Politics

Hope Blooms for Landlocked Tripura Through Rail Connectivity, Now With Delhi and Soon With Bangladesh

 

The weekly train service is the realisation of a demand – connecting the North East state to the capital through a rail link – that was first raised in 1949.

The Tripura Sundari Express. Credit: North Frontier Railway

The Tripura Sundari Express. Credit: Northeast Frontier Railway

New Delhi: “It was news anyone from Tripura waited to hear for decades together,” said Billow William Jamatia, the president of the Delhi Tripura Students Forum (DTSF)

Being a student in Delhi, Billow, like many others hailing from Tripura, is “obviously excited about the next trip home,” as the newly inaugurated Tripura Sundari Express will now make it easier, and cheaper, to travel to the North East state from the capital.

“Now you have the option of getting into a train at Delhi’s Anand Vihar and getting off at Agartala. No more getting off in Guwahati with your luggage and then taking a long bus ride home,” he said, joyfully.

Tired of that long ride home, some students, said Billow, take the Delhi-Agartala flight.

“In the festive season, when most people get holidays and want to go home, a two-way flight ticket can set you back by Rs 20,00 to 25,000. Not everyone can afford it.” This is one of the reasons why “we have few students from Tripura studying in Delhi compared to some other north-eastern states,” he said. The DTSF has only 200 registered students, which he hoped, “will now grow”.

The excitement over the “direct rail link” is as palpable in Delhi as in Agartala. On July 31, hundreds of people landed up at the Agartala railway station to witness railway minister Suresh Prabhu and minister of state for railways Rajen Gohain flag off the Tripura Sundari Express, the state’s first direct broad gauge rail link to the national capital and which has been named after Tripura Sundari, a revered Kali temple built in 1501 by Maharaja Dhanya Manikya. Many women blew the traditional conch shells to mark the moment while people gathered at many places in the villages along the railway line to watch the train go past.

A long wait

“No wonder everyone is excited about it as people had been demanding railways services and a direct train to Delhi for the last 67 years,” said Jiten Choudhury, one of two Lok Sabha members from Tripura. Choudhury’s party, the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M), which has been in power in the state for over two decades, led a popular agitation in the 1980s to fulfil the demand. At that time, Left leader Nripen Chakraborty was the chief minister of the first ever CPI-M government in the state.

“Our party took up the need to include Tripura in the country’s railway map with every government at the Centre. We did it this time too. I myself met Suresh Prabhu on the issue. The Centre conceded to it this time. It is a popular demand, so ultimately, the credit for it must go to the people of Tripura,” Choudhury told The Wire.

The demand was first raised in 1949 when veteran journalist Amiya Deb Roy wrote a letter to the Nehru government to extend the railway network from Assam to Tripura. In a mass gathering held in December 1951 in Agartala, veteran communist leaders Jyoti Basu, Muzaffar Ahmad and S.A. Dange gave the demand a popular turn.

A July 31 news report quoted writer-journalist Tapas Debnath as saying, “Former parliamentarians and top Tripura Left leaders Dasaratha Deb and Biren Datta first raised the demand for extension of railway network to the state in the Lok Sabha in 1952”. Debnath recalled that the demand gained momentum when the CPI-M grabbed power in the state in 1978. Chakraborty, the chief minister at that time, wrote a letter to then railways minister Madhu Dandavate about it. In 1964, though the rail link was extended to the state’s business hub, Dharmanagar (about 200 kms from Agartala), it eluded the state capital. Then in October 2008, the UPA-I government laid a meter gauge line to Agartala from Assam’s Karimganj district.

“Though the North East has seven states, as late as in 2008 did Agartala became only the second state capital in the region after Guwahati to have rail connectivity,” pointed out Mrinal Kanti Deb, the BJP state spokesperson. Deb blamed the Congress for not “listening to the people’s demand.”

“Finally, it happened during the Narendra Modi government. The CPI-M is trying to take all the credit for it now but the present development happened because of the BJP government at the Centre,” Deb told this correspondent. He too gave “the final credit to the people of the state who continued with the demand”.

Choudhury did give some credit to the central government. “You have to admit that in the last two years, Suresh Prabhu kept the focus on the project. He built a team spirit for it.”

Bridge to Bangladesh

The 437-km gauge conversion work between the Lumding-Silchar (in Assam) and Badarpur-Agartala sections was sanctioned in 1996 by the Deve Gowda government. The Manmohan Singh government declared it a national project in 2004 and ensured the railways all the funds to complete it as soon as possible. But the project was hit by insurgency. Work resumed only in 2010. The Lumding-Silchar section was converted last year followed by the remaining 227-km Badarpur-Agartala stretch, thus connecting uninterrupted 600-km of the BG line from Guwahati to Agartala. The project, which cost the Northeast Frontier Railway an approximate Rs 2016 crore, has 233 minor and major bridges besides the 1,962-metre Longtharai tunnel, said to be the longest railway tunnel in eastern India.

By March, 2018, the BG line will stretch to the border town of Sabroom. Speaking to the media in Agartala, Prabhu said, “It would then be very easy to connect with the Chittagong international sea port in southeast Bangladesh, which is just 75 km from Sabroom.” In June last year, Modi laid the foundation stone of a bridge over River Feni to connect Sabroom with Bangladesh’s hill town Khagrachari.

Though this will be the second railway link between India and Bangladesh after the Kolkata-Dhaka line, the one that is expected to make a lot more difference to Tripura in particular is the 15.06-km Agartala-Akhaura rail link, agreed by the UPA-II government during Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s visit in 2012. While 5.05 km of this rail link will be in India, the rest will be in Bangladesh. As per the agreement, the Indian Railways will bear the entire cost of the project.

On July 31, Prabhu laid the foundation stone for the rail link in the presence of his Bangladesh counterpart Mujibul Haque. Prabhu said, “The Agartala-Akahura rail link will be a part of the Train Asian Rail Network.” The project, is likely to be completely in 2017.

In May this year, the Tripura government had written to the foreign minister Sushma Swaraj to include the state in the 81,000-km Trans-Asian Railway Network by extending a rail route from Jawharnagar in the state’s Dhalai district to Kalay in Myanmar through Darlawn in the neighbouring Mizoram state.

“More than anything else, the Agartala-Akhaura rail link will enhance connectivity in the region, a major bottleneck otherwise. It should be looked at from the prism of the Centre’s Look East policy. It is also a step towards neighbourly friendship,” said Joyeeta Bhattacharjee, an expert on India-Bangladesh relations at the Observer Research Foundation. “Development”, she added, “will be the obvious result of it as connectivity is directly linked to development issues”.

Media reports quoted Prabhu as saying, “Next year, the Indian Railways will allocate approximately Rs 7,000 crore for developmental projects in the region”. He said, “Indian Railways Catering and Tourism Corporation (IRCTC) would be advised to explore possibility of developing tourist packages including northeast and Bangladesh so that more and more people can get connected to the region”.

Both Choudhury and Manik Kanti Deb “are also happy that this new connectivity with Bangladesh will help a landlocked Tripura avoid crisis like the recent one it underwent due to waterlogging on the NH8 between the state and Assam”.

“The Akhaura link will also open a rail link between Kolkata and Agartala,” Choudhury said.

Meanwhile, the maiden Tripura Sundari Express train, covering a distance of 2480 kms in 47 hours, arrived at the Anand Vihar station on Tuesday. Presently, the train has a weekly service.

“If a private airline (Indigo) can run a daily flight from Delhi to Agartala, I don’t know why the Indian Railways, considered to be Asia’s largest rail network, can’t run a train every day,” Billow remarked.