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Rail budget runs over north hopes

- South Dinajpur left out, no Calcutta train announced

Siliguri, July 8: People of north Bengal who were hoping for better train connectivity expressed disappointment today as not a single train was announced in the Union rail budget to link the region to the state capital or Delhi.

Residents, stakeholders of the tourism industry and representatives of political parties said the importance of north Bengal, a gateway to the northeastern states, was ignored by the government at the Centre as the region did not feature in the budget that was presented in Parliament today.

“The Union railway minister seems to have forgotten about north Bengal. He did not announce a single train (for the region),” Sougata Basu, a Siliguri resident who works in a private finance firm, said.

“It is disappointing to learn that the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway, the Sikkim rail link project and the axle factory project at New Jalpaiguri did not find place in the budget. We feel completely deprived.”

A project to connect Sikkim with Sevoke, 20km from Siliguri, was taken up by Mamata Banerjee in 2004 when she was in charge of the railways but it is yet to commence. Similar is the condition of the axle factory planned in New Jalpaiguri.

“After the NDA was voted to power, we had huge hopes that S.S. Ahluwalia (the BJP MP from Darjeeling) would find a place in the Union cabinet, at least as a Union minister of state. Much to our despair, we found that he was not included,” Basu added.

A section of BJP leaders in the region tried to sound positive by saying three long-distance trains originating from Assam would indirectly benefit north Bengal as these trains would pass through Cooch Behar, Alipurduar, Jalpaiguri and Darjeeling districts and parts of North Dinajpur.

“It is true that not a single train was announced for north Bengal. But because of the geographical location of the region, it would benefit from trains originating from the Northeast. At least three such trains were announced today that north Bengal residents can take to go to south and north India,” a BJP leader in Siliguri said on condition of anonymity.

The trains are the Guwahati-Bangalore Premium Express, Naharlagun-New Delhi (weekly) AC Express and Kamakhya-Katra (weekly) Express via Darbhanga.

Of the three trains, two would pass through four districts of north Bengal and parts of North Dinajpur before entering Bihar. The Premium Express would run via Malda.

None of the three trains, however, would travel through South Dinajpur.

Animesh Bose, an environmentalist from Siliguri, said: “The railway minister has announced surveys for third and even fourth tracks in some stretches of western India. But he did not mention anything about double-lining the NJP-New Alipurduar stretch. Maximum number of trains, right from Rajdhani Express to local passenger and goods trains, run on this route. The Dooars track is also there but it has proved to be vulnerable for wild animals. Over 50 elephants have died in the past 12 years on the Dooars stretch. Unless the main track (NJP-New Alipurduar via Jalpaiguri Road) is doubled, trains would keep running along the Dooars killing more animals. The Centre should have included the project of doubling the main track to prevent animal deaths.”

Asked about including Sikkim in the Indian railway map and the proposed axle factory in New Jalpaiguri, a businessman from Siliguri said: “These projects are important for the region and would have generated employment. The axle factory is still considered the largest industrial project planned by the Centre in north Bengal.”

Birendra Chhetri added: “None of these were mentioned in the budget.”

Residents of South Dinajpur sounded upset as many were hopeful that the Centre would announce the much-needed direct train link between Balurghat and Calcutta.

“Local BJP leaders while campaigning for the recent Lok Sabha polls had promised to look at introducing trains between South Dinajpur and Calcutta. But nothing happened. We have to face lot of hardships while travelling to Calcutta. We are very disappointed with the budget,” said Hareram Saha, secretary of the Balurghat chamber of commerce.

In 2004, Mamata Banerjee had introduced the Eklakhi-Balurghat train to include the district in the rail network.

“Our leader Biswapriya Roy Choudhury (state general secretary of the BJP) had gone to Delhi and he had submitted a letter to the railway minister demanding a direct train (between South Dinajpur and Calcutta). We don’t know what went wrong. We will talk to our state and national leaders,” Gautam Sarkar, the South Dinajpur district BJP president, said.