Getting the Railways to Look and Act East

Suresh Prabhu takes forward Modi’s promise to increase rail connectivity in the Northeast but people in the region are also asking where the Rs. 28,000 crore package the PM pledged for the work to the region in 2014 has gone

Jorhat railway station. Credit: Abhinav Phangcho Choudhury/Flickr CC 2.0

Jorhat railway station. Credit: Abhinav Phangcho Choudhury/Flickr CC 2.0

New Delhi: Barely 20 minutes into his hour-long speech on February 25, railway minister Suresh Prabhu said something not very usual in a rail budget address. “The North East is an important part of the country. Connectivity will be increased in the north-eastern section of the country as well,” he said, going on to add that Mizoram and Manipur would be connected through broad gauge (BG) soon.

Prabhu was articulating something Prime Minister Modi has been expressing in many of his speeches in the region. Barely six months after he took over, on December 1, 2014, while inaugurating the Hornbill Festival near Kohima, the PM said, “So many tourists are coming here, this is the best destination for tourists. Unless we have road connectivity, rail connectivity, air connectivity, it is very difficult to develop tourism. That is why for the development of this area and for the development of tourism, Rs. 28,000 crore will be provided for a new railway line project and 14 new railway lines.”

That speech certainly seemed like a part of a change the PM hoped to see in the region. Because, just a month before his Nagaland visit, he said at the flagging-off event of the first passenger train to Mendipathar in Meghalaya from Maligaon in Guwahati, that he wanted “the Northeast to be connected via rail and road to other parts of the country, to Myanmar and subsequently to other countries.” During that trip he also laid the foundation stone of a broad gauge railway line from Bhairabi to Sairang in Mizoram, about which Prabhu made an indirect reference in his February 25 budget speech while talking about bringing a BG line to that state.

Modi reiterated the essence of those speeches last February too, while flagging off the first ever express train from Naharlagun in Arunachal Pradesh to New Delhi in the presence of Prabhu and his deputy at the ministry, Manoj Sinha.

Acting on that brief, Prabhu, on February 20, inaugurated three trains from Assam’s Barak Valley. Two goods train, from Silchar to Tripura, and Silchar to Jiribam in Manipur. And one passenger train to New Delhi, the first direct link between Barak valley and the national capital. But the overall increase in allocation to the Northeast Frontier Railway has gone up by just under Rs 5,000 crore.

On January 14, Sinha, after receiving the first trial train on the Silchar-Tripura BG route, hoped a passenger train would run on it by March 31. The 227-km track, sanctioned in 1996-97, is awaiting clearance from the Commissioner Railway Safety (CRS). Once it comes through, Agartala will be the third north-eastern capital to get BG connectivity, apart from Guwahati and Itanagar (Naharlagun).

While one can see the Centre’s intent clearly – and also action on the ground – it is also true that Prabhu’s Rs.28,000 crore pledge has still not become a reality.

Patricia Mukhim, well-known columnist and editor of Shillong Times, is skeptical. “Nobody is asking the Central government what happened to that promise. Recently, some chief ministers of north-eastern states met the president. Why didn’t they raise the issue? No MP from the region has raised it in parliament. The problem is, our politicians may say things in the region but they have a muted voice in Delhi.”

She, however, says that though the Centre may have the intention of connecting the Meghalaya capital, Shillong by rail, the ground realities have not been taken into consideration. “There is a huge issue about land in Meghalaya. Land is scarce. But even if you get land, there are other problems. For instance, work on the Guwahati-Bornihat link has stopped because some student organisations are opposed to it as they think it will bring illegal immigrants to the state. In some time, these issues also have to be addressed for a rail link to work.” It can be mentioned here that after protests by a student body expressing the fear of immigrants entering Arunachal via trains, the Naharlagun train flagged off by Modi was suspended for some time.

The fear of trains bringing immigrants is there in Nagaland too, says Monalisa Changkija, editor, Nagaland Page. “Besides concerns about whether it is a good idea to lay a railway line on the fragile hills of Kohima, there is also the fear that trains will bring migrants to Kohima. But the bigger question in Nagaland is also of land. Land is not owned by the state, only individuals and communities as a whole. So even if there is a Central intent, it will take a while to negotiate through those bottlenecks. But our leaders, be it the PM or others, say things without taking the ground realities in consideration.”

With no mention about bringing rail connectivity to Kohima, Changkija says it may still be a distant dream but “the Centre could have thought of enhancing rail links in the flat lands of Nagaland, such as in Tuli.”

Needed, connectivity within the NE

The Northeast Frontier Railway. Credit: Wikimedia

The Northeast Frontier Railway. Credit: Wikimedia

Though the Modi government may look at developing railways in the region only from the point of connecting it to New Delhi, there is greater need for rail and air connectivity between the NE states, both say.

“For instance, Nagaland doesn’t have a direct flight to Guwahati. It is an important city for us. The only way one can travel to that city from Nagaland is by road. With perennial bandhs in the state and bad roads, you can imagine what people have been going through,” states Changkija.

Mukhim feels connectivity can be established through the railways too, “We do need rail connectivity between the NE states and Delhi considering the air fares are so high even after they are subsidised by the airlines. But the Centre should realise the bigger problem in the region is there is very little rail connectivity between the capitals of the north-eastern States. Why can’t the railways focus on giving us that facility first?”