India’s continuing failure to conserve the 140-year-old Darjeeling Himalayan Railway (DHR), a World Heritage Site, has prompted UNESCO to take steps to assess the state of the railway system and see whether the property is worth the global heritage tag.
Not satisfied with the information the Indian Railways has been furnishing about the state of conservation of the World Heritage Site, UNESCO will send its Reactive Monitoring Mission, comprising experts from UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee and the International Council on Monuments and Sites, to Darjeeling to ascertain the condition of the property jointly with the Indian Railways. It will identify priorities for action and report on these while also formulating a set of recommendations for the Railways aimed at preventing further erosion of the property’s ‘Outstanding Universal Value’, according to draft minutes of UNESCO’s annual meeting last week in Azerbaijan.
In the meeting, the World Heritage Committee red-flagged erosion of attributes bearing the Outstanding Universal Value, “as a result of management issues faced by the property over the 20 years since its inscription, and failure to implement the recommendations formulated by ICOMOS at the time of inscription”.
A wake-up call to conserve heritage
The Indian Railways has been struggling to conserve heritage assets for years — tracks, buildings, bridges and even rolling stock. UNESCO has in the past raised the issue of erosion of heritage value of mountain railways in India, especially the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway. The latest move is a wake-up call.
As per UNESCO guidelines, Reactive Monitoring teams are sent in when a World Heritage Site is in danger and may require to be removed from the prestigious global list.
According to the World Heritage Committee, the Indian Railways, despite requests, did not furnish information between 2017 and 2019 regarding the lack of monitoring and general maintenance, and encroachment and waste dumping along the tracks – all considered violation of global heritage conservation norms.
Railways has also not defined a boundary or a buffer zone for the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway.
Speaking to The Indian Express, Sanjive Roy, General Manager of Northeast Frontier Railway, which manages the DHR, said all recommendations of UNESCO were being followed and that conservation was high on their priority.
“We have been in constant touch with UNESCO and have been holding regular meetings with them. The fact remains that the line goes along the road there. On one side there are houses and on the other is the road, so a lot of people’s movements happen on the line. Sometimes they park vehicles in such a way that the train has to stop etc,” he said. “We are maintaining the line well. we are doing track renewal and pressed into service steam locomotives. So there is no threat to its heritage value.”
For the past few years, Indian Railways and UNESCO have been jointly formulating a Comprehensive Conservation and Management Plan for the Mountain Railways of India. UNESCO has requested Railways to implement the plan.
In July last year, the Railway Board had sent a letter to the Northeast Frontier Railway, warning about these issues. “You would appreciate that any heritage site, if downgraded due to non-compliance, would become a matter of serious embarrassment and invite criticism.,” the letter had said. The proceedings of the World Heritage Committee meetings indicate things have not improved since then.
Railway heritage conservation bodies such as the UK-based Darjeeling Himalayan Railway Society and the India-based Rail Enthusiasts Society are planning to petition the Railway Board about the urgent need to save the DHR. “The Rail Enthusiasts Society shortly intends to express its grave concern in writing to the Railway Board,” said Sanjoy Mookerjee, convener of the society.
Two decades ago, UNESCO had included the DHR in its list of World Heritage Monuments as “an outstanding example of the influence of an innovative transportation system on social and economic development. to serve as a model for similar developments in many parts of the world.” The DHR was also hailed for illustrating in “an exception and seminal fashion” how “the development of railways in the 19th century had a profound influence on social and economic developments in many parts of the world.”