Government

Suresh Prabhu Will Be Remembered as Minister Who Provided Rail Connectivity to People of Northeast

Under Prabhu’s tenure, five northeastern states were included in the broad gauge network and 29 new trains introduced.

Suresh Prabhu

Suresh Prabhu taking over as Commerce minister on September 4. Credit: Suresh Prabhu/Twitter

New Delhi: History is proof that governments across party lines have often tried to find the answer to train accidents in the resignation of the railway minister.

The latest example of this long practiced – but highly short-sighted – governmental approach, is the change of ministership of Suresh Prabhu, from railways to commerce and industry, in the Narendra Modi government on September 3.

However, in far away northeast, Prabhu shall be remembered for delivering what no other Union railway minister could – a widened network of rail infrastructure to the people of the region.

In the last three years, the ministry under Prabhu was successful in including five northeastern states – Meghalaya, Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur, Mizoram and Tripura – to the broad gauge (BG) map of the country. As many as 29 new trains were introduced in the region in a span of just one year – 2016 to 2017.

Today, no metre gauge line exists in the northeastern states, thanks to conversion of over 900 kms of track to BG in the last three years. All the states of the region, except Sikkim, are now included in the BG network.

Many of these projects might have started during the UPA, Deve Gowda and Atal Bihari Vajpayee regimes but the ministry under Prabhu gave the much-needed push, thanks to which the projects, including those stranded for years, met completion or are near completion.

Look at Tripura. State capital Agartala saw a metre gauge (MG) track as lately as in October 2008, even though the MG line reached the state’s business hub Dharmanagar from Assam in 1964. The MG service to Agartala was laid following a huge public protests in the state in the 1980s led by the ruling CPI(M). That in 2008 Agartala became the second state capital in the northeast to have a railway station (after Guwahati) says a lot about the previous central governments’ treatment of the region through their respective railway ministries.

The demand for a railway line in Tripura goes back to 1949 when veteran journalist Amiya Deb Roy wrote a letter to the then Nehru government, urging it to extend the train services from Silchar in Assam to Tripura. In 1951, CPI(M) leaders like Jyoti Basu gave it a popular turn following which top Leftist parliamentarians from Tripura, like Dasaratha Deb and Biren Dutta, raised it in the Lok Sabha in 1952. In the 1970s, former chief minister Nripen Chakraborty wrote to the then railway minister Madhu Dandavate about the need for rail connectivity to Agartala. However, Dandavate agreed to extend the Dharmanagar rail link only till Kumarghat in the Unakoti district in his 1979-80 rail budget. It took that railway line about three decades to reach the state capital – in 2008.

In 2015, it was Prabhu’s ministry which took up the BG conversion work of the 227 km MG line from Agartala to Badarpur town in Assam’s Karimganj district. In July 2016, he could thereby fulfill a decades-old demand of the people of Tripura in the form of a weekly train, Tripura Sundari Express, from Agartala to New Delhi.

The Agartala-Badarpur line is linked to Assam’s Silchar town and thereafter the Lumding junction. Though the gauge conversion work from Lumding to Silchar and Badarpur was sanctioned by the Gowda government in 1996, and then from Badarpur to Bariagram by the Vajpayee government in 2003-04 and thereafter Bariagram to Kumarghat by the Manmohan Singh government in 2007-08, not much moved on the ground, primarily because of erratic flow of central funds to the project.

In 2004, the Singh government declared the Lumding-Silchar-Badarpur stretch a national project to ensure that it receives all the funds required for completion. Still, nothing moved due to insurgency in Assam’s Dima Hasao district through which the railway line passes. Militants kidnapped, attacked and killed railway staff, contractors and their workers and security personnel in that part of Assam between 2000 and 2011. Though situation improved later, the work didn’t get a boost from the railway ministry.

In 2015, during Prabhu’s term, the Lumding-Silchar section – considered the oldest MG route in the region set up by the British – could be finally converted to BG. Thereafter, the remaining Badarpur-Agartala line was also converted in 2016, which made the Tripura Sundari Express possible.

So was Agartala’s first direct rail connectivity with Kolkata, the Kanchanjhunga Express, yet another long standing public demand.

Suresh Prabhu

Suresh Prabhu flagging off the Guwahati-Naharlagun Shatabdi train on May 7. Credit: Twitter

It was also during Prabhu’s term, in August 2016, that Tripura saw a foundation stone laid for the construction of the railway line connecting Agartala to Akhaura in Bangladesh, even though a pact to this effect was signed in January 2010 by the UPA government with the Sheikh Hasina regime.

Work is on in full swing in the 15-km stretch, which will not only be a part of the Trans Asian Railway Network but will substantially shorten the rail distance between Agartala and Kolkata via Bangladesh – from the present 1,590 kms to 499 kms.

