Prolonged disruption of surface communication across major part of the northeast due to floods and landslides has renewed the demand for fast-tracking the railway and road connectivity with India’s “mainland” through Bangladesh.
Southern Assam’s Barak Valley, the southern half of Manipur, Mizoram and Tripura are dependent on the arterial Lumding-Badarpur railway line for transport essentials from other parts of the country. A national highway through Meghalaya shares some of the passenger and cargo load, while another through Assam’s Dima Hasao has not quite been serviceable.
The 185-km railway line connecting Lumding in central Assam’s Hojai district and Badarpur in southern Assam’s Karimganj district, much of it though the hill district of Dima Hasao, has been prone to landslides since the metre gauge track of 1899 vintage was realigned and converted to broad gauge in 2015. Badarpur is the junction from where the tracks branch out to Silchar (30 km away), Jiribam in Manipur, Bairabi in Mizoram and Agartala in Tripura.
The two highways have a similar problem, particularly during the four monsoon months, June to September.
On May 14, rain-induced landslides and flash floods damaged the railway line in Dima Hasao at 56 locations. The highways either caved in or were blocked in many places, affecting road transport for days. These cut off Barak Valley, parts of Manipur, Mizoram and Tripura for weeks.
Subimal Bhattacharjee, a Delhi-based cyber security expert from Silchar, said the landslide-prone railway and highways make the revival of old British-era routes through present-day Bangladesh all the important for at least five north-eastern States, including Meghalaya.
“The Maitri Bridge across the Feni River connects Sabroom in Tripura and Ramgarh in Bangladesh while efforts are on to take the railway line beyond Sabroom. Another railway line connecting Agartala and Akhaura in Bangladesh is in the works,” he said.
“These will improve Tripura’s connectivity by leaps and bounds. But Mizoram, Manipur, Barak Valley, Dima Hasao and Meghalaya will be better served by the old British line through Mahisasan on the Assam-Bangladesh border with Badarpur becoming the communication hub,” Mr Bhattacharjee said.
Mahisasan in Barak Valley’s Karimganj district used to be connected to Chittagong via Kulaura, the nearest town in Moulvibazar district of Bangladesh.
“I am a strong proponent of connectivity, especially between Sylhet and our long-separated cousins in the Barak Valley. Chittagong-Badarpur-Haflong railway line is one of the oldest set up by the British to carry goods and traffic. We need to reconnect Kulaura with Mahisasan and beyond. This would be a win-win situation for both Assam and Bangladesh,” Ishfaq Ilahi, a retired Air Commodore of Bangladesh Air Force specialising in international affairs told The Hindu.
“I also visualise direct train between Sylhet and Silchar, just like the one we have between Kolkata and Khulna. I proposed the other day in a meeting with Indian High Commissioner here (Dhaka) to build a friendship bridge between Karimganj and Zakiganj (Bangladesh) across the Kushiara River, with immigration facilities on either side,” he added.
Officials at the Guwahati-headquartered Northeast Frontier Railway (NFR) said a 2.7-km line from Mahisasan to Zero Point (on the border) is expected to be commissioned by December 2023. “Taking the track beyond into Bangladesh would then be a matter of time,” a spokesperson said.
The NFR has also sanctioned ₹43.23 crore for a final locational survey of a 208-km railway track connecting Chandranathpur in Cachar district and Lanka in Hojai district. This is seen as a less disaster-prone alternative to the Lumding-Badarpur line, which is being restored with a ₹180-crore package.
Railway and road connectivity between Barak Valley and West Bengal via Bangladesh is expected to cut the travel time by 24-36 hours.