New Delhi, Aug 23 : With heads rolling in the Railways after two train accidents in five days, the government on Wednesday replaced its Board Chairman A.K. Mittal with Air India chief Ashwani Lohani even as Railway Minister Suresh Prabhu offered to quit on moral grounds. Prime Minister Narendra Modi asked Prabhu to “wait”.
Lohani, 58, who belongs to the 1980 batch of Indian Railways Service of Mechanical Engineers, was brought to head the Railway Board after Mittal, who had over a year to go as the Chairman, resigned apparently after being asked to in the wake of Saturday’s Kalinga Utkal Express accident that was blamed on staff negligence and which claimed 22 lives.
The appointment of Lohani was cleared by the Appointments Committee of the Cabinet in place of Mittal, who was given a two-year extension in 2016. His tenure was to end in July 2018.
Lohani was made Air India Chairman two years ago on the back of his success in turning around the India Tourism Development Corp and the Madhya Pradesh Tourism Development Corp.
Earlier, Prabhu met the Prime Minister “taking full responsibility” for the state of affairs of Railways. “PM has asked me to wait,” he tweeted.
Though Prabhu did not specifically mention in his tweets that he had offered to resign, there was intense speculation he may have offered to resign considering the language of his tweets.
“I am extremely pained by the unfortunate accidents, injuries to passengers and loss of precious lives. It has caused me deep anguish,” the Minister said.
“New India envisioned by PM deserves a Railways which is efficient and modern. I promise that is the path, on which Railways is progressing now.”
Prabhu said he had tried to overcome “decades of neglect through systemic reforms in all areas leading to unprecedented investment and milestones”.
He said in less than three years as Minister, “I have devoted my blood and sweat for the betterment of the Railways”.
A Chartered Accountant by profession, 64-year-old Prabhu — formerly in the Shiv Sena — joined the BJP in May 2014 before he was inducted into the cabinet as the Railway Minister.
Not satisfied with his offer, the Congress attacked Prabhu’s record as Railway Minister and asked Modi to sack him.
“Railway ministry has failed to provide managerial leadership. Prabhu failed to provide leadership, roadmap or vision to railways,” Congress spokesperson Randeep Singh Surjewala said.
“The minister has utterly failed. We had earlier demanded his resignation. He (Prabhu) has said on Twitter, instead of coming forward and facing the media, that he takes responsibility. This responsibility business will not do. Either Modi should sack Railway Minister or should accept his resignation. It is time for the PM to lay down a roadmap of safety for railways.”
The Congress said in the past three years, 28 accidents had taken place, leaving 259 people dead and 973 injured.
On Saturday, the Kalinga Utkal Express derailed in Muzaffarnagar district leaving 22 people dead. Even as the railways cracked down on errant officials and staff, the Kaifiyat Express derailed in Auraiya district on Wednesday injuring 74 people. Both accidents took place in Uttar Pradesh.
An initial probe into the Kalinga tragedy blamed the disaster on negligence by railway staff.
The government on Sunday suspended four Northern Railway officials and sent its General Manager R.R. Kulshrestha on leave after authorities admitted to negligence that may have led to the derailment of the Kalinga Utkal Express.
Others asked to proceed on leave were Railway Board Member (Engineering) A.K. Mittal and Divisional Rail Manager R.N. Singh.
Khatauli Junior Engineer Pradeep Kumar, Muzaffarnagar Senior Section Engineer Inder Jeet Singh, Assistant Engineer (Meerut-Delhi Division) Rohit Kumar and Senior Divisional Engineer (Delhi) R.K. Verma were suspended and Chief Track Engineer of Northern Railway Alok Ansal was transferred.