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Ram Vilas Paswan in office: Many in his staff are involved in some controversy or the other

If the 16 lakh employees of the Indian Railways were to vote for their minister, Ram Vilas Paswan would shatter his own world record for the highest victory margins in elections it earned him two entries in the Guinness Book of World Records in 1977 and 1989. It is perhaps with this knowledge, coupled with the fact that the Indian Railways is the largest workforce employer in the world, that Paswan is blatantly trying to convert it into his personal constituency.

Having arrogated to himself the title of Champion of the Dalits, and in heritor of Ambedkar’s mantle, Paswan seems to have found in the railways the perfect vehicle for his vaulting ambitions among them his stated desire of becoming the prime minister. But in the name of social welfare which he hopes will take him up the ladder Paswan has bent rules at will and thrown precedents to the winds. In the six months he has been in office, a lot of his time has been spent organising rallies across the country using the official machinery at his command. The Dalit Sena rally in Delhi to coincide with his birthday on November 21 in which 150,000 people participated was the most extravagant of these.

True, over the years successive railway ministers have drawn full mileage from the ministry, doling out sops in the garb of development or welfare. Jaffer Sharief promoted his favourites besides using the railways to nurture his constituency in Bangalore. But all of them pale into insignificance when compared with Paswan. Consider this:Rail Bhavan has virtually been turned into an extension of the Dalit Sena, which he heads. The railways, it is estimated, subsidised the travel of the rallyists to the tune of Rs 50 lakh.

While these acts are without parallel, they are not without reason. After two record wins, Paswan barely scraped through from Hajipur in last June’s elections by 5,000 votes. While his ardent supporters attribute this to “sabotage” by his friend turned bete noire Laloo Prasad Yadav, the more objective attribute it to his waning popularity. His instincts dictate that he first regain it and then market himself as the champion of the Dalits and the Backwards. Towards that end, he is leaving no stone unturned. While his cabinet colleague, Parliamentary Affairs Minister Srikant Jena, says Paswan has every right to take steps that will help him gain politically, others seem to suggest the minister ought to draw the line somewhere. Says Wasim Ahmed, the Janata Dal general secretary and recently elected Rajya Sabha member: “Everybody has the right to aspire to become prime minister, but if he is genuinely concerned about upliftment, he should include all Backwards, weaker sections and minorities. Even weaker sections amongst the upper castes. The Railway Ministry cannot be turned into a personal fiefdom.” Adds Javed Raza, a Yuva Janata Dal leader: “His moves will fragment the United Front.”

Step into the imposing Rail Bhavan in Delhi and it becomes clear why even party colleagues are talking in these terms. The railway headquarters have begun to look like an extension of the Dalit Sena office situated in Paswan’s official residence. Sanjoy Sachdev, the Sena spokesman, has a room right next to the reception area, and entry is unrestricted. Sachdev has been made consultant to the minister and has been given the room in that capacity. But it is clear that it is being used only for Sena work. There’s a continuous stream of Dalits, from Hajipur to Delhi’s Ambedkar Nagar, seeking favours ranging from jobs, postings and transfers to even contracts.

Floated on October 9, 1993, the Dalit Sena claims a membership of nearly one crore persons and has generated Rs 10 crore from membership fee alone. When charges of misuse of official machinery were hurled at him, Paswan denied them. “Ours was not a political rally,” he told INDIATODAY. “Concessions have been given for railway travel for over 50 years. If we did so for Dalits, what’s wrong?”

But if Paswan considers himself the leader of the underprivileged, his lifestyle gives no such indication. By any yardstick, his residence exudes a sense of good fortune someone who is absolutely successful if not extremely lucky. Those close to him say the minister doesn’t miss out on his favourites mostly exotic dishes and fish and chicken. He signs the numerous files with one of his several Mont Blanc pens and sports Cartier spectacles. And nobody can ever point a finger at him for not being attired in the very best. Little wonder that he is often referred to as a ‘Brahmin among Dalits’.

Since he took over, announcements of new railway zones have become a ritual. Many of these inauguration functions cost the ministry anything between Rs 30 lakh and Rs 50 lakh, including the cost of full page advertisements in national dailies. So far the foundation stones of six new zones have been laid at Hajipur, Bangalore, Jabalpur, Bhubaneswar, Jaipur and Allahabad and officers on special duty have been posted there. Each of the zones, when complete, will cost at least Rs 300 crore. In fact, a public interest litigation was recently filed in the Patna High Court, challenging Paswan’s use of the railway machinery to gain political mileage. That he doesn’t believe in cost trimming is evident from his huge personal staff numbering 80 many of whom walk hand in hand with controversy. Paswan’s private secretary N. Manohara Prasad, a Dalit, is the second most powerful man in Rail Bhavan. Prasad deals with files relating to tenders and contracts which run into several hundred crores of rupees even though there are vigilance cases pending against him.

Recently, Paswan gave instructions that SC and ST officers be given overriding preference in all foreign training and posting programmes, though government rules stipulate that preference can be given only at the time of recruitment and not during service.

Paswan says caste matters little to him while taking “on the spot” decisions, but some of his decisions have created bad blood among officers. Says a GM of a zonal railway: “We feel that merit, seniority, competence and experience have been thrown out of the window. Now, only caste counts.” When Phoolan Devi hijacked the Shatabdi Express and made unscheduled halts, the Dalit driver, Tilak Dhari Ram who stopped against run through signals, thereby increasing the chance of mishap was not even admonished, let alone suspended.

What’s more, officers find the politics of appointing chairpersons to the 16 RRBs there are 19 in all particularly demoralising. Till a few years ago, the chairpersons were selected by the UPSC, with preference given to serving railway officers, former MPs, and eminent educationists. At present the chairmen of 12 RRBs are ad hoc appointees, seven of them being Dalits or Backwards appointed by Paswan in July. These appointments are significant in that the RRBs recruit ‘Group C’ employees who constitute 55 per cent of the railways’ total workforce.

Dalit youths welcome Paswan at Mumbai station: caste appeal

The number of ‘Group C’ employees like assistant station masters, clerks, diesel assistants, inspectors being recruited by the RRBs has also gone up. During 1995 96, 10,000 were recruited but officials say almost double that number will be inducted this year. In addition, a shortfall of around 3,000 ‘Group D’ employees helpers, khalasis and fitters has to be filled and 56,000 casual labourers regularised. Almost 50 per cent of ‘Group C’ and more than 75 per cent in ‘Group D’ are expected to be SCs/STs. Officials have been warned of strict action if the orders are not complied with.

However, trimming costs seems to be the last thing on the railway minister’s mind at the moment. Union members feel it is impractical to have six more railway zones, as has been approved, in addition to the existing nine. Besides the huge costs involved, creating separate divisions has always meant enormous dislocation of service records: people who retire from one division have to chase officials in another to claim their superannuation benefits. Another fallout is the large scale transfer of officials.

One of the proposed zones will be at Hajipur. The minister defends the move on the ground that the previous government had approved the setting up of zonal headquarters at Patna. He merely shifted the venue across the river to Hajipur as plenty of land was available there. Ministry officials can offer a hundred reasons why Hajipur is not the best of choices. But Paswan’s single track agenda of advancing the Dalit cause may well push the railways into a long dark tunnel.
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