“Renting the Taj Mahal”: the fight to save the little Darjeeling train | Global development

Darjeeling ko sano rail, hirna lai on tyari cha / Keep the shuna bhai siti bajayo(Darjeeling’s little train is ready to go / Oh, listen to the guard whistle) Generations of children in Darjeeling have grown up hearing these lines from a Nepalese rhyme. Serenading the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway (DHR), it portrays the close relationship between the “Queen of the Hills” and the local people.

However, this relationship grew strained after the Indian government decided to hand over the management of the railway – classified by Unesco as a World Heritage Site – and the surveillance of the land adjoining the stations to a private company, threatening jobs and means of subsistence.

Residents fear the move could lead to the forced eviction of people who have lived and worked along the railroads for generations as their small businesses are replaced by malls and hotels, while railway workers fear their jobs will be deleted. DHR administration has already started to downsize and retiring employees are not being replaced.

A loop of the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway, photographed in 1910. The DHR has one of the steepest climbs of all conventional railways. Photography: Collector of prints / Getty

“What’s going to happen to us? At that age, we’ll be on the streets. We’re going to lose everything,” says Lopsang Sherpa, 80, who runs a store selling food, bottled water and cigarettes on the railroad ground.

Sherpa’s store, along with other businesses and homes around the railway line, were built illegally, but the railway company and local authorities have always turned a blind eye. Residents fear this will change now.

“I have supported my family in this small store for 30 years,” explains Uday Barua, 48, who runs a café. “What will happen to us if this shop is taken away?”

The DHR made its first trip in 1881. Its narrow gauge trains hug the edges of the cliffs on the 88 km route between Darjeeling and New Jalpaiguri in West Bengal. Also known as the “toy train”, it is the only fully operational 2-foot (610 mm) public railway in the world, reaching an altitude of over 2,200 meters (7,218 feet).

The railroad generated huge revenues as a transporter of passengers and goods, transporting grain and other essentials from the plains to the hills, and bringing in tea, oranges, ginger and cardamom. His fortunes began to decline in the 1960s as landslides, earthquakes, and competition from faster road networks took their toll. The number of employees increased from 2,000 to 400 in the 1940s.

While still a huge tourist attraction – attracting over a million tourists from India a year and around 30,000 from overseas – the state-subsidized railroad has been losing money for years. Annual running costs have reached 230 million rupees (£ 2.3 million), against revenues of just 120 million rand.

The Darjeeling Himalayan Railway narrow gauge locomotive in August 2021.
Tourists on a jungle safari service on the DHR in August. The train attracts 1 million Indian visitors per year. Photograph: Diptendu Dutta / AFP / Getty

To stem some of the losses, India’s Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman announced in August that the railway would be put into private hands as part of the government’s National Monetization Pipeline plan to raise £ 60 billion by 2025. Four mountain railway lines have been allocated for privatization under the plan, as well as airports, roads and mines. The money raised will be spent on other infrastructure projects.

The news sparked protests at eight DHR stations and a flood of letters and tweets to the prime minister, calling for the idea to be dropped.

A local politician, Ajoy Edwards, has warned of further protests. “We urge the government to reverse this decision. In the event of a single layoff or loss of livelihood, we will launch widespread protests, ”he said. “Just because the Taj Mahal is not making a profit, can we hire it?”

Unesco has written to the Indian government asking for clarification on how it will ensure that private operators retain the railway and respect its World Heritage status.

The train reaches Rongtong station near Darjeeling as services resume in August 2021 after a shutdown caused by the Covid pandemic.
The train reaches Rongtong station near Darjeeling as services resumed last month after a shutdown caused by the Covid pandemic. Photograph: Diptendu Dutta / AFP / Getty

The Darjeeling Himalayan Railway Society, a UK-based group of about 600 enthusiasts in 24 countries, has also expressed concerns. Paul Whittle, vice president, said the company wanted to “be part of the dialogue, with other key stakeholders, to determine the future of DHR,” adding, “The world-renowned DHR has a global brand image. very powerful and immense potential.

Raj Basu, General Secretary of DHR India Support Group, whose global members also support the conservation of the railway, said: “The loss of the World Heritage label will spell the end of DHR”.

He said: “People have sacrificed a lot to make DHR work. It occupies half of the already narrow national road 55 connecting the hills and the plains. There are 150 unmanned level crossings, but the locals want the DHR to continue operating. It is the global face of Indian railways.

Hillside townhouses dominate the distinctive cars of the heritage rail service.
Hillside homes dominate the distinctive cars of the heritage rail service. Photograph: Marion Kaplan / Alamy

Nilima Tamang, from the Conservation and Tourism Association, agrees. “We are emotionally attached to DHR. DHR in bygone times was the lifeline of the hills and our ancestors worked hard and made many sacrifices to make it work. It is our identity and we do not want it to change hands.

Santosh Biswakarma, branch secretary of the NF Railway Mazdoor Union, says its members fear jobs and skills will be lost if private companies start operating the railway. “With vacancies not being filled, there is a shortage of skilled labor, especially for steam engines,” he said.

Kishore Sunam, 54, has worked for a contractor on the DHR since 1982, handling the coal that powers the steam engines. He is paid 10,000 Rand (£ 97) per month but on a casual contract, earning nothing when not working. “With talks with private actors, they could no longer hire subcontractors. Without entrepreneurs, our jobs will be at stake, ”he said.

Sustainable development consultant Neelkamal Chettri says there are alternatives to privatization. “The railways need to change perspective,” he said. “They don’t have to monetize the DHR. Instead, they can make it self-sustaining by involving local communities.

“They can organize markets around stations involving local communities who can sell their products. Young people can put on cultural shows and work as tour guides, focusing on DHR.

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