Saturday, July 05, 2008

Human costs of new India rail link

By Subir Bhaumik
BBC News, Agartala

Construction of the railway track in Tripura
There were 28 rebel attacks during the construction of the rail link

What are the human costs of building a railway link in one of India's most restive regions?

To begin with, 36 people - railway workers and security forces guarding the tracks - died in some 28 rebel attacks during work to link the north-eastern city of Agartala in Tripura state to the rest of the country.

That's not all.

A total of 67 people connected with work on the rail link were kidnapped by the rebels. Only 19 were freed after ransom payouts.

The fate of the rest is still unknown.

Map

On top of all that, a raging tribal insurgency in Tripura has ensured that the $186m, 109km-long (68-mile) link took 15 years to build.

But by the end of June, the link will be complete and Agartala will become the second state capital of north-east India - after Assam's capital, Guwahati - to find a place on India's railway map.

Big network

Trains first reached Tripura in 1964 when the railway was extended to the state's northern business hub, Dharmanagar. Later it was extended further to Kumarghat.

"But it has taken more than 40 years since then to connect Agartala by rail," said Tripura Chief Minister Manik Sarkar.

In the last two years, Tripura's communist-led government has successfully contained the tribal insurgency.

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has declared the railway link in Tripura a national project and more connections are planned.

Agartala station
The link runs to the Tripura capital, Agartala (Photo: Debiprasad Bhowmik)

Next on the cards is the extension of the railway from Agartala to southern Tripura.

FS Meena, chief engineer of the Northeast Frontier Railway, said work to build the 110km Agartala-Sabroom line would begin by January.

The project would cost almost as much as the one just completed to connect Agartala.

"After Indian Railways extends its line up to Sabroom, it would be very easy to connect with the Chittagong international port in Bangladesh, which is just 75km from there," says Manik Sarkar.

India recently signed a deal with Burma to upgrade the Sittwe port so that goods from Indian ports can land there and then be taken up to India's Mizoram state by river for onward shipment to other north-east Indian states.

"But if Bangladesh plays ball and allows Chittagong to be used for north-east Indian states, we will have an alternative access to the north-east from the Indian mainland," said Mr Sarkar.

The first train in the subcontinent ran on a 33km (21-mile) stretch of track from Mumbai (Bombay) to Thane in western India in 1853.

The first passenger train rolled out of the eastern city of Calcutta the following year.

Today, Indian Railways operate at least 11,000 trains every day covering 63,465km (39,435 miles) across the length and breadth of the country, making it one of the world's largest rail networks

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