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Seeking a region-specific zone

M.S. PRABHAKARA

Sunday 14 December 2003, by PRABHAKARA*M.S.

Article paru dans Frontline, Volume 20 - Issue 25, December 06 - 19, 2003.

AMONG several other points made during the media briefing on November 14 at which the All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) gave a call for a 24-hour Assam bandh on November 17 was the demand that the jurisdiction of the Northeast Frontier Railway (NFR) be limited to the northeastern region. At present it covers the whole of the region and parts of Bihar and West Bengal. The AASU leaders wanted legislation passed in this regard.

On the face of it, the idea is not only preposterous but simply impossible to implement. The Indian railway system, as it exists and functions on the ground, whatever may have been its rationale when it was first laid, and whatever its present shortcomings, has grown into a truly pan-Indian network, an object of envy and admiration. No zonal railway at present, not even after the recent creation of seven new zones, has become region-specific, much less State-specific. The railway lines within the zones, and in many cases even within the divisions, continue to criss-cross regional, State and language boundaries.

Assuming, for the sake of argument, that the AASU demand is conceded, the imagined NFR of the future would still have to cover parts of West Bengal since the northeastern region now covers Sikkim as well - though for the present Sikkim does not have any railway link.

But then, given the broader trend of political exclusivism that is gaining increasing legitimacy, perhaps even getting entrenched, in many parts of the country, the pressing of such a demand and going therefrom to demanding a change in "the system as it exists and functions on the ground" requires no quantum leap.

The idea that the NFR should become "region-specific" (and presumably and by implication that every other zonal railway eventually become so) has arisen in the context of the current troubles over the issue of preference to local/indigenous candidates in the appointment to Grade III and Grade IV jobs in the NFR, or even 100 per cent reservation of such jobs to local/indigenous candidates.

This demand simply cannot be conceded as things stand. Even without the provisions of the Constitution and the ruling of the Supreme Court, such restrictions on "outsiders" seeking jobs in the NFR cannot be enforced given the spread of the NFR and the legitimate feeling of entitlement to be aspirants for jobs on this railway shared as much by the people of Assam and the rest of the region as by residents of Bihar and West Bengal. The Railways themselves, as a functioning organisation, will come to a grinding halt were such demands to be conceded.

But then, the idea and ideology behind such demands, the ideas of exclusion of the other, are not unique to uninformed student organisations, or other more sinister forces driven by open and covert agendas that are active all over the northeastern region. One finds echoes of these in the most unlikely places.

Consider, for instance, the creation of seven new railway zones and eight new railway divisions - among them the Rangiya division, the demand for whose creation was officially conceded over 20 years ago.

While none of the railway zones, even after the chipping and chopping, has become region/State-specific, one can also see that the rationale behind the creation of some of the new zones was to limit such a zone to a region or a State, if not jurisdictionally in its operation to a region, certainly in the prospective job market the new zone would create to a State.

Indeed, the demand for restriction of the jurisdiction of an existing railway zone, with a view to achieving a different kind of region specificity even if only in respect of one town, has been pressed and realised earlier in the case of the NFR itself.

Malda in West Bengal, which was part of the area covered by the NFR ever since the creation of the zone in 1958, was detached following an agitation inspired by a Railway Minister from West Bengal whose home town was Malda, and integrated into the Eastern Railway in the late 1980s. The jurisdiction of the NFR since then has stopped at the outer signal of the Malda station.

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