Kerala and Tamil Nadu are again at loggerheads, this time over the bifurcation of a railway division. The move to split the Palakkad (Kerala) division of Southern Railway, and create a new one with headquarters in Salem (Tamil Nadu) has fuelled a conflict between the two. From what transpired in Parliament, it would seem that Railway Minister Lalu Prasad and his Minister of State, R. Velu, who hails from Tamil Nadu, too do not see eye to eye on this issue. When Mr. Prasad told the Lok Sabha that the inauguration of the new Salem division, scheduled for September 14, would be postponed till a compromise was arrived at between the two States, all hell broke lose. The ruling Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam in Tamil Nadu called for an all-party rail roko on August 25 at Salem, demanding that the new division be launched as planned. The protest was withdrawn on intervention by the Prime Minister’s Office and on an assurance from the Railway Minister that the September 14 inaugural function would go on as scheduled. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has asked Mr. Prasad to hold a meeting with the Chief Ministers of the two States and work out a compromise. The question remains as to what the Railway Ministry can offer Kerala in return by way of compromise.
Kerala’s opposition to the bifurcation of Palakkad division has to do primarily with the prospect of losing the revenue-earning industrial Coimbatore-Tiruppur belt (falling in Tamil Nadu territory), which contributes over Rs.200 crore to its earnings. This hiving off will leave Palakkad unviable is the argument. On its part, Tamil Nadu insists on having the area in the new Salem division. Amidst this stand-off has emerged a counter-demand from Kerala — that the Southern Railway be split to make way for a new zone with headquarters at Thiruvananthapuram. In effect, it means a separate railway zone for the State, just as Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka have. Creation of yet another zone — there are 16 now — is not considered a viable option, both operationally and financially. The railway authorities are convinced that any bifurcation will spell economic collapse for the not-too-profitable Southern Railway. Further, the huge cost the creation of a new zone entails by way of building administrative infrastructure and recurring expenditure is something the railways would like to avoid at a time when it is going all out to cut costs and take on the challenge from road and air transport systems. When they meet the Railway Minister for resolving the problem, the two Chief Ministers would do well to adopt a holistic approach and display a spirit of accommodation.
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