Assam’s Barak Valley hopes for ‘achhe din’ with new rail link

Silchar, Nov 27 (IANS) A passenger train that chugged into the pristine Barail Hills after setting out from here in southern Assam on November 21 on the newly-converted broad gauge line has fuelled a lot of hope in this economically backward and remote region. Since the railways began its broad gauge service to the Barak Valley, there has been plenty of rejoicing in this area that borders not only Bangladesh but also Mizoram, Manipur, Meghalaya and Tripura.

Residents, however, say the new link, built after a delay of 19 years, suffers from problems. The Barak Valley, whose population doubles that of Goa, is located in one of the extreme northeastern parts of India. Silchar, the main town, is its nerve centre.

Since the British Raj, it only had a metre gauge line even as other parts of Assam switched over to the more convenient broad gauge.

Biswatosh Choudhury, a professor at Assam University here, told IANS: “2015 is a historic year for the Barak Valley. The broad gauge will help boost our economy and overall development.”

But he has a complaint. “The British took just eight years to lay the metre gauge. But due to politics and vested interests, it took us 19 years to upgrade the 210-km track.”

Ajoy Roy of the Silchar-Lumding Broad Gauge Rupayan Sangram Committee said the new line was a “victory” for the people.

“Due to the government’s lacklustre attitude and the failure of elected representatives, it took us 19 years to realise our dream,” Roy told IANS.

He said the new connectivity would facilitate easy travel and “broaden our mindset”.

“At the same time, we have doubts about the quality of the work. We have urged the Prime Minister’s Office to launch an inquiry into our concerns.”

Sayan Biswas, a Silchar-based journalist, agreed. “We know there are problems,” he said. “We have to wait till the rainy season. Landslides are frequent on the hills. These can halt trains for weeks, even for a month.

“Now political parties are taking credit for the broad gauge. It’s laughable. It is not political parties but the people of the Barak Valley who kept the issue alive.”

The Bengali-majority valley — home to over 3.6 million people — is one of the most underdeveloped parts of Assam.

The move to convert the British-era metre gauge track into broad gauge between Lumding (also in Assam) and Silchar began in 1996, with then prime minister H.D. Deve Gowda laying the foundation in Silchar.

The railways say the project was completed despite the difficult hilly terrain, geologically unstable hills and law and order challenges.

While flagging off a goods train on the new line on March 27, Railway Minister Suresh Prabhu described the rail route as the “lifeline of the Barak Valley and (for) Tripura, Manipur and Mizoram”.

Since March, freight trains are running on the route.

Dhruba Kumar Saha, joint secretary of the valley-based NGO Citizens’ Forum, told IANS that it needs to be seen whether high-speed trains like Rajdhani and Shatabdi can run on the new track.

The new rail link has also been hailed by people from the region working in other parts of India.

Alok Sukla, a Delhi-based finance professional from Silchar, told IANS: “It is a dream come true. The new track will help professionals like me to visit the valley easily. I hope ‘achhe din’ have come for us.”

The Silchar-Lumding rail line has 21 tunnels and 79 major bridges. While the longest tunnel is about 3.2 km long, the majestic Dayang Bridge is 54 metres high. Jatinga, a place notorious for “bird suicides”, is linked by the passenger train services.

The erstwhile metre gauge line, born in 1899, is historic. Mahatma Gandhi and Rabindranath Tagore visited the region using the old rail network.

(Debaprio D Choudhury can be reached at debaprio.d@ians.in)

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