What does it take for a site to be on the prestigious list of UNESCO World Heritage? Outstanding Universal Value—yes, that's what that particular site needs to be. On December 2, 1999, Darjeeling Himalayan Railways (DHR) checked all the required boxes and UNESCO declared the railways a World Heritage Site. Locally known as the Toy Train, the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway runs between New Jalpaiguri and Darjeeling in West Bengal. Built between 1879 and 1881, the DHR is one of the very few heritage steam locomotives in India that is still in operation.
Coming back to DHR being a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the railway line, along with Nilgiri Mountain Railway and the Kalka-Shimla Railway, are collectively known as Mountain Railways of India. All three are narrow guage railways when broad guage is the nationwide standard. Makes them all the more special, doesn't it?
At the time of inscription, DHR ran past lush forest and tea gardens. The present-day scenario tells us a different story altogether. Recently, UNESCO questioned the state of conservation of the Darjeeling Himalayan Railways. Everything might not be all rosy for the heritage mountain railway. If things go south, the UNESCO World Heritage tag may get stripped off the Darjeeling Himalayan Railways. But what's the reason behind all these? How did a site that was once of an "Outstanding Universal Value" reach this point? Here are some hard hitting reasons:
# UNESCO said in a report during its 43rd meet in Baku, Azerbaijan, that there was "insufficient maintenance" of the Darjeeling Himalayan Railways' trains and tracks. Also, many out of its 14 stations have "lost original fabric and seriously deteriorated"
# The Darjeeling unrest of 2017 had left the building of Sonada and Gayabari stations damaged. Post riot there has been no restoration work done on these two damaged station buildings.
# There is a lack of proper demarcation due to which there are "serious encroachment" that takes place on a daily basis. The railway tracks are in close proximity to illegal constructions and have fallen prey to mindless dumping of waste and even parking of vehicles along the railway track.
# Narrow-guage heritage steam locomotives require staff who are especially trained for the job. That might not be the case with Darjeeling Himalayan Railway.
Be it the management responsible for the upkeep (or the lack of it) or the general dis-concern of the people, the status of the 140-year-old heritage railways is not good and it's a cause for worry.
While we are still waiting for UNESCO's final decision, read about how Jaipur made it to the prestigious list.