February 18, 2020
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Chicken's Neck, All Choked Up

The lifeline of the Northeast is linked to the rest of India through a single-line railway. So, any disturbance holds up the entire system. Then there are floods, landslides, bombs...

Chicken's Neck, All Choked Up

  •  Nek Chand, a BSF jawan, is writing a letter to his wife in Rajasthan even as 600 colleagues sprawl on the platform at Rangiya junction, 60 km from Guwahati. They have been living there for the past two weeks for want of a special train that will take them to their next posting.
  •  Thomas Cherian, a clerk in the Arunachal Pradesh government, had booked tickets for a journey home to Thiruvananthapuram. When the Cherian family arrived at the station, they are told they may have to wait two days as militants have blown up a bridge.
  •  Sudhanshu Dey was taking a train to Silchar in Assam's Cachar district from Lumding junction when a message came that the link between the Brahmaputra and Barak Valleys is cut off as an entire hillside had come crashing down, breaking a 100-year-old bridge.
  •  An army battalion, about to replace another on the Indo-China border in Arunachal, is delayed as a kilometre of track is washed away by the river Gai in Assam's Dhemaji district.

    SHORTAGE of trains, bomb blasts, landslides, floods. Welcome to the Northeast Frontier (NF) Railway, smallest of the nation's nine railway zones but perhaps its most troubled area. Smallest, and yet serving perhaps the largest number of states—Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Tripura, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, Manipur, Sikkim, West Bengal and Bihar. Two Himalayan kingdoms—Nepal and Bhutan—are dependent on this railway and there is an interchange facility with Bangladesh Railway as well.

    But from the day it was carved out of the North Eastern Railway zone, NF Railway has been fighting adverse geographical conditions. Now, it has to deal with numerous cases of sabotage unleashed by militants and bandhs sponsored by various organisations, forcing cancellation, abrupt termination and rescheduling of several passenger trains in both Assam and West Bengal, and Bihar. The trouble that passengers have to face and the fire-fighting measures NF Railway authorities have to take to keep the system running is to be seen to be believed.

    Take the case of the blast between Gossaigaonhat and Chautara stations, some 250 km off Guwahati in June. The blast, set off by the Bodoland Liberation Tiger Force, broke the girder of a vital bridge. Although replacing a bridge girder is a massive task, the NF railway engineers did it in 48 hours (an astonishing task in itself, say experts). Half-a-dozen trains had to be cancelled, the Rajdhani Express to Guwahati had to be terminated at New Jalpaiguri and another half-a-dozen trains had to be rescheduled to run at least 50 to 60 hours late from their original timings.

    Says a senior official: "Between April 1997 and March this year, there were 11 cases of track sabotage and 92 rail roko and bandh calls. For a major period in '97-98, we had to stop night running of passenger trains. The estimated loss in passenger earnings was Rs 8.42 crore. The current financial year is no better. In the first three months of '98-99, rail roko and stoppage activities have led to cancellation of 14 trains and loss in earnings of Rs 10 lakh."

    Since the Northeast is linked to the rest of the country through a single-line railway running through a small corridor known as the "chicken's neck" near Siliguri, any disruption brings the entire region to the brink of scarcity. Dependent on the rest of the country for essential food items, the Northeast imports goods worth nearly Rs 2,000 crore annually and a majority of this comes through the railway system. Consider this: In '97-98, the NF railway carried 3,46 million tonnes of essential items including foodgrain, pulses, salt, sugar, edible oil, cement and fertilisers among other things.Its outward freight load during the same period was 5.11 million tonnes. Even a 48-hour disruption in running the line means critical shortage of essential items and instant price rise. Although the road sector now carries almost 40 per cent of the load, the railway still remains the best bet for transporting PDS items to the region's far-flung areas.

    THE losses due to delay and disruptions apart, the Railways have to spend money on fortifying its security arrangements. Nearly 1,000 securitymen provided by the state government patrol the tracks at different points to detect explosives, mines and bombs that may have been planted. The patrolling by the GRP (or government railway police) is done on trolleys and on foot. In addition, army units at vulnerable locations also carry out surprise checks. The cost: Rs 4.15 crore over the past 16 months.

    Rajendra Nath, who took over as NF Railway general manager in August 1997, sees essentially three main factors (other than sabotage and rail rokos) as being responsible for the trouble the railway system faces. They are:

  •  its geographical location;
  •  dual gauge system, that is both broad gauge and metre gauge lines; and
  •  an over-saturated single line section.

