The story of Indian Railways (IR) is the story of colonial and post-colonial India. The State-run utility, one of the largest in the world, connects different parts of the country like no other transport system, and is almost a mobile microcosm of the nation itself. Since the first lines were laid by the colonial British government, the IR (or rather its predecessor) has got a fair amount of attention from historians, who have studied the impact it has had on the society and economy of the country.
Some feel that besides having a military purpose, railroad construction served to “ideologically justify the existence of colonial India” and it physically embodied the “civilizing mission, an ideology that sustained the assumption that they [the British] had the right to govern, arbitrate disputes, and insist upon deference”. There is another group that thinks of the railways as one of the positive outcomes of the Raj and as one which in many ways had helped to unite India and shape its political thought process.
Believers or otherwise, any medium of transport does have a positive impact on the region it connects to a wider world, and in that sense, the IR’s plans to reach all the state capitals in the Northeast by 2020 are momentous. No other region in the country probably needs this connectivity more than the NE. For years, Guwahati was the only capital among the northeastern states to have rail connectivity with mainland India, until it was joined by Agartala in 2008.
Still — and this is an embarrassing state of affairs — the capitals of Meghalaya, Manipur, Nagaland, Mizoram and Sikkim do not have any rail link. This lack of connectivity between the NE and mainland India has had huge costs for the people in terms of mobility and development, robbing the region of the chance to join the India growth story despite its huge potential.
The lack of opportunities for the young also had dangerous fallouts: The region — and the country — lost thousands to militancy and drugs. “I want Northeast to be connected via rail and road to other parts of the country, to Myanmar and subsequently to other countries,” Prime Minister Narendra Modi said after flagging off the first passenger train to Meghalaya from Assam in November last year, adding, “If the Northeast gets good connectivity, then the entire nation will come here”.
Often, the Northeast states are described as “sensitive” in terms of security. It’s wrong to typecast the region in such a unidimensional way. The new connectivity with the mainland will probably help the region to recast its image and help it in unlocking its immense social and economic potential. This can only enrich India economically, socially and culturally.