‘Renting the Taj Mahal’: the fight to save Darjeeling’s toy train

India’s tiny train has puffed up the Himalayas since 1881 but now the world heritage site is under threat

Darjeeling ko sano rail, hirna lai abo tyari cha / Guard le shuna bhai siti bajayo” (Darjeeling’s dainty train is all set to chug off / Oh, listen to the guard blowing the whistle): generations of children in Darjeeling have grown up hearing these lines from a Nepali nursery rhyme. Serenading the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway (DHR), it depicts the close relationship between the “Queen of the Hills” and local people.

However, that relationship has become strained after the Indian government decided to hand over the running of the railway – listed by Unesco as a world heritage site – and oversight of the land adjoining the stations to a private company, threatening jobs and livelihoods.

Residents fear the move will mean the forceful eviction of people who have lived and worked alongside the railway lines for generations, with their small businesses replaced by shopping centres and hotels, while railway workers fear their jobs will be axed. The DHR administration has already started downsizing the operation, and employees who retire are not being replaced.

A single loop of the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway, photographed in 1910.
A loop of the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway, photographed in 1910. The DHR has one of the steepest ascents of any conventional railway. Photograph: Print Collector/Getty

“What will happen to us? At this age, we will be out on the streets. We’ll lose everything,” says 80-year-old Lopsang Sherpa, who runs a shop selling food, bottled water and cigarettes on railway land.

Sherpa’s shop, along with other businesses and houses around the railway, were built illegally but the rail company and local authorities had always turned a blind eye. Residents are worried that will now change.

“I have been sustaining my family from this small shop for the past 30 years,” says Uday Barua, 48, who runs a cafe. “What will happen to us if this shop is taken away?”

The DHR made its first journey in 1881. Its narrow-gauge trains hug cliff edges on the 55-mile (88km) journey between Darjeeling and New Jalpaiguri in West Bengal. Also known as the “toy train”, it is the only fully operational public 2ft (610mm) railway in the world, and reaches an altitude of more than 2,200 metres (7,218ft).

The railway used to generate huge revenues as a passenger and freight carrier, ferrying grain and other essential commodities from the plains to the hills, and carrying back tea, oranges, ginger and cardamom. Its fortunes began to decline in the 1960s as landslides, earthquakes and competition from faster road networks took their toll. Employee numbers have dropped to 400 from 2,000 in the 1940s.

Despite still being a huge tourist attraction – drawing more than a million Indian tourists a year and about 30,000 from overseas – the state-subsidised railway has been losing money for years. Annual running costs have reached 230m rupees (£2.3m), against earnings of just R120m.

The Darjeeling Himalayan Railway’s narrow gauge locomotive in August 2021.
Tourists on a jungle tea safari service on the DHR in August. The train attracts 1m Indian visitors a year. Photograph: Diptendu Dutta/AFP/Getty

To stem some of the losses, India’s finance minister, Nirmala Sitharaman, announced in August that the railway would be put into private hands as part of the government’s National Monetisation Pipeline plan to raise £60bn by 2025. Four mountain railway lines have been earmarked for privatisation under the plan, along with airports, roads and mines. The money raised will be spent on other infrastructure projects.

The news sparked protests at eight DHR railway stations, and a flood of letters and tweets to the prime minister, appealing for the idea to be scrapped.

A local politician, Ajoy Edwards, has warned of further protests. “We urge the government to roll back this decision. In case of a single retrenchment or loss of livelihood, we will launch widespread protests,” he said. “Just because the Taj Mahal is not making profits, can we rent it out?”

Unesco has written to the Indian government asking for clarification on how it will ensure the private operators conserve the railway and comply with its world heritage status.

The train reaches Rongtong station near Darjeeling as services resume in August 2021 after a shutdown caused by the Covid pandemic.
The train reaches Rongtong station near Darjeeling as services resumed last month after a shutdown caused by the Covid pandemic. Photograph: Diptendu Dutta/AFP/Getty

The Darjeeling Himalayan Railway Society, a UK-based group of about 600 enthusiasts in 24 countries, has also expressed concerns. Paul Whittle, vice-chairman, says the society wishes to be “part of the dialogue, along with other key stakeholders, to determine the future of the DHR”, adding: “The world-famous DHR has a very powerful global brand image and immense potential.”

Raj Basu, secretary general of the DHR India support group, whose global membership also supports the conservation of the railway, says: “Losing the world heritage tag will toll the death knell for the DHR.”

He said: “People have sacrificed a lot for the functioning of the DHR. It takes up half of the already narrow national highway 55 connecting the hills and the plains. There are 150 unmanned crossings, yet local people want the DHR to keep running. It is the global face of the Indian Railways.”

Hillside city houses tower above the distinctive carriages of the heritage train service.
Hillside houses tower over the distinctive carriages of the heritage train service. Photograph: Marion Kaplan/Alamy

Nilima Tamang, from the Association for Conservation and Tourism, agrees. “We are emotionally attached to the DHR. The DHR in bygone eras was the lifeline of the hills and our ancestors have toiled hard and made many sacrifices to keep it running. It is our identity, and we don’t want it to change hands.”

Santosh Biswakarma, branch secretary of NF Railway Mazdoor Union, says his members fear that jobs and skills will be lost if private companies begin running the railway. “With vacancies not being filled up, there is a shortage of skilled manpower, especially for the steam engines,” he said.

Kishore Sunam, 54, has been working for a contractor on the DHR since 1982, handling the coal that drives the steam engines. He is paid R10,000 (£97) a month but on a casual contract, earning nothing when he does not work. “With talks of private players, they might not engage contractors any more. Without contractors, our jobs will be on the line,” he said.

Neelkamal Chettri, a sustainable development consultant, says there are alternatives to privatisation. “The railways need to change their outlook,” he said. “They do not have to monetise the DHR. Instead, they can make it self-sustainable by involving the local communities.

“They can arrange markets around the railway stations involving local communities who can sell their produce. Youths can stage cultural shows and work as tourist guides, centred on the DHR.”

Amitava Banerjee in Darjeeling

The GuardianTramp

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