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Railhead Promises And Attendant Parochialism

MOST in the North-East will probably not read much into the Union railway minister’s assurance that in seven years all state capitals in the region will be linked by rail. As of now, Assam (Guwahati) and Tripura (Agartala) are connected, and Nagaland (main railhead Dimapur) and Manipur (Jiribam) are on the railway map. But Arunachal Pradesh, Mizoram and Meghalaya have no railheads of their own.

In the 2008 railway budget, projects like the Dimapur-Kohima and Azra-Byrnihat (Meghalaya) links were sanctioned but work on these has yet to begin. It is reported that in Nagaland those who stand to lose land are demanding compensation at exorbitant rates. And Nagaland chief minister Neiphiu Rio recently said that if his government were to pay compensation the amount would far exceed the cost of the link between Dimapur and Zubza (near Kohima). He even said that since this rail link would benefit the people there would be no compensation for land acquired, but damage caused to property and plantations would be adequately compensated for. Whether this will satisfy land-losers remains to be seen, and even if the government succeeds in its efforts, trains aren’t likely to chug for at least another 10 years, if not longer, because it is not easy to construct a rail link in inhospitable terrain that is so prone to landslides, as Nagaland is.

In Meghalaya, the powerful Khasi Students’ Union has for some time now opposed the proposal to extend the railway line from Guwahati to Byrnyhat (25 km), arguing that it would merely encourage the influx of outsiders. So the Azra-Byrnyhat project could go the way of the dodo. Chief minister Mukul Sangma, however, advocates the advantage of having a railway link because it “will solve the common man’s suffering”, meaning the prices of all essential goods would fall because these are now brought in by road transport at a high cost.

The KSU may not be amused but some years ago when heavy floods disrupted road communications for days, some members reportedly spoke in favor of the railway link up to Byrnihat.

According to Sangma, the influx of outsiders — rail link or not — has continued unabated, encouraged by locals themselves! Hopefully in course of time the KSU will see the ground realities and change its mind.

If the Centre’s Look East Policy is to be given a boost, the Union railway ministry must speed up work on the conversion of the 208-km Lumding-Silchar meter gauge and complete the Jiribam-Tuipul-Imphal link – whose progress has not met expectations despite the exercise been given national project status.

*The article is written by JP Lama, Endangered Eden

(Courtesy: The Statesman, India)

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