Railways as agents of change in 19th century Banaras region

"Culture and Power in Banaras: Community, Performance, and Environment, 1800-1980", edited by S. B. Freitag and brought out by the University of California in 1989.

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Source: The University of California system Selected and with comments by R Sivaramakrishnan. Posted to IRFCA on: January 20, 2008. The extracts presented here are believed to be within the provisions of fair use under copyright law.

Section 8, "Land Use and Environmental Change in the Gangetic Plain: Nineteenth-Century Human Activity in the Banaras Region", has been contributed by Robert G. Varady.

In the sub-section, "Modern Agents of Change" (pp. 241-244), the contributor describes how the introduction of railways, stretching from Calcutta to Punjab, and improved roadways in the later half of the nineteenth century, while facilitating travel and increasing pilgrimage to Banaras, placed a great stress on the local resources, and how their construction and then their operation and maintenance resulted in pronounced and usually permanent modifications of the terrain.

Gangs of thousands of *beldar'* s (laborers) from the nearby countryside were hired for the construction, were housed in meager shacks, underfed, and overworked; Epidemics were frequent and camps of ten thousand lost up to a third of the workers to cholera and other diseases. The work teams were employed to clear jungles of vegetation, excavate tree roots, flatten roadbeds, lay gravel or limestone, dig drainage ditches, construct embankments, bridge streams and place creosoted sleepers every seventy-five centimeters. The quantities of materials required were prodigious. To complete eighty kilometers of railway tracks in Banaras district, the contractor executed 1.2 million cubic meters of earthwork and 6,000 cubic meters of brickwork; in addition, 210,000 cubic meters of ballast were used. Tracks in Banaras district alone would have required a hundred thousand sleepers. Sal available in the region was too scanty to furnish the railways's needs. "Instead, the wood was imported, either from England or from the upper Gangetic tracts northeast of Delhi, forested with deodar..... The demand on Himalayan timber resources was thus considerable, especially since sleepers needed replacement every five years. Local firewood and charcoal supplies were employed to make burnt-clay ballast and to bake the bricks used for bridges, stations, and culverts. In the Banaras region, as in the rest of northern India, the railways clearly were agents of deforestation."

As roads and railways, in the interest of efficiency and directness, sought linearity, for crossing streams, in nearby Son district the EIR alone constructed 240 bridges and culverts in 1860. These interruptions interfered with drainage and flow patterns, altering the runoff characteristics, water being lost to agriculture.

Of special interest is the concluding passage:

"Locomotives,..... for much of the century, burned wood, procured wherever it was sold, preferably in the vicinity of the route. So serious was the problem of supply that in the early 1860s, the *Calcutta Review* reported, 'a great cry arose that the Railway must soon stop for want of fuel.. Though perhaps exaggerated, the concern was valid, as Indian railway operation consumed enormous amounts of firewood (50,000 kilograms per kilometer per year, according to one estimate). In some areas roots were burned as fuel. And by the mid-1860s some railway firms were calling for private fuel-wood plantations to meet growing demand. Only the advent of cheap coal enabled the EIR and other lines to continue operating (*Calcutta Review*1867:262 327)."

The original source material used on this page is believed to be out of copyright, and/or these extracts are believed to be fall within the scope of fair use under copyright law. Material selection and editing by R Sivaramakrishnan, 2008.