Rowghat rail project: Train through Naxal heartland hopes to bring change

New Delhi, Delhi, IndiaWritten By: Nagen SinghUpdated: Dec 14, 2018, 11:16 PM IST

(Representative Image) Photograph:(Others)

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The Government is trying to build a railway line which will enter the Maoist zone of Chhattisgarh into the hidden jungle camps and the mineral-rich southern part of Chhattisgarh. 

The Rowghat area in Chhattisgarh, apart from being under thick forest cover, is also a Naxal stronghold. The area has been identified as having huge reserves of iron ore. The government is trying to build a railway line here which will enter the Maoist zone into the hidden jungle camps and the mineral-rich southern part of the state.

The Rowghat project is critical to the government's Bhilai steel plant and the construction of the railway line will facilitate transportation of iron ore to Bhilai and other steel plants that currently depend on the almost-saturated Dalli-Rajhara mines. Five new mines will be auctioned here to steel companies.

On travelling almost 1400 kilometres south of the Indian capital, into the heart of Chhattisgarh, dense and impenetrable forests welcome you to the tribal villages. This remote forest houses armed border forces popularly known as Sashatra Seema Bal (SSB) which is at war with the Maoists for over four years for the construction of the ambitious Rowghat rail project.

The proposed Dalli-Rajhara to Jagdalpur rail line exists on paper for almost three decades now. Once completed, it will connect state capital Raipur to mineral-rich Jagdalpur by rail via Bhilai, finally connecting the infamous red corridor to the Indian capital after several decades of Indian Independence. 

For now, it is only connected by a single lane road built by the paramilitary forces who have multiplied their camps during several years in the forests to combat Naxals. An alternate rail route between the two cities (Raipur and Jagdalpur) is much longer, around 600 kilometres long, and hence takes a lot of time to transport goods. The proposed rail line aims to cut the distance by nearly half. 

Deputy commandant of SSB, Priyadarshini Niharika Sinha, has more than 140 troops under her command with an objective to secure the construction sites of the railways and maintain peace in the area. The security of those involved in the rail project is her prime objective. She is optimistic of the rail project and feels it would bring progress and job opportunities to the villagers. 

Sinha is also aware that the construction of this railway project, covering 235 kilometres, would allow transportation of iron ore from the Naxal-affected area of North Bastar.

"The forces guarding the project face regular threats. We face daily threats of attack from Naxals. They use improvised explosive devices (IEDs) on routes adopted by forces. Stealth and surprise attacks in market areas, firing in conjunction with IED blast, sometimes they even fire on campus. Many troops have had stand-off attacks on isolated locations, firing from moving vehicles and the troops are targeted while returning to their camps too," Sinha explained.

Meanwhile, in Chhattisgarh, the locals wrangle over the topic of train reaching to the tribal villages. They fear the connectivity may bring unwelcome changes into the village space.

"I am a villager and have never been to a city. I am not aware of the benefits of this project for me. All I know is that this train line will help the steel companies transport ores from the mines they will build on the hills. Soon, they are going to cut more jungles and make more mines in the area," GS Darro, a tribal man from the village said.

Some progress has been made in the preliminary railway work, particularly in the construction of the embankment which is over 20 kilometres of the proposed 95-km rail line passing through the area. A small distance can be travelled under this rail project line which has reached till Bhanupratappur, a gateway to the Naxal belt.

A 69-year-old man from the village of Pondgaon says he has never seen a train in his life. From the last active station in the Naxal zone, Bhanupratappur, Dev Sai Anchala boarded his first train in December this year. His district contains some of India’s most underdeveloped lands and the poorest people. He described his first train journey as "overwhelming".

"This tribal area is still under the impact of Naxals. It's time to make a choice - should we choose a train along with invaders in the jungle looking for ores or stay stuck with Naxals. What can we really do?" said Anchala.

The locals still live in jungles and don't have enough to maintain a lifestyle, they aren't even aware of the options available to improve their quality of living. The issue of providing jobs to those evicted from the land acquired for the project seems to have been causing concern. The railway ministry has provided jobs to over 200 people with an indication of absorbing a few more, subject to eligibility. But the locals demand more, along with a change in the eligibility criteria of a senior secondary school certificate. 

The challenge for the government will be to convince people that the project will benefit them and will not exploit the lands and the jungles which have belonged to them for centuries. A perfect balance of attaining development along with keeping the local sentiments in mind would go a long way in upliftment of one of the most under-developed and ignored parts of India's heartland.