Indian Railways has for long been a symbolic iron link binding the country together. But the experience of Assam and other NE states with the Railways has not been a happy one. True, the region is connected to the rest of the country by rail link, however tenuous it might be. But equally true is the sil’s pace of development of rail infrastructure in the Northeast. Even then, its gradual expansion in the region evokes mixed feelings among residents. It is difficult for many to shake off the belief that agents of exploitation and undesirable elements come in from outside as rail tracks become operative. Such feelings are heightened because laying down a rail network has an air of fility, irreversibility about it. So the authorities of Indian Railways need to win the battle of perception in the minds of NE residents. This it has failed to do so far. For the umpteenth time, student activists and other protestors had to agitate in Maligaon recently against the Railways’ recruitment drive. What the protestors found galling was that only a tiny fraction of the estimated 20 thousand applicants from the Northeast were called for examition for 659 posts of water carriers, gardeners, tailors, barbers, cleaners and constables in the Railway Protection Force (RPF) and Railway Protection Special Force (RPSF). Can it be believed that so many local applicants were considered unfit to even sit for examition to such lower level jobs in the Railways?
The outcry was such that even the Assam Government had to seek clarifications from NF Railway authorities about how many posts the interviews were held for, as well as how many candidates were from the State. Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi was frustrated enough to comment that unless the Northeast gets a separate railway zone for itself, there is little hope for candidates from this region securing railway jobs. He pointed out that in the present system, parts of West Bengal and Bihar are included in the Northeast Frontier Railway (NFR), and jobs are shared accordingly. The Railway authorities may talk about meritocracy in their latest countrywide recruitment drive. But the fact remains that very few candidates from the Northeast succeed in getting a Railways post. Is it because the youths from this region are ignorant about employment opportunities in the Railways, and are they simply not good enough even if they try? Or is it that there are very powerful, entrenched interests in the Railways totally opposed to recruit NE candidates even for lowly, menial jobs? The Central government speaks of recruiting local candidates for third and fourth grade posts in its offices, but surely it does not follow this policy sincerely in the Northeast.
For long, the railways were a medium of colonial exploitation funneling away raw materials from the country during the British Raj. Unfortutely, it still seems an alien entity in the Northeast, despite being an infrastructural component vital for the country’s development. The negative impression has been reinforced from the top itself, by the way successive Railway ministers have turned a blind eye to this region. Whether it be Nitish Kumar or Laloo Yadav from Bihar, or Mamata Banerjee or Mukul Roy from West Bengal — Srirampur seemed to be the outermost limit for rail development. The long-pending demand for doubling of the railway tracks to the Northeast is yet to be fulfilled, even as such projects are going full steam ahead in many other sections of the country having lower line capacity utilization. The vital Rangiya-Murkongselek rail route which came up in 1962 during the Chinese aggression for carrying troops to Aruchal, is slated to have broad-gauge passenger services only from March 15 this year. The Lumding-Silchar BG conversion project, so significant for the economy of south Assam and the neighbouring states of Tripura, Manipur and Mizoram, has been missing deadlines since it began in 1996. It will be a huge relief if the NFR authorities do mage to complete it this year. There is similar huffing and puffing to complete the Bogibeel rail bridge even by 2016. Given this background, Indian Railways has a task in its hands to win hearts in the Northeast.