NEW DELHI: The UNESCO has cautioned that the damage caused to the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway (DHR) due to the Gorkhaland agitation may put in peril the World Heritage tag it earned in 1999.
Two prime stations Gayabari and Sonada were torched while an arson attempt was made on Elysia Building -- the headquarters of the DHR during the pro-Gorkhaland bandh that entered its 54th day today.
"The DHR heritage toy train is already very vulnerable given the natural environmental surrounding and landslide and other disaster threats it faces. And, now this social turmoil has added another layer of vulnerability to it," said Section Chief and Programme Specialist for Culture at UNESCO New Delhi Office Moe Chiba.
"We are very worried about the DHR as after the UNESCO tag, it is a heritage symbol of outstanding universal value.
And with all the damage caused to it during the strike, the World Heritage status enjoyed by it, may come up for review in the next World Heritage Committee meeting in 2018," she told PTI.
Indian Railways and UNESCO are currently working on preparing a Comprehensive Conservation Management Plan (CCMP) for the DHR, work on which had begun in mid-2016.
An office for the CCMP, with a team of experts, was set up in June last year in a room of the 1896-built Kurseong Station that falls midway on the 88-km-long narrow-gauge railway network between New Jalpaiguri and Darjeeling.
The ongoing agitation for a separate Gorkhaland has halted the project operation in the hill town and UNESCO has opened a temporary office for it in its headquarters premises in Delhi.
"Around June 8, the stir began in Darjeeling and we continued for a few days but finally, the situation became difficult and on June 12, we closed our CCMP project office in Kurseong.
"We evacuated our staff and asked them to go back to their hometowns and work from there and later set up a CCMP office at the UNESCO Office in Chanakyapuri," Chiba said, adding, "as soon as the area is made accessible, our team will visit Darjeeling to assess the extent of damage caused to this World Heritage".
Delhi-based conservation architect Aishwarya Tipnis, part of the CCMP project team, said DHR was inscribed in the UNESCO list nearly 20 years ago, and it is "Asia's first industrial heritage site to earn the coveted tag".
"DHR is a complex cultural landscape, which impacts the everyday life of a large population. And, the unfortunate events of deliberate damage caused by arson attacks on Sonada, Gayabari stations and 'Elysia' brings to light an important question regarding the protection of world heritage sites in conflict situations in our country," Tipnis told PTI.
"We are very hopeful that the situation normalises soon enough," she said.
After DHR, the Nilgiri Mountain Railway (NMR) and the Kalka-Shimla Railway (KSR) were successively accorded the UNESCO tag, and the three have been collectively designated as the Mountain Railways of India.
The only other railway property which enjoys the World Heritage status in India is colonial-era Victoria Terminus (now Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus) station in Mumbai.
"The objective of the CCMP is to provide a framework for management of the world heritage site with the various stakeholders -- the railways, local administration, civic bodies, NGOs, tour operators -- and people in general and an idea to collaboratively work towards its preservation and development by defining roles and responsibilities," Tipnis said.
According to the architect, if the DHR model of preservation goes as it is being planned, it will become a "yardstick of conservation" for various other projects in the field.
Chiba said proper guidelines will be prepared for maintenance of DHR, its vintage steam locomotives, machinery and historic stations and other buildings, and other conservation-related aspects.
Tipnis, who is a heritage consultation expert in the multi-disciplinary team said the CCMP is also preparing a conservation strategy for restoration of Ghoom Station, which house a museum.
"The work includes documentation, mapping, condition assessment and conservation strategy. The DHR is country's pride, and a proper conservation plan will go a long away in preserving it for posterity," she said.
Set up in 1881, the DHR is administered by the Guwahati-based Northeast Frontier Railway (NFR). The Darjeeling Himalayan Railway Co. remained effective until it was taken over by the Government of India on October 20, 1948.
Throughout that period Gillanders Artbuthnot & Co., one of the oldest managing houses in Calcutta, handled its financial, legal and purchasing interests, according to official website of the DHR.
Asked if the damaged stations and buildings of the DHR can be restored, Tipnis said, "Yes we have all the drawings and data and we should be able to restore them. However we need to make an assessment of the damage as soon as we can."
The indefinite strike has paralysed normal life in Darjeeling and cries for separate Gorkhaland have replaced the whistling sound of the chugging steam engines that otherwise echo through the picturesque hills and tea gardens.