Railways steps in after UNESCO warns Darjeeling toy train off track

The ‘toy train’ and stations of Darjeeling were declared World Heritage sites two decades ago, then a first for India.

Alterations, destruction of some structures, disposing of heritage railway material as scrap and similar violations during a cleanliness drive at the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway (DHR) has had UNESCO redflagging the “diminishing heritage value” of the World Heritage Site.

At a detailed technical meeting in Kurseong last month, UNESCO pointed out the violations to the Railways, prompting the Railway Board to shoot off urgent instructions to the local zonal railway to take immediate action and avoid the “embarrassment” of being downgraded in the elite UNESCO heritage list. The ‘toy train’ and stations of Darjeeling were declared World Heritage sites two decades ago, then a first for India.

“You would appreciate that any heritage site, if downgraded due to non-compliances, would become a matter of serious embarrassment and invite criticism…,” says a letter from the Railway Board to the general manager of Northeast Frontier Railway, which owns and manages the DHR, an 88-km, 139-year old railway system taking the train from New Jalpaiguri in the plains to Darjeeling through the mountains in West Bengal on a two-feet narrow gauge line.

To spruce up the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway before a routine inspection tour by Railway Board Chairman Ashwani Lohani late in March, local authorities had carried out a massive cleanliness drive that led to the mass disposal of vital materials of the Kurseong printing press of the DHR. Toilets were also built at Darjeeling and Ghum stations. Ghum is India’s highest railway station.

The two-day technical meeting with UNESCO took place end of May in which an unhappy UNESCO delegation raised the matter, The Indian Express has learnt.

A UNESCO team has been stationed at the DHR since 2016 working on a Comprehensive Conservation and Management Plan (CCMP) that will be completed in December 2018. There has been a moratorium in place since 2016 that stipulates that “no changes in the structure and/or beautification of DHR World Heritage Site shall be allowed till the CCMP is finalised.”

The current situation, according to the Railways, has arisen official directives in place were not implemented and the moratorium was not fulfilled, forcing the Ministry’s intervention.

“During the meeting, UNESCO representative raised serious concerns about diminishing heritage values of DHR World Heritage properties, citing some examples of inappropriate maintenance/conservation procedures of DHR engineering assets, disposal of heritage items as scrap during recent cleanliness drive, closure of stations due to shortage of manpower etc,” says the Railway Board letter, which also instructed personal attention of the general manager in the matter.

When contacted, Northeast Frontier Railway General Manager Sanjive Roy told The Indian Express that he had taken cognisance of the matter and that it was more a case of confusion than willful negligence.

“We are following the UNESCO guidelines, we are not deviating…we are in touch with UNESCO people also… any alterations we have to do we approach them, we are not disturbing the heritage status at all,” Roy said.

“We have cautioned the people concerned and have taken up the matter. It was not a case of negligence, just that some things happened out of some confusion, but we have taken concern of the matter.”

After Darjeeling, the Nilgiri Mountain Railway in Ooty in 2005 and Kalka Shimla Railway in 2008 entered the UNESCO list to make “Mountain Railways of India” a part of the World Heritage Site.

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