Meghalaya missing out on the railways advantage

By Benjamin Lyngdoh

The Romans built roads. The British built railways and navigated the seas. These two facts are testament to the power of transportation. With it one can expand its reach, impose oneself through trade and might, conquer the world and create massive empires. Meghalaya does not like to learn from such magnificent historical lessons. Forget railway connectivity to Shillong. Even the railway track from Tetelia (Assam) to Byrnihat has been halted since 2017-18. In the grand plans of the central government to connect all the state capitals of north-east India by railways by 2023-24, Meghalaya is missing out. The discourse on railways has become overshadowed by the issue of influx. One might say that xenophobia has become synonymous with railways. The entire project is stalled simply because no one in the ruling dispensation is willing to reason with the pressure groups or tackle them head-on. In the process, Meghalaya is missing out on the immense advantages and the development that the railways bring.
The biggest advantage of railways is that it can transport goods in bulk. In doing so, the cost of goods as sold in the market tends to become more economical. Most of the goods transported through trains are subjected to a GST of 5% only. Not to mention the variety of goods that would be available for the consumers to choose from. In addition, the time taken for transportation is shorter as compared to roadways and much secure too. These factors are supposed to be the primary basis upon which the argument for railways in Meghalaya is made. Development depends upon trade and commerce. The railways will augment this to a great extend. The variety of goods available in the market will lead to a more vibrant business environment through the interaction between supply and demand. The result is growth. For example, through railways the supply of perishables (like vegetables and meat), non-perishables (like utensils and clothing) and tangibles (like vehicles and machinery) will increase manifold. This will enrich the consumers and also the exchequer of the state government through GST. It is economical to bring in eatables like rice, meat, vegetables, etc from other states through railways as compared to roads. In recent times, the prices of commodities have been skyrocketing in Shillong and other towns. One of the reasons for this is the high road transportation cost. To this end, the railway can help a lot.
In relation to movement of people, the railways offer comfort and ease of travel. People who travel from various parts of the country can disembark at their very own town/city that they belong to without the hassle of getting down at Guwahati and taking a bus/sumo for onward travel. The case of travel within Meghalaya is even more exciting to think of. For example, people who would like to move between Tura and Shillong and vice versa can comfortable avail of the railways through chair cars like the Shatabdi Express. Travel in comfort with the best services in-house and cover the distance in around four hours only. Surely, people must find this extremely attractive. It is difficult to understand as to why we do not see this very simple but enormous advantage. In addition, the railways will bring many employment opportunities. The numerous stations on route will provide scope for establishing of small business enterprises. Further, those who are trained in food and beverages services can find a platform for applying their trade and earn a livelihood. Through mobile apps like ‘RailYatri’ online orders can be taken and then the food/beverages can be supplied on the go at a designated station. Not to mention the chances that would open up in the formal sector as permanent workers of Indian Railways. At a time when the central government is investing in railway expansion, it is frustrating that we prefer to look the other way!
In the context of tourism, the future looks dire. The basic logistical requirement for a robust and growing tourism sector is transportation. With the airport still being a struggling project and road connectivity being expensive and time consuming, Meghalaya tourism now stares at a very uncertain future. There has always been talk of a need of a tourism circuit connecting the important cultural, historical and leisure attractions of north-east India. Till date, this has never come to fruition mainly because the connectivity between the states of the region is lacking. The constant need for changing means of transportation between air, rail and road is too cumbersome for many. Now, with this massive expansion of railways in north-east India many hitherto unconnected/unexplored places will be easily accessible. With Meghalaya being outside this picture, it does not bode well for the inflow of tourist. Fine, it is agreed that the tourism attractions of Meghalaya have their own ‘unique selling proposition’ which will always find clients. However, it must also be factored in that the development of a railway circuit in the north-east will provide stiffer competition from other attractions of the region. The far- flung places of the region will suddenly come into the tourism market. This is how the tourism business environment will change in the coming years. Do we see this? What is our mitigation strategy? Anyway we look at this conundrum, the only solution lies in embracing the railways.
Amidst the advantage of railways, the opposition by the pressure groups and prominently led by Khasi Students Union (KSU) is puzzling. The protest is short-sighted when in truth the benefits of a railway far outweigh the concerns. The only card being played by them is the influx issue. Not to be disingenuous, but influx will always be there whether there be railways or not. It is time for the youth to see beyond the xenophobia of influx and grasp the real picture for what it is. Identify the scope of progress and growth. It would be better if KSU and others do a cost-benefit study on railways by applying an independent and unbiased brains trust so as to make a better judgment on their continued opposition to the project. If the study is done honestly, it can be said with 100% certainty that the protest would die down.
In addition, the bargaining of ILP against railways is preposterous. There is no advantage in this positioning. If anything, it portrays the people in a very poor light. To many it seems as though we are anti-development. What if the central government says that there would be no more new educational, village development, social service projects, etc., in Meghalaya till it accepts railways? Now, who holds the trump card here? Definitely, not KSU! For the benefit of the poor, the youth and the rank and file of Meghalaya, KSU may seriously revisit its call of opposition to the railways.
In the end, a larger discourse is required on the issue. The people should speak up. The irrationality of pressure groups and placating behavior of the state government is deplorable. The xenophobia of ‘influx’ must not be allowed to hold to ransom an entire intervention/propeller of growth and well-being!
(The writer teaches at NEHU; Email – [email protected])

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