Sunday, January 22, 2012

Barak Valley's Transit Tragedy

Barak Valley is among the most geographically disadvantaged locations anywhere in the country. With the partition of India in 1947, the natural extension of the valley, the Sylhet plains, became another country. And the then undivided Cachar district was left trapped with the Lushai, Borail and Jaintia hills surrounding it from three sides.

For the vast flood plains of the valley, there was no connectivity though the plains, to reach the Indian mainland. The people had to traverse through the treacherous hills surrounding it to even reach the state capital, Dispur.

Traversing through the hills should not have been an issue of much concern in this era of high technological development. Both the central and state governments should have taken efforts to provide connectivity to this region, which had tremendous commercial potential. Unfortunately, nothing of this sort happened. If anything, the situation has only worsened in the last fifty years.

Till the 1990s, the metre gauge connectivity to Guwahati, was a convenient option for the people of Barak Valley. Two trains – the Barak Valley Express and the Cachar Express plied regularly between Silchar and Guwahati. However, since the introduction of broad gauge up to Lumding, the train services connecting the valley have suffered tremendously. The poor management of the hill section by the Northern Frontier Railway has further compounded the problem. The broad gauge conversion work has been in progress since 1996 and nobody really knows when it will see the light of the day.

The road connectivity through the Jaintia hills was also in decent shape till even a couple of years back. Apart from the occasional landslides at Sonapur, National Highway 44 remained motorable through out the year. However, disaster stuck, when the notoriously corrupt Assam PWD took over the reins of the Assam portion of the road from the Border Roads Organisation (BRO). Now, the poor maintenance and construction of the highway has created another monster for the people to tackle. In the recent times, the ridiculous or almost non-existent traffic management by Meghalaya’s Highway Police is leading to massive snarls on NH 44, which has added another new dimension to the agonies of the people.
Traffic snarl on NH 44, Photo: Shillong Times
However, all this while our leaders have only resorted to lip service. Isn’t it absolutely incomprehensible that that Assam government could not even construct a road connecting the Brahmaputra and the Barak Valleys through the territories of Assam without depending on the neighbouring state of Meghalaya? The Silchar – Haflong road had been improved by the BRO in the 1990s. But the unscrupulous PWD took over the road and made it completely useless. Now the Mahasadak is being constructed through the same stretch and much like the broad gauge project, it is on a ‘deadline missing spree’. Our representatives, across the last sixty years have been terrible failures in this regard. They should hang their heads in shame for such non-performance. 

Even when the broad gauge conversion and the Silchar – Saurashtra Highway projects are completed, they will always be susceptible to the vagaries of nature. The Borail hills through which both these corridors will pass, is bound to be landslide prone, especially during the monsoons. Moreover, the law and order situation in the Dima Hasao district has been volatile since the last couple of decades and any unrest in that district will hamper the connectivity through these routes.

Therefore, it is extremely important for Barak Valley to follow the example set by Tripura and explore Bangladesh as an alternative transit route. The Tripura government has realised that for a steady road and rail connectivity to the rest of the country, it has to depend on the neighbouring states of Assam and Meghalaya, which do not seem interested at all to cooperate with them. Therefore, they have gone all out to woo the neighbouring nation and improve their connectivity as well as business potential.

Recently, the Indian government proposed 15 transit routes between India and Bangladesh on which further discussions are in progress between the two countries. Out of these proposed routes, six are in Tripura, four each in Meghalaya and West Bengal and one in Mizoram. Quite surprisingly, Assam has not even bargained for one such transit route.  Apparently, the Tarun Gogoi government is scared of upsetting the ‘Assam movement’ lobby, who have expressed concerns that these transit points will facilitate the entry of more illegal Bangladeshis into the state.

There have been demands to provide transit to Bangladesh through the Mahishasan and Sutarkandi points in Karimganj district. The rail link via Mahishasan  was in use even after independence. However, now the metre gauge corridor has become a victim of government apathy and neglect. The Ministry of Commerce has established a business centre at Sutarkandi to promote trade between India and Bangladesh, but the centre has not realised its true potential. 
International Trade Centre at Sutarkandi near Karimganj, Photo:
However, as usual, the political leadership of the valley has remained largely quiet on this issue. BJP leader Rajdeep Roy took up the issue with the state government and requested them to look into the matter, a few months back. “We strongly condemn such initiative to block the development and connectivity of this valley. Prior to independence, the valley was well connected with the mainland through the present day Bangladesh and the valley was well known for trade and commerce. After 1947, no place suffered the wrath of partition as much as this valley. Apart from the other disadvantages, transport and communication were shattered and the valley remained at the mercy of the 2 lane NH – 44 and the meter gauge line which were laid by the British in the late 19th century,” Roy wrote, in a letter sent to Concern For Silchar.

Recently, state minister and Karimganj heavyweight Siddeque Ahmed also spoke about the importance of a transit route from Barak Valley and promised of taking up the matter in Dispur. However, no concrete steps have been initiated yet.

A transit route via Bangladesh will mean that the people of Barak Valley will be able to reach Kolkata in less than a day. The uncertainties of travelling through the hills during the monsoons will also be taken care of. The fledgling tea industry of the region as well as the Cachar Paper Mill will also get great impetus to improve their business.

The political leadership of Tripura understood this and initiated the necessary measures. However, Barak Valley is not so fortunate. Our leaders and ministers are more keen to please the high command at Dispur and will not make any noise against their wishes, lest they lose their vaunted ministries. Therefore, the people have to wake up again. We must hit the roads to change our destiny and force our leaders to press for the inclusion of at least one transit point from Barak Valley in the ‘Great Transit Deal’ between India and Bangladesh. Because if we miss the bus this time, another opportunity may not come our way again.


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  3. Kachar – Karimganj being become a victim of partition, the Assam Govt. as well as government of India how long will remain in different to the development of the communication to this region. Long silence will alienate the region.

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Silchar through the Lense