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The BBC's Jill McGivering reports
The journey goes through some of India's most remote areas
 real 56k

Monday, 21 May, 2001, 16:31 GMT 17:31 UK
Assam seeks steam revival
Assam steam train
The train passes through stunning scenery

By Jill McGivering in Assam

It is a sound many people thought they would never hear again - a lovingly restored steam train chugging through the heart of India's north-eastern state of Assam.

We cannot allow it to get extinct like the wild animals

National Rail Museum director Rajesh Agarwal
This is its maiden run - and railway enthusiasts see it as a key part of their plans to revive steam and attract tourists to this region.

Called the Jatinga Steam Safari, the 40 km ride is part of an ambitious plan to attract visitors to a region which is generally off the tourist track - and one of the challenges will be persuading them this remote and volatile area is safe to visit.

"It's got special charm, we cannot allow it to get extinct, like the wild animals are getting extinct in this area," says Rajesh Agarwal, director of the National Rail Museum in Delhi.

He says it also means a revival for the north-east region, which could help not only with the area's heritage but also its economy.

Development needs

Money is desperately needed in the small villages close to the railway.

Villager in Assam
The area has seen little development
The area has seen very little development - and in recent years, the few crops here have been decimated by a mysterious disease.

Former village headman Howell Rupsi explains that people's purchasing power is less and less every year.

"They don't have the means of earning. We are purely agriculturist - there's no industry, there's no other thing where we can just send our boys and girls there - so it affects even our education."

Now people are pinning their hopes on tourism.

The villagers are reviving traditional tribal dances - in the hope of becoming an attraction themselves.

But despite the great natural beauty of the area, persuading tourists to come might not be easy.

Safety fears

Assam is not only remote - it also has major security concerns.

Rebel groups here are waging a violent pro-separatist campaign. The villagers admit their lives and property are not secure.

Indian soldier
Security problems could dissuade potential tourists
But the general manager of the Northern Frontier Railway, BMS Bisht, who is pioneering the steam safari, believes tourists will not be targeted.

"As far as I remember, there's been hardly any incident with tourists here because the militancy or insurgency as you say is not directed against tourism or tourists as such. "

He also says that militants will come to realise that the more tourists come, the more the region's prospects will improve.

The sight of the steam train cutting through this remote and inaccessible landscape is stunning.

When the railway was built by the British 100 years ago, it transformed the region, opening it up to the outside world and carrying out tea for export.

Now officials want the railway to bring development again - despite the fact the region is one of India's most politically volatile.

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See also:

16 May 01 | South Asia
Assam chief pushes truce
19 Jun 00 | South Asia
'Toy train's heritage safe'
14 Apr 00 | South Asia
India and Pakistan keep rail link
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