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Sealdah or Gede, Bangla train on track

Dhaka, May 6: Some 25 miles from here, the railway station at Joydebpur is getting ready for the arrival of a train from Calcutta. When that happens, it will be an historic revival of a journey that was stalled by the 1965 war between India and Pakistan.

Much water has flown down the Padma since that war. A new nation was born in former East Pakistan following another war with India in 1971. But, bus and train journeys between India and Bangladesh continued to be stalled — this time by politics and diplomacy.

If everything goes as planned, the Calcutta-Dhaka train will resume its journey on July 1. As the line from Joydebpur to Dhaka is metre gauge, the train from Calcutta will terminate at Joydebpur. It will go up to Dhaka when the line is converted to broad gauge.

Even if some hitches delay the journeys, both Indian and Bangladeshi officials are confident that nothing will derail the trains of history. Buses began plying between Calcutta and Dhaka in 1999, when Sheikh Hasina’s Bangladesh Awami League was in power.

The trains will ease the demand for bus tickets, for which Bangladeshi passengers now have to wait for weeks.

More important, though, is that the train is part of moves to improve relations between the countries. The train journey, mooted by Sheikh Hasina’s government in 1996, was shelved when Khaleda Zia took charge in 2001. The idea was revived by the present army-backed caretaker government, which has developed good equations with Delhi.

There still is one area of disagreement. The two sides have different views on where the immigration formalities are to be completed. According to an Indian high commission official here, Delhi wants the checks to be done at Gede on the Indian side and at Darshana in Bangladesh.

Dhaka wants immigration procedures to be completed at the departure points at Joydebpur and Sealdah.

A Bangladesh railway official said Gede and Darshana do not have the facilities and immigration requirements at these points would unnecessarily delay the journeys.

An eight-hour journey could take another two hours because of the checks.

But Indian officials argue that the checks are most effective at border points. “If the checks are to be done at departure points, how do we ensure that illegal travellers don’t get into the trains on the way'” asks an Indian official. “What do we do with them if some such travellers land at Sealdah'”

Rahmatullah, a former transportation analyst with the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific, does not think the difference is big enough to either derail or delay the trains. There are international norms for immigration checkpoints. Besides, the two countries can draw on their experiences with the bus service.

He has memories of train journeys from Calcutta, where his father used to work, to Goalando Ghat by the Padma. Bengali writers have romantic stories to tell about the train reaching Goalando Ghat, the delicious Bengali food at the eateries there and the steamer cruises from there across the Padma to Narayanganj and then to Dhaka and other places by train or bus.

“I don’t deny the romance of crossing the mighty Padma on the steamer. But it was also a chaotic experience — getting off the train at crowded Goalando Ghat with loads of baggage, running around with the coolies and making your way through the mess to the steamers. In the melee, many people lost their belongings and were robbed,” Rahmatullah recalls.

All that is history. The modern journey will involve no steamer cruises. The trains will cross two of South Asia’s mightiest rivers — the Padma and the Jamuna, but over the bridges. The bridge over the Jamuna, called Bangabandhu Setu, is Asia’s longest river bridge and was opened in 1999.

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