Originally Published 2014-01-22 05:49:01 Published on Jan 22, 2014
The rail connectivity schemes in the Northeast, if implemented in a timely manner, would possibly achieve what decades of politico-administrative soft power and military hard power struggled to - bring about peace and economic development in a region embroiled in protracted ethnic conflicts.
Networking the Northeast through the 'rail route'
" Itanagar, the capital of Arunachal Pradesh, the 'Frontier State' in the easternmost part of India, is on the verge of being integrated into the Indian Railways network through a 33 km broad gauge line laid between Harmuti and Naharlagun. The first trial engine run was conducted successfully last week. This project will be reinforced with the gauge conversion of the 510 km Rangia - Murkongselek line running along the North Bank of the River Brahmaputra (predominantly in Assam, with some works in Arunachal Pradesh). A critical part of this link, the 172 km Rangpara - North Lakhimpur stretch, which is being tapped to connect Itanagar, has been accorded top priority. Besides, the crucial double-decker Rail cum Road Bogibeel Bridge project connecting the South and North Banks near Dibrugarh, promises unprecedented potential of propelling regional development.

Hitherto, a compelling argument has been made regarding India's lack-lustre performance vis-à-vis China in the Arunachal Pradesh equation. The prime force upholding India's sovereignty over Arunachal Pradesh is the democratic mandate exercised by the 'citizens'. Railway integration would strategically leverage the sovereign claim - the network unarguably being the bloodstream of the nation. The development would induce faster progress on all other fronts - infrastructural, industrial, agricultural and socio-economic. This project is an essential prerequisite for India to advantageously exploit the Stilwell Road (Ledo Road - connecting India (Assam, Arunachal Pradesh) to China's Kunming through Myanmar's Myitkyina) vis-à-vis China.

The case being made against the road was the fear that 'expansionist' China might overwhelm the North East market through the route, while playing a military aggressor in case of a conflict. "The post-1962 war psychosis —if we build roads into the Northeast, it might be a potential security threat —is one that has to go away." Comprehensive capacity building led by the 'railway engine' would go a long way in balancing the scale.

At the very core is the larger agenda that combines development, welfare, empowerment and strategy. The North East Frontier railway network comprises a route length of merely 2600 km, of which 1454 km is on the broad gauge (mostly within Assam) and the remaining on the metre gauge. The strategy behind the national projects is based on expeditious linking of every State capital with the network, which would be enhanced through gauge conversion and double lining, wherever viable. Besides Arunachal Pradesh, capitals of Meghalaya, Manipur, Nagaland, Mizoram and Sikkim are to be networked. For this objective, there are several projects either in planning or in implementation stages.

The 30 km Azra-Byrnihat link is the first step to rail connectivity to Meghalaya's capital Shillong (further 60 km). Another crucial link, the 20 km Dudhnoi-Mendipathar line in the Garo Hills, in the works for about two decades, has been reported at over 70 per cent completion, with crucial bridge constructions achieved. The trial run, similarly, is scheduled for March 2014. This project is said to trump the predominant law & order and insurgency problems in the Garo Hills Region.

The 98 km Jiribam-Imphal link connects the Manipur's capital to the network - thereby reducing the need for road transit from Dimapur Railway Station across the troubled Manipur-Nagaland border. The 88 km long Dimapur-Zubza link would connect the Nagaland's capital Kohima to the network. Nagaland CM Neiphiu Rio recently visited New Delhi to push for expediting the project. The 51 km Katakhal (near Silchar)-Bhairabi-Sairang link, planned for completion by mid-2014, would be further developed to reach Mizoram's capital Aizawl (gauge conversion for the Katakhal-Bhairabhi link was planned to be taken up along with that of the Lumding-Silchar link).

Scaling up connectivity in southern Assam near Tripura and Mizoram, through the gauge conversion of the 368 km Lumding-Silchar-Kumarghat link (and further linking the Southern border town of Sabroom via capital Agartala) is being prioritised to revive the large scale trade and commodity transportation using the Chittagong port, to the level of a win-win India - Bangladesh partnership.

The 53 km Sivok-Rangpo line, further extending another 60 km to capital Gangtok, is crucial, given the near complete dependence of Sikkim on peace in the Darjeeling valley; the State often gets cut-off due to turmoil situations.

The Union Cabinet Committee on Economic Affairs may have by now cleared the proposal for Foreign Direct Investment in Railways' green field Freight Corridor and High-Speed Lines projects. There is a compelling case for bringing FDI proposals, at least through Public-Private Partnership mode (considering National Interest imperatives) to the North East Frontier Railway (NEFR) National Projects.

The entire scheme, if achieved in a timely manner, would possibly achieve what decades of politico-administrative soft power and military hard power struggled to - bring about peace and economic development in a region embroiled in protracted ethnic conflicts. But to realise this vision well in time, New Delhi needs to get its act right. As some observers as asserted, we suffer from a perpetual 'implementation bug'. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh during a recent meeting with the region's State Chief Ministers (to review the infrastructural progress in the region), issued instructions to newly constitute a Monitoring Committee under the Planning Commission to ensure expeditious and disciplined implementation of these projects. Time and cost overruns due to contract and work indiscipline represent a vicious circle.

As per reports released by the authorities, land acquisition isn't a significant issue in the case of Railway projects. Yet, a diverse plains region cut through by dense forests and river streams, and a very challenging hill terrain, makes it an engineering mega-task. Besides, the very approach to Environmental Impact Assessment and Clearance needs to undergo transformation, with a more positive policy and strategic agenda, rather than a characteristic monitoring and 'clearing' role - which perpetually drifts into an activist mode upholding the anti-development thesis.

Security issues and violence (evident from the latest spurt of desperate attempts by insurgent groups operating under the Bodo, Kamtapuri, Garo, A'chik, Naga, Kuki, Kangleipak and Twipra banners) threaten with continuous disruption. The project in the Garo Hills region has already suffered several sabotages through erratic attacks and kidnappings for ransom.

A robust public-opinion building exercises is essential to induce a sustained policy push through a popular pro-development surge. The collective concern shown by the State Chief Ministers - thus challenging the predominant view of an inter-state disharmony - must be capitalised on. The North East Council's potential to notch up a joint Union - States effort to streamline project implementation, especially at inter-state borders (a typical case being Assam - Arunachal Pradesh disagreements) can be fully realised through this scheme.

The Railways have a special advantage of a unified command structure, with the NEFR undertaking the projects, unlike road sector development with multi-tier agencies (Border Roads Organisation, State Public Works Departments, etc.) overlapping jurisdictions, often resulting in inordinate stalling. This mission can truly be the growth engine to pull together all other developmental imperatives for the North East Region in particular and India in general.

(The writer is a Research Intern at Observer Research Foundation, Delhi)

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