’s mercurial mood is well known and it is anybody’s guess if she will stick to the track laid out today.

But few disagree that she could have picked a better choice than Mitra, who leads an organisation that counts as members 2,000 business houses. Mitra’s disarming demeanour and the skills that pulled Ficci out of a slumber 15 years ago when he took over should come in handy on his new assignment.

Mitra, a Presidency College graduate and a doctorate in economics from Duke University in the US, has served on or headed many government panels. He has been on the government’s advisory committee on the World Trade Organisation, the National Manufacturing Competitiveness Council and the Planning Commission’s expert group on equitable development.

Mamata earned praise from Mitra today. “It’s remarkable how she has been able to integrate the visions of a tech-savvy CEO with that of a political leader who has the interests of the common man (at heart). She has announced a vision of what she wants. We will now have to create a road map,” the Ficci secretary-general said.

The panel headed by Mitra will include some railway board officials, experts from the world of high finance, technocrats and “vision people”.

It will draw up a blueprint for PPPs to set up and run world-class railway stations, hotels, medical colleges, a railway complex at Halishahar, mega logistics parks, cold chains and the industrial corridor on railway land. The railways may take on board foreign expertise and consultancy on the corridor project.

The Rs 43,000-crore dedicated freight corridor from Ludhiana will run to Dankuni via Delhi and eventually to ports in Bengal and Orissa. “It will create a stretch of immense development in heartland India and churn out lakhs of jobs for technically skilled manpower,” a railway board member said.

Continuing her makeover bid in Parliament, the Trinamul Congress chief, while replying to the debate on the railway budget, struck a placatory note and took care not to strike back at critics.

Mamata qualified every potentially offensive statement with the proviso that she was not criticising anyone. As for allegations that her budget is biased towards Bengal, she was silent except for saying new trains would connect several states and cities.

“Don’t I like Dehra Dun or Nainital in Uttarakhand, Ranchi, Bundelkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat?” she asked, adding: “The expectation level is too high.”

Her stance may have been aimed at obtaining Opposition support to pass the demand for grants in her budget, but sources close to her indicated she also wanted to maintain cordial relations.

Mamata referred in a soft tone to BJP leaders Arun Jaitley and Ananth Kumar as “my BJP brothers” while replying to their criticism of her budget.

The railways, through Railtel ---- a corporation Mamata had set up in her previous stint as railway minister ---- has about 30,000km of optical fibre cable running along its tracks. It now plans to expand this to another 40,000km of network.

Mamata has already named Sam Pitroda, widely credited with India’s communications revolution, as head of an expert committee to build the fibre-optic network and lease it to telecom operators.

Mamata said she would not look to earn surplus and would rather spend the earnings on passengers. She immediately looked at predecessor Lalu Prasad ---- credited with turning the railways profitable ----- to clarify: “Laluji, yeh mein aap ko criticise nahi kar rahi hoon (I’m not criticising you).”

She said her promised white paper would not target Lalu Prasad. “Just like parents prepare for their child’s education well before he has to be admitted to school, I want to use the white paper to prepare a blueprint for 2020,” she said.

With inputs from Jayanta Roy Chowdhury, R. Suryamurthy and Charu Sudan Kasturi

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