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     Gobar Times: Environment for Beginners

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C O V E R  S T O R Y


Beginning of the Indian Chapter

The railways came relatively late to India. The first rail link was established in 1853, when 14 railway carriages carrying 400 people covered the distance of 33.6 kilometres from Boribunder to Thane. The British rulers set it up for a particular purpose.

In the mid-19th century, the British textile mills needed huge supplies of cotton and most of it came from the Deep South in North America. The failure of the American cotton crop in 1846 followed by the Civil War, however, forced the British merchants to look elsewhere for supplies. As India produced a large quantity of raw cotton, she was the obvious answer, but transport needed to be faster to keep the Lancashire mills rolling. So the East India Railway Company (1845) and the Great Indian Peninsular Railway (1849) were set up.

British industrialists, keen to move cotton, spices and tea from the Indian hinterland to the ports, financed the railway constructions. Soon, the Indian railway network was copied in other colonies to transport other crops. Rubber in Malaysia, coffee in South America, grain in Canada and livestock in Australia and New Zealand.

Railway construction progressed rapidly in India. Private companies like Bengal Nagpur Railways laid down about 1.5 kilometres a day, even though most of the work was done manually!! By 1947— when the British finally left the India — more than 58,000 kilometres of tracks crisscrossed the country.

Built with bricks
When Scottish engineers John and William Brunton were laying tracks between Karachi and Lahore there was a shortage in stone supply. But workmen found huge deposits of old kiln-baked bricks that could substitute stone blocks near the village of Harappa. So 160 kilometres of tracks were built with Harrapan bricks that may be 4000 years old. 65 years later, archaeologists excavated the Harappa site.
Railway construction

Driving in disaster?
But for India, the progress of railways came with a huge price tag. In their single-minded drive to provide mobility to officers and merchants, the colonial rulers cleared great swathes of forests to lay down rail tracks and to cater to the railways’ demand for wood.

Take the case of the Himalayan region in India, that we now know as Uttaranchal.

July, 1888: After surveying the chir forests on the left bank of Tons river in Tehri and Jaunsar, A. Smythies, Assistant Conservator of Forests, declared that 100,000 broad gauge sleepers could be supplied annually from here.

The British used wooden sleepers to build rail tracks and Uttaranchal forests were the most-used source. Even though metal sleepers were more durable, wooden ones were preferred because they were light, easy to work with and cheaper.

During 1870-1878, the forest departments supplied around 1,834,927 deodar sleepers to the state railways. On an average the number of sleepers supplied annually from Uttaranchal varied between 0.2 and 0.3 million. Again, during the World Wars the extraction of chir sleepers increased. While 400,000 sleepers were exported in the First World War, this number rose to 440,000 during the Second World War.

Track-made floods
Rail tracks are built on embankments or a strip of raised land, which often disrupt the natural drainage system.

August 21, 1918, Bogra: A deluge devastated the region. The farmers had lost their crops in the previous years, and they knew more misery would follow. All of this began when the railways came chugging into the Rajshahi division in eastern Bengal.

The British found that teak, sal and deodar were most suitable for sleepers. Others required seasoning for durability, which cut into the profits. Therefore, railways in Northern India, used sal and deodar. Indian Railways is now replacing wooden sleepers with concrete ones. Indian Railways

The Chalan beel (lake) in the Rajshahi division was a vast hollow where 47 rivers and waterways of Northern Bengal converged. It was also a springboard for many rivers that flowed further. Then the beel began to be bounded by the Eastern Bengal Railway main line on the west and the Santahar-Bogra branch line on the north. In this low-lying area tracks were built on embankments which blocked the natural streams on both sides. As the railway companies made very few culverts and outlets, water from 47 streams collected along the embankments, drowning the crops.

The villagers appealed repeatedly for more openings in the embankments. But the authorities ignored their pleas.

But the train is still a boon…
But that was in the past. The colonial rulers laid tracks with an eye on their profit shares only, sparing no thoughts on long-term effects. Should we then equate the arrival of railways to the opening of Pandora’s box? On the contrary! In the modern context, railways can be described as the most eco-friendly option of all the modes of surface transport available today.

Not convinced? Well, just read on…

The Congressional Budget Office in the United States has done a study comparing various modes of transport in terms of energy use. It concludes that in terms of energy per ton-mile, trucks use more than railroads, and cargo planes are at the bottom of the efficiency range. Unit trains carrying coal require less than 900 BTUs (British Thermal Unit) per ton-mile of cargo. Intercity trucks consume much more energy – they need about 3,400 BTUs per ton-mile of cargo. That’s twice the rail average.

There’s more. The carrying capacity of railways is much higher than trucks. Light rail and subways, driven by electric motors, reduce air pollution. Even diesel-electric locomotives pollute less than auto travel.

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