Though there was a lot of politics involved in the proposed 130 kms Rishikesh-Karanprayag railway line, whose foundation stone was laid on Nov 9 at Gairsain, with both the two major political players of Uttrakhand, Congress and the BJP, trying to take credit for it in the wake of the elections to the state vidhan sabha early next year, the project means a lot to the people of this small mountain state.
Aware of the fact that the proposed railway line would be making inroads into just a small portion of the state and benefiting a very small percentage of the population, but the people are optimistic that once completed it will open up the economy of the region. Besides, once the Railways starts earning from the railway line, there are expectations that it will take the line further to the interiors.
As of now the Railways just reaches the peripheries of Uttrakhand and have not been extended by even a metre after independence. There are stations at Kotdwara, Rishikesh, Dehra Dun and Kathgodam and more or less cater to the large population from the plains coming to the hills. As far as the local population is concerned, a large percentage remains largely unaffected by the existing Railway lines, but hopefully, after five years when the Rishikesh-Karanprayag line becomes a reality, the scenario will change.
The four dhams of Badrinath, Kedarnath, Yamnotri and Gangotri, besides the Hemkund Sahib, a popular place of pilgrimage for the Sikhs, are in the hinterlands of Utarakhand. A pilgrimage to these shrines is not without its share of problems as the roads are washed away during rains and in poor condition due to landslides and landslips. There are occasions when traffic is suspended for days because of this.
A senior official of the Badrinath Trust said, on conditions of anonymity, that the earnnings of the four major dhams would go up manifold once the railway line comes up, even if it is only till Karanprayag. â€œMany aged and infirm persons shirk on doing the trip to the four dhams because of fears on the conditions of the road, and once trains start running on the track, many of them will undertake the pilgrimageâ€, he felt.
The state survives on money order economy, courtesy the money sent to the families back home by those working in the plains and as such there is not enough spending power. As of now most of the finished products and material have to be sent by road, and due to the high cost of petrol and diesel, most of the goods are about 20 to 25 per cent more costly in the hills. It is hoped that once the trains start running, transportation of goods will not only become easier, but cheaper also which will benefit the cash-starved people.
Not only goods, but even reaching villages in the hills will become less costly as the buses that ply are also very costly. It is being presumed that fares of the passenger trains running in the hills will be about 50 per cent cheaper than the current fares of the buses.
While the trains will add a new dimension to pilgrimage and tourism in the hills, there are also hopes that it could expedite industrialization and pave the way for setting up industrial units in the higher reaches of the state. In fact there has been an industrial area identified at Karanprayag itself, but it has not been developed so far because of no takers, but the railway line could well change the situation.
Expected to cost about Rs 4500 crores and completed in five years the project envisages 19 tunnels, the longest being 4.5 kms, 128 bridges of which 45 are going to be major bridges, besides another 18 road road over bridges and 20 under bridges and is going to be an engineering marvel.
Even how the initial plan for bringing a railway line to the heights of Garhwal was conceived is intriguing. It is said that Naik Darban Singh Negi who was decorated with the Victoria Cross for his gallantry in the First World War was asked by then viceroy for a wish. Rather than seeking anythining for himself, Negi who hailed from the region asked that the area be linked with a railway line.
Consequently, the viceroy directed that a survey be conducted and the first survey for the railway line was conducted sometime in 1923. But the project fell along the wayside after another survey was done for a narrow gauge railway line in 1935 till the matter was again taken up in 1996 by then minister of state for railways Satpal Maharaj, who also happens to belong to Garhwal hills and another survey was conducted, this time for a broad gauge railway line.