The drizzle picked up as the train pulled out of Dekargaon station near Tezpur, Assam, on a cool morning, the rain seeping in through the windows. On the first passenger train service to Arunachal Pradesh’s just-opened Naharlagun station, with a ticket for only Rs 35, the experience was novel, but the nine coaches were not.
The walls were stained and rusted, and dust covered the seat cushions and wooden planks. Slowly, scenes began to flash past – Balipara’s wilting tea gardens, houses with sloping tin roofs, children gawking at the locomotive, women in wraparounds carrying wares to sell.
At Uttar Kathani, 15 stations into the five-and-half-hour journey, an elderly couple boarded the train. “Our neighbours told us about this new train. So we are taking a romantic trip,” said 62-year-old carpenter Kaneskeshwar Neog with a smile. His wife Mahkon, 55, joined in with a laugh. “This is our first trip to Arunachal. And our first time on a train,” she said.
Neog and his wife were joyriders without a plan. But even if they wanted to stay on and marvel at the lush, primeval green that rings Naharlagun, a town in the foothills of Arunachal Pradesh’s mountains, 10 km from the capital Itanagar, they would have been turned back. Without the “pass”—or the Inner Line Permit (ILP) — no outside resident can enter the state — Mizoram and Nagaland are the other two states in the Northeast region where such restrictions are in place.
GS Barua, an amiable, moustachioed constable with the Arunachal Pradesh state police, walked along the train’s narrow aisles with a lathi, mingling with passengers, and telling them about the piece of paper they needed. “You need a pass to enter Arunachal. If you don’t have one, you can step out on the platform but not outside the station,” he said.
As he spoke, a man in an oversized dark-blue T-shirt, rubber chappals and worn shorts heaved a gunny bag full of bananas on the seat nearby. “I travel by this train every day to sell bananas, up and down the journey,” said Moni Das, a Bengali who spoke fluent Assamese. “ I also sell some at the station, but I don’t have a pass. If I did, I would have liked to stay in the town.”
The new train service started on April 7, with much fanfare. Before the 179 km broad gauge line, the only railway link Arunachal had was a 1.26 km line till Bhalukpong in East Kameng district. The 21.75-km-long Harmuti- Naharlagun line is the new stretch, and has been a long time in the making. First surveyed in 1997, it was approved by the state government nine years later.
As it wound north from Harmuti through Assam’s Lakhimpur district, the train entered the Subansiri valley, ran along the Dikong river’s bank, and headed towards Naharlagun. In the distance, all around rose continued…