Darjeeling: A UNESCO team that is working on a conservation plan for the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway today said it had got feedback that the toy train service did not meet the criteria to command heritage status and was close to being put on the “danger list”.
Paul Atkins, the technical consultant of UNESCO, who is part of the team drawing up a comprehensive conservation management plan, said the plan “was to have been drawn up within five years of the UNESCO granting world heritage status”. He said it was delayed for various reasons and the two-year project had started from March this year.
The Unesco granted world heritage status to the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway on December 2, 1999.
Today, the DHR marked 136 years of operation. On August 23, 1880, the first train ran from Siliguri to Kurseong.
If the DHR is put on the List of World Heritage Sites in Danger, it will share space with the ruined archaeological remains of the Bamiyan valley in Afghanistan, where the Taliban destroyed two statues of the Buddha in 2001. Also on the list is Aleppo in Syria, where a multinational military effort to counter the Islamic State has made the ancient city a war zone.
Atkins today said: “In the past, the UNESCO had received feedback from unofficial people but who are experts in their fields that the DHR was not meeting the criteria. Unesco had raised the matter with the Indian railways and following their assurance, it decided not to put them on the danger list. Right now, it is not on the danger list but it is getting closer.”
Atkins said the DHR should have a separate management structure. “The DHR needs an independent management unit, which along with railways should incorporate local stakeholders and civil administration. The DHR also needs special maintenance and people with special skills and knowledge of the system and this has to be passed down,” he said.
The UNESCO team believes that following the conservation plan would lead to setting up a DHR world heritage site management office.
“Excessive encroachment, illegal structures dangerously close to the tracks, loss of physical features of the DHR over the years and restructuring of the work forces are some of the challenges,” Atkins said.
Ideally, the DHR is expected to maintain a clear area of two meters from the middle of the track, which has been flouted at many places.
Funds crunch: Railway heritage loses steam, restoration and maintenance stalled. The PSUs of railways, despite clear guidelines, have not shown any interest in preserving them under their Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) schemes.
Hundreds of heritage properties including century-old steam locomotives and protected buildings are in a state of neglect. In the absence of funds, the heritage department of Indian Railways is finding it difficult to maintain these properties.
What is more appalling is that even the PSUs of railways, despite clear guidelines, have not shown any interest in preserving them under their Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) schemes. Scarcity of funds has stalled construction of three rail museums for six years. The heritage wing requires an annual budget of nearly Rs 80-100 crore for upkeeping these properties. The department has written to officials concerned on several occasions, but in vain.
Officials said that these properties are being maintained by the zonal railways concerned, which spends most of its budget on infrastructure projects. The department has also sent a proposal to the ministry seeking Rs 25 crore for restoration of the Bandra suburban railway station which is a Grade-I heritage property. However, no fund has been given to it till date.
Rs.30 Crore needed for New Railway Museums
Similarly, the department needs Rs 30 crore for three new railway museums at Howrah, Lonavala and Dhanbad, but work on them has been stalled since 2011 due to unavailability of funds. At present, there are 37 railway museums across the country. “An estimated Rs 100 crore is required every year for maintenance and upkeep of railway heritage. A separate budget is needed for restoration of railway buildings and constructing rail museums,” said a senior railway official.
The Indian railways have more than 250 steam locomotives which are over 100 years old. Some of them are still in working condition and are being run on mountainous routes such as Darjeeling and Nilgiri.
The Darjeeling Himalayan Railway has 14 steam locos, while five steam engines are operational on the Nilgiris. The railway ministry has preserved 32 steam locos at the National Rail Museum in Delhi, while 10 steam engines are kept at Rewari Rail Museum. Officials said that there are approximately 100 railway buildings and an equal number of bridges which have been declared heritage properties.
Of these, seven are located in Delhi. These include Baroda House, railway construction office at Kashmere Gate and Old Delhi railway station. With the separate fund, the Railways plan digitisation of historical documents, artefacts, collections and exhibits of National Rail Museum. It also plans to create nationwide geo-tagged railway heritage inventories.