NEW DELHI: If things work as per plans, an independent agency will be entrusted the task of rail heritage conservation.
While countries like the United Kingdom and Australia have achieved commendable work in this regard, India’s rail heritage has largely been lost on account of official apathy.
Approximately 5,000 odd steam engines existed in the inventory of the Indian Railways until the seventies, but majority of these have been cut up and sold as scrap. While the UK maintains and operate 1,000 steam engines, just about 10 of these “Black Beauties” remain in working condition in India.
The clocks, caps, telephones or manual signalling systems of the steam era have mostly been lost. A mini steam loco numbered EIR-21—called the sister of the Fairy Queen (world’s oldest running steam loco)—has been lying at the Perambur workshop for the last several years.
“Heritage conservation has been at cross purposes from the main responsibilities of the Indian Railways as a commercial organisation. Therefore, an independent body comprising experts, rail enthusiasts and other stake-holders looks a better option,” a senior ministry official said.
A proposal in the matter, drafted by a rail enthusiast and former finance commissioner Sanjay Mukherjee, is currently under the consideration of the Railway Board.
The body, with representatives from the ministry of tourism and culture, should be empowered to identify and declare a rail asset as having a heritage status and also have freedom to raise funds from the market for conservation tasks, it has been suggested.
After a gap of more than 10 years, the Indian Railways this year allocated a dedicated sum of Rs. 6.5 crore for the upkeep of 10 steam locos stationed at the Rewari steam centre and the restoration of certain other Black Beauties that have been lying abandoned at locations including Bhusawal and Lumding.
“While financing has remained an issue, heritage tasks have also been neglected because such jobs have usually been assigned to officers as their additional responsibilities. With a few exceptions, railway officers have had little domain knowledge or interest in heritage related tasks,” an official admitted.