“The closer of the railway link between Mahishasan in Karimganj, Assam, India and Shahbajpur in Sylhet, Bangladesh has taken away my hope to reunite with my family. When this link was functional, we could get to meet our families whenever required,” expressed an old lady who runs a small shop adjacent to this railway station. It is a defunct railway transit point between India and Bangladesh along the erstwhile Chattogram-Lumding line.
This station, along with the adjoining Kusiara River, can play an important role in the development of the north-eastern states of India and also in strengthening India’s bilateral trade and transit connectivity with Bangladesh. That will help generating new livelihood opportunities leading to reduction in poverty.
The friendly relationship between these two countries is not only helping them to develop their border regions as well as hinterlands but also that people are coming closer resulting in better understanding of each other’s concerns and opportunities. This is a dynamic confidence building measure and needs to be explored to all possible extent.
During the pre-independence period, the Karimganj district of Assam had rail, road and water connectivity with the rest of India and Myanmar, all of which ran through Bangladesh. Karimganj, an integral part of the Barak Valley, is located on the banks of the Kushiara River. The river connects Karimganj with Kolkata via Bangladesh. The district is surrounded by Bangladesh with Mizoram and Tripura states of Northeast India, and Hailakandi and Cachar districts of Assam.
Due to this commercially strategic location, for more than a century it was benefitted in terms of connectivity. Post-independence of India, while road and water connectivity was functional for a period, the rail connectivity got disrupted.
Therefore, the Mahishasan railway station has been non-operational since 1966 due to lack of traffic and political issues. This rail connection has the potential to be extended up to Akhuara on the Bangladesh side. Akhaura is a key railway junction in Bangladesh that connects the Chattogram port with Dhaka and Sylhet.
During the pre-independence period, this track joined India to Myanmar through the Moreh-Tamu border. With the revival of this link, it can be a part of the Trans-Asian Railway, which is a project of the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific.
This route commences in Kunming in China and passes through Myanmar, Bangladesh, India, Pakistan Iran and Turkey. At the Moreh-Tamu border, it enters into India and connected with Jiribam in Manipur. From Jiribam the network enters Bangladesh through Mahishasan- Shahbajpur and re-enter into India through Gede-Darshana border in West Bengal and then follow the Kolkata-Delhi-Amritsar trunk line up to Attari-Wagah border in Pakistan. From there it gets extended to Afghanistan, Iran, Turkey and Bulgaria.
The railway track through Mahishasan into Bangladesh can be made functional by converting 50-100 meters of the track connecting between this station and Shahbajpur, from meter gauge to broad gauge. This abandoned railway station in the middle of a remote village can serve as a cost-effective mode of transportation for poor families.
Unlike in many other areas of the Karimganj district, the life in the villages around Mahishasan railway station is difficult as the area is largely under-developed. Electricity supply is unreliable and so is the telephone network. There are on-going discussions regarding provision of electricity inter-connection between India and Bangladesh in this area. This inter-connection if extended to Mahisashan can facilitate movement of electrified trains through this route.
Though there are shops near the station, barely there is any earning from them. The revival of the station has the capacity to bring back people’s hope of reuniting with their family again, generate employment, reduce their daily struggle for livelihood and ultimately enhance their living standards.
If the road near the station is developed properly and made broader such that movement of trucks can happen, then this station can extend its connectivity to the nearby Sutarkandi Integrated Check Post and Karimganj River Port. This river port is just about 16 kilometres away from Mahishasan. Before the Covid-19 pandemic, it was being used for small haul cross-border trade with Bangladesh. Also, it is a prime source of living for fishermen and boatmen communities.
While small boats can navigate in the Kushiara River, it requires dredging at a few sections so as to make possible all-weather navigability. Thus, keeping the Mahishasan railway station at the centre of a border area development programme, inter/multi-modal connectivity options can be explored. Not just India-Bangladesh bilateral trade, it also has the potential to facilitate third country movement of goods as it can be connected with the Trans-Asian Railway Network.
In short, once operational, the Mahishasan railway station in Karimganj district of the Barak Valley and its link with its counterpart in Bangladesh can act as an important business hub for northeast India and its adjoining areas. Among others, this will be an important link between the northeast and the rest of India through transit in Bangladesh, resulting in a win-win situation for all stakeholders, particularly those at the grassroots.
(The authors are Research Associates at CUTS International, a global public policy think and action-tank on trade, regulations and governance)