This rail link will connect Agartala to Ashuganj river port, via Akhaura, about 54 kms away. As per news reports quoting North Eastern Frontier Railway officials, the project is likely to be completed before the year turns.

Besides, the 114 km BG track from Silchar in Assam to Agartala and thereafter to the border town of Sabroom, from where the Chittagong port of Bangladesh is merely 75 kms away, is likely to completed by March 2019. Already, the track has reached Udaipur town of Tripura. The Silchar-Udaipur track has been operational since January 2017.

Thanks to the gauge conversion of the Silchar stretch, there are now three new BG trains from the Barak Valley of Assam, including Poorvottar Sampark Kranti Express, a direct train from Silchar to New Delhi, a decades-old demand of the people of that valley.

The other two trains, flagged off by Prabhu in February 2016, were the first freight trains from Badarpur in Assam to Jirania in Agartala, and to Jiribam in Manipur.

While the freight train from Badarpur to Jiribam helped include Manipur in the BG network, the one to Jirania came at a time when NH 8, Tripura’s only road route to the rest of India through Assam, was in shambles, thus leading to a crisis situation as hundreds of trucks remained stranded on it for months together. The goods train helped cart essential stuff to the state.

Work is presently on the 84 km long Jiribam-Tupul section of the railway project in Manipur and likely finish by 2018. Thereafter, the link will stretch to state capital Imphal. Though this project to lay railway track to Imphal began in 2004, barely 20% of the work was reportedly completed till 2014. Media reports say survey is on also to lay a railway line from Imphal to Moreh, a business town bordering Myanmar.

Mizoram entered the BG network in November 2014 when Modi inaugurated the 54 km long line from Kathahal (Assam) to Bhairabi, two kms within Mizoram. Since May 2016, a passenger train shuttles between Bhairabi and Silchar via Kathahal. Further work on laying lines from Bhairabi to Sairang, 20 km from Mizoram capital Aizawl, is underway and is said to be completed by March 2020.

In November 2014, Modi also flagged off the first BG train from Guwahati to Meghalaya’s Mendipathar, thus including that state too in the BG map of the country. Mendipathar in the North Garo Hills district is so far the state’s only railway station, like Jiribam is in Manipur. Though the route was approved in 2007, due to difficulty in land acquisition and huge opposition to the project as locals felt the rail service would bring ‘outsiders’ to their region (Such protest have been seen in Arunachal and some other parts of the northeast too), work began only in 2013.

Work is also presently on to lay a 21.5 km track from Tetelia to Byrnihat in Meghalaya’s Ri Bhoi district bordering Assam and is likely to be completed by next year. According to media reports, the survey work on the 108-km stretch of the proposed Byrnihat-Shillong railway project has reached near completion.

In February 2016, Modi inaugurated the first passenger train from Naharlagun, 10 km from Arunachal Pradesh’s capital Itanagar, to New Delhi via Guwahati. Since this past May 7, there has also been a Shatabdi service between Naharlgun and Guwahati, a vital means of communications for the people of the landlocked state.

With the commissioning of the Balipara to Bhalukpong line with gauge conversion, the state has also been provided the second BG connectivity during Prabhu’s tenure.

Also, in April this year, the railway ministry ordered final location survey for three proposed tracks in Arunachal – Bhalukpong-Tenga-Tawang (378 km), North Lakhimpur-Bame-Aalo-Silapathar (247.85 km) and Pasighat-Tezu-ParsuramKund-Rupai (227 km). The first one is certainly the most ambitious, which, if successful, can give a rail link to the mountainous India-China border in Tawang. The survey, being conducted by Northeast Frontier Railway, is expected to be completed by October 2020.

The railway ministry has also sanctioned reconnaissance engineering-cum-traffic survey for eight new lines in the state for a total length of about 625 km.

While Nagaland has been a part of the BG network since 1997 after the MG track in Dimapur was converted, in August 2016, Prabhu laid the foundation stone in the town to extend the track for another 88 kms to reach Zubza, situated 16 km from the state capital Kohima.

Though Sikkim is the only northeastern state to not have rail connectivity yet, there is now progress in the project to link Sevok in West Bengal to Rangpo, a stretch of 44 kms, after the Supreme Court gave a go ahead to it last year. Though the foundation stone for the project was laid by the then vice president Hamid Ansari in 2009, it ran into legal trouble due to environmental concerns as the line would pass by Mahananda elephant sanctuary.

In coming times, this railway line is likely to reach Nathu-La on the India-China border.

Quite a few times during his visit to the region, the former railway minister had reiterated to the media that all the capitals of the northeastern states would have rail connectivity with the national capital by 2020. Hope the new railway minister Piyush Goyal fulfils this unfinished agenda. For clearly, New Delhi needs to continue this ‘Act’ in the northeast, for the region to be truly able to play its part to make real the ambitious policy of the Modi government – Act East.