The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Yatra for Nitish, youth for rail
- Samata Five heads for Amarnath after minister’s safety steps

New Delhi, July 18: Nitish Kumar today hitched his railway engine to youth and his own to Lord Shiva.

A day after returning to the railway ministry, withdrawing his resignation threat, he announced a voluntary retirement scheme (VRS) for 50,000 employees between the age of 51 and 57. Then he retired himself from the vagaries of office and politics to embark on a yatra to Amarnath.

Nitish denied the journey that began this evening had any political motive — such as to seek a divine adhesive to keep five leaders of a party of five together — but all of the Panch Pandavas, if they can be called that, have headed for the hills.

“I had told (George) Fernandes that whenever he goes to Amarnath, he should take me along,” Nitish said.

Defence minister Fernandes went there last year, too. But this time, other than Nitish, he has three more companions — MPs Prabhunath Singh, Basisth Narain Singh and Arun Kumar.

Whether the Amarnath yatra will make the Samata Party’s journey less bumpy it’s hard to tell but the railway user will be more anxiously watching if Nitish has found the reason for his enviable accident record.

Around 8,000 senior drivers and 42,000 gangmen engaged in maintenance work are being offered VRS as part of the effort to ramp up safety.

“We will be providing jobs to the wards of those who opt for VRS,” Nitish said, emphasising that there would be no workforce reduction. Sources said the package would involve a one-time payout of Rs 343 crore.

Under the terms of the understanding with the unions, it has been decided that the wards of the retirees will not automatically get the jobs their fathers relinquish.

“Since the work of gangmen involves carrying heavy tools for maintenance, it is possible that they get tired at this age... We have worked out a VRS scheme for them by offering a job to the ward of the person opting for the VRS,” he said.

“Similarly, the drivers could experience problems in concentration on attaining a certain age and we decided to offer VRS to such drivers,” the minister said.

The minister said that after the monsoon session of Parliament, he would undertake a safety yatra with a member of the Railway Board to make on-the-spot assessments.

Yatras, of one kind or another, appear to be in favour with the railway minister.

The trouble is the monsoon session will have to start first, and it’s opening on Monday with both Nitish and Fernandes slated to come across some accident-related fire. The Opposition is collecting data on “flying coffins”, euphemism for MiGs that fall off the skies with the same regularity as trains go off rails and plunge into rivers.

It’s not Nitish alone who could do with some blessings from Shiva.

The Samata Five, accompanied by personal staff, flew to Srinagar this evening and will stay there overnight. From Srinagar they will take a chopper to Panchtarni, an advance point, and the rest of the journey will be on foot, a three-hour walk to the Amarnath caves. They will be back on Sunday.

Asked if he would be praying for the Samata Party’s health, Nitish said he did not feel the need. “We have the capacity to solve problems,” he said.

There is no crisis now. “I have learnt a lesson that even if I want to resign, I cannot,” he added.

But there’s also the saying that socialists, particularly those of the Samata — all Janata Dal offspring, in fact — variety, can’t but quarrel every two months.

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