Friday, January 16, 2009

Lack of rail network in K’mal may have led to violence

The Pioneer, Jan 16, 2009
Er Lalit Patnaik | Bhubaneswar

For last few months Orissa has been in the news globally but for all wrong reasons. National and international media gave wide coverage to the recent violence in Kandhamal. But there was hardly any report that focussed on the causes that led to such a situation. Interestingly, most of the people missed out the fact that the lack of railways connectivity to this backward region could have been one of the reasons for violence in Kandhamal.

Poor tribals and other deprived sections of Kandhamal have been isolated from mainstream Orissa because of lack of railways connectivity. The district is a hilly region and does not have proper communication with neighbouring cities.

Interestingly, Railways have always played an important role in economic development and rapid social transformation across the globe, as it is a cheap mode to transport. Unfortunately, in a poor and backward State like Orissa, development of rail network has received very less attention of the Union Government ever since Independence. This is one of the main reason for the backwardness of tribals’ and other areas of the State.

The poor railway connectivity continues to keep them backward and deprive them of catching up with the mainstream. Due to lack of connectivity, the tribals cannot intermingle with the outside world and hence, their social transformation failed to take place. Also, their products cannot be transported easily to city markets and they are forced to dispose goods at throwaway prices in the local markets. As a result, traders come to Kandhamal and take away things at very less price.

In Kandhamal, the populations of tribals and SCs are 51.51 per cent and 18.21 per cent, respectively. Therefore, the demand for railway line connecting Lanjigarah, Phulbani and Angul that would bisect Kandhamal region and also the upcoming Khurda-Balangir rail link to serve as a bypass between Bhubaneswar and Koraput region is gaining momentum. People in Kandhamal are eagerly waiting for the proposed rail links. The rate of return (RoR) from this rail link will be more than 14 per cent, which is required by the Railway Board to sanction a new line. The rail link will shorten the distance between the coalmines in Angul district and bauxite mines in Koraput district by more than 100 km.

Aluminum major Nalco at Angul transports coal to its refinery plant in Koraput and brings back alumina to Angul. So, this reduction in distance will also save time in transportation and enhance the rate of return. Other aluminum companies like RSB, Vedanta and Hindalco will follow suit and the new line via Kandhamal will earn more than 20 per cent RoR.

Besides transportation by major industries, other commodities to Rayagada, Koraput, Malkangiri, Kalahandi and Nuapada districts will also pass through this line via Khurda as it will be shorter by more than 200 km vis-a-vis the existing rail link passing through Andhra Pradesh.

As for a blueprint on railway network expansion in Orissa, Prof Chitta Baral of the US-based Arizona University has done an extensive as well as intensive study on the subject. He has been educating policy makers and public in general on the importance of a good railway network. He has documented the current railway scenario in the State for preparing the blueprint for its expansion. According to him, the country's transport map clearly shows that Orissa has a very low rail density vis-a-vis other States and a majority of this low density region in the State is located in KBK and Kandhamal districts.

The question arises why rail connectivity is important for any region. The Planning Commission addresses this as follows: Railways have always played an important role in economic development and rapid social transformation all over the globe. It is one of the key economic infrastructures. However, it is most unfortunate that in a poor and backward State like Orissa, there is very less development of rail networks due to apathy of the Central Government since Independence. There are as many as seven districts, Boudh, Kandhamal, Deogarh, Nayagarh, Kendrapara, Malkangiri and Nabarangpur, which do not have a railway line passing through them. In 1998-99, the density of railway line length per 1,000 sq km of area in Orissa was only 15.03 km as against 42.66 km in West Bengal and an average of 19.11 km in the whole country.

Consistent with the above report, the KBK and Kandhamal districts are among the most backward districts of the country. They are also Maoist-infested, have high tribal populations and lack proper connectivity. In essence, they are another frontier of India like Jammu and Kashmir and the North-East. It is very unfortunate. So why the Indian Railways is still apathetic in establishing connectivity to KBK and Kandhamal even after knowing the above facts is difficult to understand. The railway authorities often cite the profitability issue. But if it can lay unprofitable lines in J&K and the North-East and plan to convert gauges of over 12,000 km of loss-making routes, why is it turning a deaf ear to persistent pleas of the people of Orissa for establishing rail links in this backward region?

It is a well-known fact that the Indian Railways is making huge profit from its cargo operations in Orissa.

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