Five decades after the erstwhile East Pakistan government suspended train services near Belonia, a small bordering town in South Tripura district, whistles of a rail engine have reignited hopes for an international rail route through the area. This Sunday the Commission of Railway Safety ran an inspection test on the 9.8-km Santirbazaar-Belonia broad gauge line which connects to Agartala and could potentially extend to lines in Bangladesh.
Agartala became part of the rail network only in 2008, but railways are not new to Tripura. People of southern Tripura enjoyed railway connectivity till 1965 when the Indo-Pak War broke out. Then a small railway station at Parshuram village in East Pakistan, just 2 km away from Belonia, offered rail accessed to Feni which was a gateway to Chittagong and other cities on the other side. However, war changed everything. The railway station near Belonia was shut down after 1965, thus cutting Tripura’s access to railways.
“We could journey by train till Feni, a district town in now Bangladesh. One could get transport till Chittagong or Dhaka from there. I have not gone beyond Feni. But Kolkata could be accessed via Darshana,” remembers Birendra Kumar Shil, a 72-year-old retired librarian of Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar Government Degree College at Belonia.
Tripura played a crucial role in the birth of Bangladesh with liberation warriors being trained at Melaghar in now Sipahijala district and Agartala being used as a strategic hub for the war. Though this meant Tripura’s relations with Bangladesh, bonded by their common language, developed manifold after the nine-month Liberation War in 1971, the communication routes remained dead till both countries started talks for international rail connectivity in 2010.
India and Bangladesh signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) for a 15.054-km rail line between Agartala and Akhaura in 2013. It is expected to become operational from 2019.
“People of Belonia have wanted the old rail route revived for years. Now, the new tracks can be linked with the old ones on other side of the border,” adds Shil. In fact, the Belonia railway station is only 80 feet away from the nearest Indo-Bangla check post.
Benoy Nandi, a 75-year-old retired headmaster of Belonia Vidyapith Higher Secondary School, echoed similar sentiments. “I was taken back to my younger days by the rumble and whistles of the rail engine. I heard these whistles every single day in Belonia 53 years back since there was a rail station in East Pakistan, barely 2 Km away from our town. I hope to see an Indo-Bangla rail again here,” says Nandi.
Bikash Shil, a 29-year-old school local teacher praised the BJP-led NDA government’s initiatives for better bilateral trade and transit with Bangladesh.
Northeast Frontier Railway (NFR) senior public relations officer Md. MMY Alam had told reporters this February that the Belonia-Feni railway line proposal was yet to be approved by Dhaka. Tripura transport minister Pranajit Singha Roy was not available for his comments on his government’s plans to initiate dialogue to connect Belonia railway station with Bangladesh. Tripura Chamber of Commerce and Industry president ML Debnath said importing goods would be a lot easier if the old rail route was restored at Belonia.
“We have a land custom office there. But if the old rail route between Belonia and Feni is restored, business would be a lot easier and cheaper for both countries,” he said.
Export-import trade with Bangladesh commenced in Tripura from 1995. Border trade in the state is currently estimated to be Rs 300 crore per annum. A large number of tourists from the country also visit Tripura every year, making it the highest foreign tourist destination in NE India in 2017.