    The NF railway system extends from west to east along the foothills of the eastern Himalayas. This geographical feature ensures that the rivers coming down the hill slopes have not only a high velocity with a potential of causing serious damage to embankments when they overflow, but have a tendency to meander as they enter the plains. A bridge constructed at a particular location may become totally meaningless within the next two-three years because the river has moved away and breached the bank at another location necessitating construction of a new bridge. The rivers Gai and Jiadhal on the north bank of the Brahmaputra are typical examples of this phenomenon. This year too, these two rivers have caused maximum havoc, taking away almost two-km long tracks and damaging several bridges.

    The condition of the Lumding-Badarpur hill section in the Barak Valley is worse. Due to heavy rainfall, hillslips and landslides, subsidence of tracks is routine in this section, which connects southern Assam and Tripura and Mizoram to the rest of the rail link. Says Nath: "The monsoon is not even a month old and there have been 11 cases of breaches on the north bank of the Brahmaputra and 39 cases of landslides and washaways in the hill section. Nearly 200 trains have had to be cancelled. The approximate loss: Rs 80 lakh." And the indirect cost of delays, of course, can never be put out in real terms.

    The breaches and landslides hit the supply of essential goods to Tripura, Mizoram and southern Assam. And cut off the links to Arunachal Pradesh and the areas along the Sino-India border guarded by the Indian army. Although the army takes adequate measures to stock up for these diffi-cult months, the continuous disruptions are a cause for worry.

    Delays are accepted as part of train journey in the Northeast. Long distance trains, especially those connecting the south (there is a weekly train each connecting Kochi, Thiruvananthapuram and Bangalore) and Mumbai invariably run late, sometimes as late as 18 hours. Says Diwakar Deshpande, a passenger who travels to Mumbai every six months: "The Guwahati-Dadar Express is perhaps the slowest and the most-delayed of the trains on the Indian railway system." Two main reasons are attributed to this delay. One, the NF Railway being the terminal railway, all inward trains accumulate losses in running time on their way through various states before reaching the NF Railway system.Lack of extra rakes means that the NF Railways cannot start the trains on time since maintenance and safety aspects have to be taken care of. Result: Trains sometimes leave Guwahati 20-24 hours late.

    But the more important reason is the over-saturated single-line system that the NF Railway operates on. Between New Jalpaiguri (Siliguri) and Dibrugarh, 1,000 km of the railway line is a single track. Any hold-up bunches several trains together, resulting in delays. As it is, says a senior operations man, the section is operating 30 per cent above its theoretical capacity.

    The high-level Shukla Commission, appointed by former PM H.D. Deve Gowda to identify the backlog, had this to say about the railway system in the region: "Carriage to and from the Northeast has hitherto suffered from passage through the Siliguri choke point, a largely metre gauge system, high cost of construction, operation and maintenance."

     Things are set to improve by early March next year when an alternative link between New Bongaigaon and Guwahati will be opened through the south bank of the Brahmaputra and the New Bongaigaon-Siliguri-New Jalpaiguri metre gauge section gets converted to broad gauge in three-four years.

    In fact, after years of neglect, the Railway Board has turned its attention to the Northeast. Over the last three years itself, NF Railway has been able to spend Rs 912.83 crore on "development". In the 1998-99 budget NF Railway was allotted Rs 315.79 crore of which the share of the Northeast is almost 58 per cent at Rs 183.21 crore. Interestingly, the Shukla Commission estimated that an outlay of Rs 6,000 crore would be needed over the next six to 10 years for development of railways in the Northeast.

    The NF Railway should look at renewing ties with Bangladesh and Myanmar. As it is, about 60 broad gauge and six to eight metre gauge trains per month move between India and points in Bangladesh carrying coal, cement, boulders, limestone, dolomite, food-grain and fertilisers one way and jute, molasses, urea and Nepal-bound cargo as return loads. Since planners are hoping Chittagong port in Bangladesh could be used for exporting goods from the Northeast, it has been suggested that NF Railway and Bangladesh railway should connect the two systems. This could provide a link for the south Asian markets.

    Though a beginning has been made, a concerted effort is needed to overcome the multitude of problems that this strategic railway faces. It is crucial to the nation's security, especially in the context of the increased exchange of rhetoric between New Delhi and Beijing. But most important, it serves a remote part of our country, which is fully dependent on this rail link for its survival.

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