Sheopur (Madhya Pradesh): If you pass through Tarrakala village, 88 km from Sheopur district headquarters, the most conspicuous sight is of a collapsing railway bridge. A major portion of the track has been swept away in river Doni, while the rest hangs in the balance.
This bridge constitutes the country's longest narrow-gauge line, which has been lying defunct since the nationwide lockdown of 2020. Every day, a train would run from Sheopur to Gwalior and vice versa, covering 210 km and touching 26 stations at a speed of 18 kmph. It takes around 11 hours to reach Gwalior, which a diesel or electric locomotive would in about four hours.
The Sahariya tribal community relied on the narrow-gauge train for transporting their produce and livestock to mandis (markets), hospital visits and for accessing schools and colleges in Gwalior district, among other things. When the train stopped service, the lives of people inhabiting 28 villages along the track also came to a standstill.
A century-old service
The Gwalior Light Railway was built by Madho Rao Scindia, the then Maharaja of Gwalior. The work on the Gwalior-Bhind section started in 1895, and Gwalior-Shivpuri in 1899. It was later extended to Sheopur in 1904, Birpur in 1908, and to Sheopur in 1909.
The light train running on the 199-km Gwalior-Sheopur track stopped operations on March 22, 2020, the day the country observed Janata Curfew in the wake of COVID-19 spread. The next year, the Indian Railways announced track closure.
A resident of Panch Pura in Occhapura gram panchayat, Ramswaroop Nohariya (70) remembers boarding the narrow-gauge train with his father. "We would take with us the forest produce, fruits and vegetables he (father) had harvested. Our whole family relied on income from the sale of these items in Gwalior."
Nohariya says he sold his goats in Gwalior the same way around 40 years ago. "If I sold in the local market, a goat would fetch Rs 150 maximum. But in Gwalior, you can get hold of Rs 300 to 400."
Tarrakala's Hariom Nathuram used to take a goat to Gwalior market every two months to sell it for Rs 7,000 to 10,000. "Even if I stayed there overnight, I would return with a profit. Now, we are forced to sell livestock in Sheopur market. To reach Sheopur itself, we have to take small trucks and tractors. Since the market is not very big, traders quote half the price that I get in Gwalior. When there are not many buyers, we have to sell at a loss."
"When the train was running, we had the option to sell our produce in Bhind, Shivpuri and Gwalior. I was able to transport all my goods to the markets on one person's fare. It was so economical; we would earn a good profit easily," says Phoolmati Ramji Lal of Sheopur.
"The last I remember a train ticket to Gwalior cost Rs 45. However, it takes Rs 300 to travel the same distance by bus. Hence, many people have resorted to selling their goods locally," says Keshav Ram.
'It was our ambulance, school bus'
There are no good schools, colleges, hospitals and other facilities in villages abutting the narrow-gauge line. To access these amenities, people have to travel to the city, for which they earlier depended on the train.
"It served as an ambulance, school bus and goods carrier for us. As it was always crowded, villagers would sit on the roof of the train too. It seemed less dangerous because the light train moved slowly," says Keshav Ram.
Tarrakala's Kusum Rukhdu had a boil on her neck, which got worse despite treatment at the local sub-health centre. "I had to be taken to Birpur Primary Health Centre located 30 km away on a bike. After the initial treatment, I was referred to Sheopur. When the train was running, we used to go to Birpur or Sheopur for treatment even in case of minor illnesses."
According to Kala Bai Devi Lal of the same village, if someone had to send a parcel to a nearby village, they would send it through the loco pilot or guards. "They were very friendly."
Munnibai (60) came to Sheopur on the train as a newlywed when she was 16 years old. "Probably, there is no villager who has not travelled on this train. We would finish chores like vegetable chopping on the train itself. Such was our comfort level. People say a big train will start service to connect us to bigger cities, but I do not know if we will feel familiar as we did with the narrow-gauge train."
Manoj Singh, Public Relations Officer, North Central Railway, Jhansi Division, tells 101Reporters that the work on a new rail line has begun at an outlay of Rs 4,870 crore. "The construction of the 45-km broad gauge line from Gwalior to Jaura is presently on. It is likely to be over by April next year. Ultimately, the line will reach Kota via Sheopur."
Noting that a century-old light train was bound to stop functioning one day, Singh says the new line would reduce travel time from 11 hours to four.
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