Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Comments from UK Writer

Local Hero - Shri Rajendra Baid.
President, India Support Group, Darjeeling Himalayan Railway Society.

(This article was published in Association of Community Rail Partnership, UK ‘s magazine “ Train Times” written by Paul Salveson )

What many people probably don’t realise is that, in the 1990’s, this little line, some 55 miles long, was on the verge of closing, and being lost forever. The reasons were a combination of coping with the annual monsoon washaways, that some years rendered the line out of action for months at a time, life expired equipment represented by worn out Victorian museum piece steam locomotives clawing and wheezing their way up the hills each day, and an ever busier road up to Darjeeling that is constantly criss crossed by the DHR as road and rail fight for space on the same hillside ledge. The sheer cost of rebuilding after the monsoon season when over 300 inches of rain fall in a 3 month period is expensive enough, however add into the equation the gargantuan task of renovating the line and coping with the traffic and you have a daunting proposition indeed.

As the railway seemingly entered its twilight, support manifested from a number of unlikely places. From the UK emerged a number of supporters, including the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway Society. In India, the DHR, owned by the State owned Indian Railways found both supporters and those who wished it closed, in equal measure in the corridors of power. At this time the very idea that someone who was not a railway employee might have an interest in the line’s survival was, frankly, eccentric. Step forward newspaper owner, hotelier, and philanthropic businessman, Rajendra Baid.

So it was that he travelled halfway around the world from Siliguri, a town through which the DHR runs, also where he has his hotel, to the UK. His purpose was to interest travel companies in the much-neglected yet supremely beautiful potential tourist destination of the Darjeeling area in northeast India. That, and to meet this DHRS, run by these enthusiastic Englishmen.

Here was Rajendra, a man who had made his way in the world, looking to give something back. Being involved in the newspaper and tourism business in the Darjeeling area, he wondered how to get more tourists to visit this beautiful scenic region. The traditional destination for those India bound is the Golden triangle in the west, or Goa. It was only the hardy souls, the devout rail fans, that made the difficult trek eastward to West Bengal. Those that came fell in love with the unrivalled scenery, the Tibetan monasteries, the virgin rainforest, the abundance of beautiful flowers and shrubs, and of course, this brave little steam railway that gamely shuffled its way upwards through the clouds. At some point, Rajendra decided to dedicate the rest of his life to encouraging eco friendly tourism to the area, with all the benefits that would bring to the local people, and the key to this was that unique jewel, known throughout the world, the DHR. It would act as a magnet if it were marketed well.

After our meeting he returned to India and, fired with enthusiasm, set about his mission. We spoke about all manner of matters via the wonders of email. Rajendra, wearing the hat of , ‘President, DHRS India Support Group’, began to campaign to secure the DHR’s future from his office in his hotel. This became the nerve centre from whence his endless energy made itself felt throughout India. Talking with Government big wigs became the norm. On one memorable occasion, when a portion of the line was about to be lost, Rajendra saved it.

It happened like this. At the bottom end of the line, the DHR tracks and the metre gauge run side by side. They cross by means of a diamond crossing before going their separate ways. When the metre gauge was being converted to broad gauge, the engineers declared that a new crossing simply could not be made, thus the first 4 miles of the DHR would be lost and the train would have to start at a new location, higher up the line. It was all but signed and sealed. Rajendra, man of action, contacted his MP and gained his support. They went to Delhi and succeeded in getting an appointment with the Chairman of Indian Railways. By sheer personality and argument, the result was a stay of execution and an agreement to have a new diamond crossing constructed.

Whether it is dealing in the corridors of power, or humbly creating new projects in the region, Rajendra is never still. He has created employment opportunities for local people by training some as tourist guides, others plant flowers and shrubs alongside the DHR tracks, whilst Rajendra has helped with medical support for the people at one village through which the line passes. All this and so much more. As I write this article he has dreamt up another half dozen ideas that will further inspire the local people to see that the DHR is good for them.

To create publicity for the DHR this powerhouse of a man decided to host an annual DHR Lovers conference at his hotel. This to coincide whilst one of our tours was present. A high profile affair, with speakers from the UK and from all over India, this now annual event serves to focus activity, refresh enthusiasm, and remind us all ofour purpose.

I’ve seen Rajendra skillfully negotiate with high-ranking Government ministers in Delhi, also seen him in earnest discussion with the young people who live alongside the DHR. His extraordinary abundance of energy and ideas has ensured the DHR is high profile all over India. I once asked a senior Indian Railways officer, “Is Rajendra a help or a hindrance to you in his quest to save the DHR”. “It’s like this”, the officer replied, “Because he operates outside of Indian Railways, he can either be one big pain to sleepy officers who are passive and couldn’t care about the line, whilst on the other hand, he can achieve things that none of us could.”

You may wonder, what is it that motivates Rajendra? Perhaps some financial objective or position of power? Well, he owns three hotels that are pretty much full, he runs a newspaper, has various other interests. He need never be concerned about finance again. His motivation is simply to build a legacy for future generations. He loves the region, he loves the DHR, for this railway will secure the financial well being of the region and its people. Above all, he loves the people. That’s why he is my ‘Local hero’.

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