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No Light at the End of the tunnel

Silchar-Lumding BG enmeshed in deep rooted conspiracy

By Jyoti lal Chowdhury

There is something seriously foul behind the abnormal delay in the completion of the Silchar - Lumding Broad Gauge initiated in April 1996 when the then Prime Minister Devegowda and the railway minister Ram Vilas Paswan came down to Silchar to lay the foundation of the project and set 2002 as the target date. Besides providing connectivity to Barak Valley, it would cover Manipur, Mizoram and Tripura and accelerate the socio - economic development of the North East region. With the dawning of the year 2012, the progress so far made in the construction of the 237 km long unigauge conversion is around 45 percent as revealed in the RTI of a frontline organization Silchar - Lumding BG Rupayan Sangram Committee.

At a discussion participated in by distinguished personalities from different walks of life ranging from politicians, social workers, academicians, students, youth and trade union leaders which was organized by Silchar Press Club on its 43rd foundation day on February 15th, opinions and views articulated before the packed audience attributed the delay to “a deep rooted conspiracy” in which the transport lobby, politician – bureaucrat - contractor unholy nexus, lack of coordination between the Centre and the State and most importantly the anti Barak coterie of policy makers at Dispur.

Significantly, the bogey of insurgency in the hills district creating hurdles in the construction of the BG was strongly refuted by Dethang Naiding, President of Jathike Naisho Hoson, the apex body of Dimasas, based at Haflong. How could the extension of rail head be possible in the worst hit militancy states of Tripura, Jammu and Kashmir, he asked? Even after the restoration of peace in Dima Hasao with the surrender of DHD (J) on October, 2009, the work is being carried out in a casual manner, he pointed out. Kabindra Purkayastha, BJP MP, squarely blamed the state of Assam for its lack of sincerity and honesty of purpose and this was admitted, as he said, by the successive railway ministers and the railway board Chairmen with whom he took up the issue from time to time.

Tunnel No.10 between Jatinga and New Haflong The state government’s questionable role came out brazenly when the Chief Minister of Assam, Tarun Gogoi, who submitted a memorandum to the Railway Minister, Dinesh Tripathi, in the early part of February at New Delhi, did not even make a passing reference to the BG. It was all about the projects, ongoing and proposed, as well as modernization of the tracks and stations of Brahmaputra Valley. It would be quite relevant to pinpoint certain important facts which came out in the RTI reply given by the NF Railway General Manager (construction) filed by Silchar - Lumding BG Rupayan Sangram Committee.

Even after the unigauge conversion was declared a national project by Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh in 2004, promising the people of the region that no dearth of fund would stand in the way of its completion, the progress is not only frustrating but also raises apprehensions about its fate. A glaring example is of the longest tunnel no.10 between New Haflong and Jatinga has been completed to the extent of 13 percent only till November, 2011. The contractual agency of this longest tunnel is ABCI-APPEX Group, which is not only a road transport tycoon, but has also managed to grab most of the big road construction contracts of the region. This poor progress of the construction work of the said tunnel reinforces the general allegation against the transport lobby of sabotaging the ‘national project’.

It is to be recalled that the ABCI agencies have been penalized twice for poor progress of work relating to the construction of tunnel no.7c and of major bridge no.111/157. The progress in respect of other construction work of the project is also quite frustrating. The progress of work on various other tunnels and bridges is reflective on the state of affairs within the railways and the contractual agencies. At certain places, the construction work in the hills section has been halted due to objections by the forest department and quite intriguingly the railway has been dithering on obtaining no objection certificate (NOC) from the state and the Ministry of Environment, Government of India, for the last 15 years. The railway officials have adopted a lackadaisical attitude in not making regular visits to monitor the progress of work. While the Chairman of the Railway Board visited the site twice in 2006 and 2008, the DoNER minister could make it only once in 2009.

Against the uncertainty over tunnel no.10 which is 3.6 kms long, the longest railway in India and the second in Asia Pir Panjal on the ambitious Udhampur - Baramulla railway project having a length of 10.96 km, construction of which started in 2005, was completed by the end of 2011. The tunnel that would connect Quazigund with Banihal in Jammu is along the most treacherous stretches of the Himalayas. While the ABCI-APPEX group is groping in the dark without any expertise or experience, Hindustan Construction Corporation, the contractor, adopted advanced new Australian tunnelling methodology. Now, the Pir Panjal tunnel is ready, is 100 percent water proof and is equipped with fire fighting and day - lighting system.

Dethang Naiding, President of Jadikhe Naisho Hoson.In fact, the project was initiated in 1983 when the NF Railway mooted the BG connectivity of this valley from Sukritipur to Lanka, avoiding much of the hilly terrain of North Cachar Hills, now Dima Hasao. Mysteriously, it was shelved. In 1986, the General Manager (construction) held a press-meet at Silchar railway station to share information about the laying down of BG track along with the existing MG without disturbing it with strengthening of the bridges and the tunnels. It turned out to be another lollipop for the people. In 1992, though the then Railway Minister Jaffer Sharief did not come to Silchar, he left it to Sontosh Mohan Dev, Union Minister, to tell the people here about the utopian BG head extension from Silchar to Jogighopa through the 250 kms hilly route of Meghalaya. It only raised an eyebrow since the people of Meghalaya have not agreed to the laying of 10 km of rail route from Byrnihat. It needs no repetition that the people of this valley are being taken for a ride by the politician – bureaucrat - contractor nexus, a cancerous growth on the body polity of Barak. The British railway completed Silchar – Badarpur - Lumding MG with 586 bridges and 37 tunnels in the record period of 10 years, despite all the adversities, natural, manual and technological. Today, with all the modern and sophisticated know-how and the advantages of science and technology, Indian Railways is groping in the darkness of tunnel no.10.