A 50-ROOM hotel in the heart of Bhalukpong — to the 3,000-odd people of this township in West Kameng district of Arunachal Pradesh, future looks like this.
It was in August 2015 that the historically and economically important township, on the border of Arunachal and Assam, found a place on India’s railway map, when it was connected to the broad gauge network. The world was now just one train, seven stops and a 40-minute halt away.
The Sessa Orchid Sanctuary and Orchid Research Station at Tippi are just 10 km from the railway station, Pakke Wildlife Sanctuary and Tiger Reserve at a 19-km distance, and Nameri National Park and Sonai-Rupai Wildlife Sanctuary (both in Assam) about 25 km and 40 km away, while China border is 262 km away.
However, it’s not just incoming traffic bound for tourist destinations that has changed Bhalukpong. Foodgrains, which have been coming via road since the metre gauge track (laid in the early 1990s) went defunct, are soon going to come right to the station.
And Tezpur, a lifeline for all things essential, from medical care to shopping, is a comfortable 60-km trip.
The only train to Bhalukpong arrives from Dekargaon (the rail head for Tezpur) at around 2.40 pm, and halts for 40 minutes before the return journey. The newly-appointed station manager, B C Goswami, smiles that college students from Tezpur are as eager to visit Bhalukpong. “They arrive, go around the place for about 30 minutes, do a bit of shopping, take pictures and return.”
For many people settled in Tezpur and working in Bhalukpong too, the train is a godsend, says Rajen Jebisow, a prominent local leader. He hopes the link can be extended to Guwahati, or at least Rangiya, the junction that connects both Guwahati and Bhalukpong to the all-India railway network — “so that people can travel easily to the rest of India”.
But they would be happy with even a train to Naharlagun. Also a new train halt, Naharlagun is 10 km from Itanagar, the Arunachal capital. Bhalukpong residents generally travel by road through Sonitpur and Lakhimpur districts in Assam to reach Itanagar right now, a road distance of 215 km.
If Tsering Wange, who runs a travel agency, is waiting for direct train services to bring tourists to Bhalukpong, Kumar Waii, local MLA and an ex-minister, has already gone ahead and set up the only establishment that can call itself a hotel.
“This is just the beginning,” says Tonke Jebisow, who heads the Bhalukpong Bazar Committee. Bhalukpong has two such committees, representing shopkeepers and traders from Assam as well as Arunachal. Adds Sudhir Choudhury, president of the Bhalukpong Bazar Committee on the Assam side, “Business here has already improved with that one train from Tezpur. A couple of new shops and eateries have come up.”
At the railway station that comes to life when the train chugs in daily, tribal women are selling a wide variety of wares.
“Earlier I had to look for work in other villages. Now I earn at least Rs 150 a day selling vegetables, fruits and tea. On certain days I earn up to Rs 400,” grins Bhutmoni Sangma, a Garo tribal from Bandarguri village, about 2 km from the railway station.
Anjuli Basumatary of Bajuguri village on the Assam side sells bananas, vegetables and tea. “I add about Rs 200 a day to my husband’s income,” she says.
Nilima Basumatary, also from Bajuguri and the mother of three children who all go to school, has set up a stall selling bread pakora, boiled grams and pitha (a local delicacy prepared from pounded rice), apart from tea and vegetables. Affirming the quality of her products, she says, “The railway staff too buy from me.”
With the wait of two decades for the broad gauge line behind him, Yeshe Dorjee Thongchi, a retired bureaucrat and Sahitya Akademi Award winner, believes a more practical change to get more passengers is changing the train timings.
“Now, a pair of trains should be run between Tezpur and Bhalukpong twice a day,” says Thongchi.