On Board the Maitree Express: Tahmid Sharif Eshan, an undergraduate student of social welfare at Bangalore’s St. Joseph’s College, is going home to Bangladesh after a long spell, but he isn’t in the best of moods on board the Kolkata-Dhaka Express train.
“I can’t wait for this ordeal to end,” says Eshan, 20. “This is my third trip by this train, and I hope this is my last.”
Eshan has to travel by the Maitree Express (maitree means friendship) because of a stipulation in his visa that he should enter and leave India by train. The next time he gets his visa extended, Eshan plans to have his port of entry and exit changed to Petrapole-Benapole.
Petrapole in West Bengal’s North 24 Parganas district, 95km from Kolkata, is the only land border point with Bangladesh in south Bengal, which is served by passenger-ferrying sports utility vehicles. Passengers have to cross the border to Benapole on the Bangladesh side of the border. Buses that transport passengers all the way to Dhaka also use the route.
Passenger discomfort: A Maitree Express passenger going to the immigration counter at Gede station in West Bengal. Passengers have to spend long hours completing customs formalities on both sides of the border. Indranil Bhoumik / Mint
Maitree Express was launched on 14 April last year—the first day of the Bangla new year—amid much fanfare. The first train from Kolkata was flagged off by Pranab Mukherjee, then external affairs minister. But a year later, the train doesn’t have enough passengers to transport and those who do travel by it have a litany of complaints about the service.
Eshan complains about the stifling heat, the five hours he spends completing customs and immigration formalities at Gede, the last station in India, and Darshana, the first in Bangladesh. The train completes its 538km journey in 13 hours.
“Moreover, the train runs only on weekends and a lot of time is wasted there, too,” says Eshan, who could have left for home a week ago if he didn’t have to travel by Maitree Express.
Asghar Alam Saberi, a resident of Chittagong, is travelling back to Bangladesh with his 23-year-old daughter, who is stricken with cancer. They travel to India regularly for treatment and take the train so she can lie down. But even she has to disembark with her luggage at both Gede and Darshana and is forced to sit for hours in an oppressively hot waiting enclosure.
Train connections between Kolkata and cities in Bangladesh such as Dhaka, Chittagong and Barisal continued even after the subcontinent’s 1947 partition, but were suspended after the India-Pakistan war in 1965. Before its creation in 1971, Bangladesh was East Pakistan.
“Today, there are 40 passengers and there have been days when we have seen only 17,” says Sanjoy Burman, the Railway Protection Force inspector in-charge at the Kolkata terminal.
The plummeting passenger count has forced the railways to drop a 108-seat car from the train, according to Samir Goswami, the chief public relations officer of Eastern Railway. Maitree Express started with seven cars that could carry around 400 passengers.
Bus operators on the Kolkata-Dhaka route such as Shohagh, Shyamoli, Saudia and Greenline are, meanwhile, doing brisk business. There are several reasons for that.
“The bus operators don’t have any fixed detainment time unlike the train whose timetable has been set keeping in mind a full load of passengers,” says Burman, who was asked to submit a report to his superiors about the falling passenger count. Also, the train from Dhaka reaches at 9.30pm or even later, when it’s difficult to get taxis or buses from the relatively new Kolkata station, according to Eshan.
India’s railway adviser at its high commission in Dhaka, Jaya Varma Sinha, is aware of the problems and says railway authorities of both countries and other agencies are working towards alleviating some of them. Some problems, such as the time taken to complete customs and immigration formalities, are rooted in inflexible security processes that are necessary to avoid “another Samjhauta Express tragedy”, Sinha says.
That’s a reference to the 2007 terrorist strike that left 68 people dead on board the Samjhauta Express that runs between India and Pakistan.
“While we would want the passenger count (on the train) to increase, we have to keep in mind the security situation in our neighbourhood,” says Vishnu Prakash, a spokesperson for the ministry of external affairs, which played a key role in starting the Maitree Express.