Arunachal’s capital is finally on India’s rail map. This journey must not stop here.
Itanagar, the capital of Arunachal Pradesh, was finally brought on to the railway map of India, as the first passenger train arrived at the Naharlagun railway station nearby, from Dekargaon in Assam. This train service had been announced by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in his package for the state in January 2008 and had missed its December 2011 deadline. Its importance for the landlocked Northeast cannot be discounted.
Itanagar is now the second state capital in the Northeast to be connected by railroad. In time, the Rajdhani and Shatabdi Express services will be extended to link Arunachal with the national capital. This is a belated but much-awaited leap for a region economically deprived not only because of its limited geographical access to markets and the mainland, but also due to decades of Central inattention and neglect.
The railroad will now meet two imperatives — the larger need to enhance the Northeast’s connectivity, and the urgency to upgrade India’s border infrastructure. The necessity of better rail and road links was underlined by Manipur’s protracted blockades of 2010-11, which cut off a state that sits at the ends of NH 39 and NH 53. On the other hand, Arunachal shares a 1,000 km border with China that Beijing can reach faster than Delhi.
A transport and infrastructure project in the Northeast, therefore, cannot be seen in isolation. In this context, the ongoing upgrade of the Imphal and Agartala airports will add to the region’s lone international airport in Guwahati, and, serviced by the proposed airstrips across the Northeast, end dangerous helicopter travel in remote areas. The greenfield airport being built near Gangtok in Sikkim will further strengthen border infrastructure.
The next government will have to hit the ground running on projects important for the Northeast. Linking the landlocked region to Myanmar’s Sittwe port and Bangladesh’s Chittagong port is vital for its economic well-being. The bus service between Imphal and Mandalay and integrating the Northeast with the trans-Asian highway system require the Centre to actively supervise the projects. New Delhi must also deliver on the Land Boundary Agreement and the Teesta water accord to get the railway corridor through Bangladesh that will cut the distance between Kolkata and Agartala to a fifth, making the spread of rail networks in the Northeast truly worthwhile.