Mega block: Gauge conversion to cut off 74 lakh people in NE

  • Rahul Karmakar, Hindustan Times, Guwahati
  • Updated: Oct 01, 2014 12:43 IST

For a region fed up with economic blockades enforced by non-state players, this is one mega block the northeast does not mind.

From Wednesday, 74.24 lakh people in Mizoram, Tripura and four districts of Assam will be terrestrially cut off for six months. The reason: Northeast Frontier Railway’s (NFR) final push for gauge conversion on ‘India’s toughest hill section’.

More than a century old, the existing 220km Lumding (central Assam)-Silchar (southern Assam) metre gauge track has been the lifeline for people in this sub-region. The last train -- Barak Valley Express -- chugged off from Silchar on Tuesday to virtually cut them off.

Silchar does have a 343km landslide-prone highway to Guwahati via Meghalaya. An indefinite economic blockade by a Meghalaya-based group protesting the National Green Tribunal’s ban on unscientific coal mining in the state does not make it much of an alternative.

Besides, Mizoram capital Aizawl, Tripura capital Agartala and Silchar provide limited air access.

Consequently, Mizoram has turned to adjoining Myanmar and Tripura to Bangladesh for foodgrains.

“We have shipped in 5,000 metric tons of rice through Bangladesh. The state government and FCI together can store for only 90 days, so we have asked Meghalaya and Assam to ensure smooth movement of trucks,” Tripura’s food and civil supplies special secretary Saumitra Bandopadhyay said.

Tripura chief minsiter Manik Sarkar has also written to Prime Minister Narendra Modi to streamline supply of essentials through Bangladesh.

Mizoram, on the other hand, is importing its monthly requirement of 1,300 tons of rice from Myanmar. “Foodgrains from our neighbouring country work out cheaper,” the state’s food and civil supplies commissioner, R Lalvena said. His department opened tenders from Myanmar suppliers on Tuesday.

“The mega block was inevitable, and the authorities concerned were intimated for making alternative arrangements,” a senior NFR officer said.

NFR engineers say the Lumding-Silchar sector is the toughest hill section in India. The project was started in December 1996 but ran into rough weather because of funds crunch and militancy -- at least 60 workers, officers and executives were either killed or abducted for ransom -- besides geological and climatic factors.

“We had a window of only four winter months per year to work. Landslides and ground sinking added to our problems. We also had to drill 17 tunnels, two of them 1.68km and 3.23 km long,” Ajit Pandit, NFR’s chief administrative officer, told HT.

Initially estimated at Rs 648 crore, the project will thus exceed Rs 5,000 crore after completion of several branch lines after the gauge conversion of the main section. The broad track, 14km shorter than the meter gauge one it replaces, entailed construction of 29 stations.

The gauge conversion, railway officials said, is crucial for India’s ambitious railway link to Southeast Asia. The hill section will branch off to Tupul near Manipur capital Imphal, from where it is likely to be extended to Myanmar and beyond.

Another line branching off to Agartala is expected to be taken to Chittagong via Sabroom (Tripura) for seaport access. For the time being, NFR is connecting Agartala to Akhaura in Bangladesh 15 km away.

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