Heritage tag unlikely for Mahur-Harangajao Hill Track

HAFLONG: A heritage is on the verge of sinking into oblivion. The much-anticipated heritage tag for the Mahur-Harangajao section of the now-abandoned Silchar-Lumding metre gauge track that had every ingredient to be developed as a heritage track is unlikely to materialise, with the Railway Board turning down a proposal from the Northeast Frontier Railway (NFR) to that effect.

“We had submitted a proposal to Railway Board for turning a stretch of 30-odd km into a heritage track in view of its antiquity, tourism potential and local sentiment. But we did not receive any positive response from the Board,” NFR sources told.

Sources added that nor was there any formal proposal from the State government for converting the track into a heritage line.

Acknowledged as an engineering marvel, the 113-year-old metre gauge line built by the British during the last decade of the 19th century traversed a distance of 221 km – much of it through the rugged mountainous landscape of the Barail range in Dima Hasao district. Enhancing its appeal were as many as 37 tunnels along the spectacular thickly-forested and undulating terrain. The track was closed down on October 1, 2014, making way for the now-operational broad gauge track.

The heritage and adventure worth of the track is further testified to by the writings of acclaimed travel writers like Bill Aitken who rated the Silchar-Lumding line higher than similar high-altitude tracks in India. Aitken in his Travels by a Lesser Line had this to say about the track “…the most scenic part of the journey is the ascent from Lumding to Haflong Hill, 116 kms in six hours… the total effect is of impenetrability and one is filled with admiration for the original builders of the line. For those brought up on the notion that the Ooty climb – also a metre gauge – is the most impressive mountain line, the ride to Haflong will prove a sensational journey of discovery.”

Once a hub of activities, the Lower Haflong Railway Station now wears a wretched look, with three steam engines lying uncared for by the track. The dilapidated platform, offices and quarters have turned into relics of a bygone era, with stray animals and vagabonds being their occasional occupants. Another casualty has been the business that flourished around the station, with scores of shopkeepers and vendors now forced to down their shutters.

The local people have been dismayed with the dilly-dallying tactics of the Railways and the government over the issue of converting the short stretch into a heritage track. Initially, the Railways had assured retention of the track for its heritage value as also for local communication.

Even the Union Minister of State for Home Affairs Kiren Rijiju had a couple of years back announced that the Railways agreed to the demand of the people to keep the Hill Queen Special, a metre-gauge train, running.

“It’s baffling why the Railways have gone back on their word to ply the heritage train. Some initial work had even started for the purpose. Aside their communication needs, the people of Dima Hasao share a sentimental relationship with this track. The tourism worth of the heritage train would have been immense but the Railways as well as the government has been totally insensitive to such prospects,” Anup Biswas, a Haflong-based senior journalist and activist who has been pressing for revival of the heritage train project, said, adding that local business would once again thrive if the line is reopened.