15 December 2017
Bhubaneswar: It is a startling revelation that two major tragedies of Odisha way back in the 1800s. brought us railways, the much needed connectivity to our State. While one is the Odisha Famine of 1866-67 (Na-Anka Durbikhya) which wiped out a major portion of the population, another is a shipwreck of 1887 which took lives of around 750 pilgrims on their sea voyage to Puri Jagannath temple comprising mainly Indian women of well-to-do families.
John Lawrence was the viceroy and governor general between 1864 and 1869. In a book published in 1882, titled 'Men and Events of My Time in India' and authored by Richard Temple, the secretary of Lawrence for a few years, he mentions a connection between Lawrence, Odisha and Railways.
“John Lawrence’s next trouble (after Bhutan) was the famine in Orissa, which probably caused him more grief than any other event during his rule…This misfortune gave an impulse to Lawrence's policy of constructing railways and canals across the country. If the Government was to assume the responsibility, never fully assumed during former times in India, for saving the lives of a large population threatened with death from famine, there must be railways to carry the surplus grain from productive tracts, for replenishing the gaps which drought might cause in the supplies of other tracts.”
This Odisha Famine of 1866-67 was severe and it has been estimated that one-third of the population died. Later Famine Codes and Famine Commissions endorsed the positive impact railway networks can have on distributing food in scarcity conditions.
In 1881, Baikuntha Nath De, an influential Zamindar, founded the ‘Balasore Railway Committee’, which sent a carefully-prepared memorandum to the Government of Bengal asking for construction of a direct rail link between Calcutta and Madras through Orissa’s coastal plains and of a branch line to Puri.
They argued that the railways would not only provide a faster and safer means of transport for the Jagannath pilgrims but would also reduce the incidence of cholera epidemics by improving the pilgrims’ lot and could, furthermore, serve as a famine protection line.
These appeals were repeated time and again in Odia and Bengali newspapers from the 1880s onwards.
Another link has also been established between Lawrence and Odisha.
An eminent researcher and historian of Odisha Anil Dhir came out with startling facts about a horrific sea tragedy which laid the foundation for laying of railway tracks to Odisha.
Around 800 lives were lost when a steamship “Sir John Lawrence” named after the viceroy, sank in the Bay of Bengal after leaving with passengers, mostly women, who were on their way to Puri in 1887. The pilgrims embarked on the ship from the Chotulal Ghat in Kolkata for Chandbali, from where they would have gone to Cuttack and then to Puri.
This wreck of “John Lawrence” reinforced the intensity of the campaign for an Odisha railway track with Bengali newspapers taking the lead. There was pressure (and petitions) for rail links between Calcutta and Madras through Odisha, with side lines to Puri.
The Dainik argued: “It is the fault of Government that a railway to Puri has not yet been opened. The Darjeeling Railway has been constructed for the convenience of hill-going Europeans; railways have been constructed in Assam for the benefit of tea-planters; and arrangements are in progress for constructing railways to the different sanatoriums of the different Governments. But no railway has yet been constructed for the safety of the hundreds of thousands of Hindu pilgrims to Puri. In vain have the people of Orissa and the whole Hindu community of 16 crore of people repeatedly prayed for a railway to Puri.”
The public pressure had its effect and a survey for a rail line from Calcutta to Cuttack, with a branch line to Puri, was finally sanctioned. The line opened in 1899, but the full journey was possible only from 1900 when the bridges over the major rivers of Odisha had been completed.
(With Inputs from The Business Standard & The Pioneer)