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Thar Express  
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Oct 28 2011 (7:03AM)

Entry# 816     
Thar Express

Oct 28 2011 (6:57AM)
News Entry# 43567  A way home across the border: Thar Express  
Posted by: rdb*^   Added by: rdb*^  Oct 28 2011 (7:03AM)
On a sweltering July night, minutes before midnight, the otherwise nondescript Bhagat Ki Kothi railway station in Jodhpur, Rajasthan, is abuzz with activity. Auto rickshaws disgorge passengers and their luggage while security keeps vigilant guard at the station entrance, permitting only passengers access to the platform. Families embrace each other, bidding farewell; yet, these are no ordinary farewells, imbued as they are with a deep sense of pathos and permanence. The Thar Express is due to arrive in a few hours from Karachi, Pakistan, and passengers boarding the train for the return journey both anticipate returning home and feel sadness at leaving their loved ones behind.The train track, having been destroyed in the Indo-Pak war of 1965, was revived on February 18, 2006, representing a significant confidence-building measure between India and Pakistan. Named "Thar" after the wide expanse of desert on either side of the border, this train link, both the...
oldest and the newest, has since become another commonly used mode of travel between the two countries, in addition to the better-known Samjhauta Express, which connects Lahore to Delhi and Attari in India.Waiting at the station since 7.30pm, Afaq Ali Khan and his wife Shabana Afaq of Karachi say they prefer the Thar Express rather than the Samjhauta Express.
"It is more convenient for us, as we don't have to travel all the way to Lahore," Afaq says, having travelled to India by all three modes of transport — bus, aeroplane and now train. Originally from Jaora, situated in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, she pays a biannual visit to India to meet her parents and extended family. "[Another advantage of travelling via the Thar Express is that] once we arrive in Jodhpur, we can take a direct train to Jaora," Afaq says. "The train journey itself is not particularly comfortable but the Thar Express has provided a logistical respite for us."Gopal Sharma, PRO, Northern Railways, Jodhpur, says: "The train has been in continuous operation since February 2006, except when it was briefly closed from August 2006 to February 2007 due to damage caused to the rail tracks by heavy rainfall."Leaving Karachi at 11pm on Friday, the Thar Express reaches Jodhpur before midnight on Saturday; the train then departs from Jodhpur at 1am on Sunday and arrives at Monaba, the last border station in India, at 7am.However, intensive immigration and custom formalities at Monaba mean that the passengers often end up waiting till 6pm before the train receives final clearance. However, Sharma says Monaba has the facilities of an international airport, such as currency exchange, shops, a bank and restaurants to avoid any inconvenience to the passengers. "The Indian government stipulated in December 2008 that passengers going to Pakistan can carry only up to 35 kilograms of luggage, in a bid to ameliorate the customs situation," Sharma says.Once the customs formalities are completed, the passengers purchase a ticket to Pakistan and travel 1 kilometre to Zero Point, the first station on the Pakistan border, where the Pakistani authorities carry out their own customs checks, after which the train proceeds to Karachi. Pakistan operates the two-way service every Saturday for the first six months of the year and India takes over for the last six.
Originally from Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh, but based in Karachi since her marriage in 1986, Sajida Adnan says this is her 16th visit to India."One half of our family is in India and the other half in Pakistan," she says, elaborating that three daughters of her family are married to Pakistanis. "We are the emotional bridges that keep the familial connections alive."While earlier returning to her native land annually, her visits have mostly become biannual these days. "The hurdles are increasing day by day [to travel to India], as there are a lot more conditions to fulfil regarding obtaining the visa," she says. Of the journey itself, she says she is dreading the customs formalities at Monaba, which will be an extremely prolonged and drawn-out affair."We are 17 members travelling together and we will have to unpack and repack each luggage item at Monaba; naturally, [officials] will not allow the train to leave until all the passengers and luggage have been subjected to rigorous inspection," she says. However, while her nephew, Qazi Nauman Mujahid, admits it is frustrating and tedious, he also acknowledges that customs officers are compelled to do so as per protocol."While most passengers from Pakistan travel to India to meet families or go on a pilgrimage, some arrive for purely khepiya or business purposes, often taking back items from India which are otherwise expensive in Pakistan," he says.Mujahid notes that travelling by the Thar Express is financially advantageous for the Pakistani passengers. "One PIA air ticket will cost 40,000 Pakistani rupees [Dh1,694], which is beyond the common man's reach," he says. "The same amount will cover the cost of my whole family's train journey." The cost of a ticket from Karachi to Zero Point is 440 Pakistani rupees while Monaba to Bhagat Ki Kothi is Rs161 (Dh12)."There are mostly Pakistani and Indian citizens travelling in trains, although you do find the occasional tourist," Sharma says. Up till 2008, he says, there were on average 500 to 1,000 passengers travelling from Pakistan to India every journey; the number has now halved to 400 or 500.In the last round, 327 passengers arrived in India from Pakistan, while only 290 returned, leading to conjectures that many Pakistanis, primarily Hindus, choose to remain in India, extending their visas and hoping to be eventually granted Indian citizenship.Ramesh Acharya has travelled 147 kilometres from Beawar city to see off his grand-nephew, Sanjay. After the partition, the family of his paternal grandfather's brother chose to remain in Pakistan, in Mitthi, Sindh. "We nevertheless remain in close touch," he says, having visited Pakistan twice. "It was also important for me to see my home soil, where my mother used to study."Sanjay is returning to Pakistan after his maiden month in India and the occasion is significant enough to warrant many relatives to accompany him to bid farewell. "After all, we don't know when he will return again," Acharya says stoically.Next morning at 6am, only about 25 passengers emerged from the station, although the train arrived four hours earlier. Belonging to Makrana village in Jodhpur, Mohammad Shafe'ei counts minutes till he will be reunited with his older sister, who is returning home only for the second time in the 35 years she has been away after her marriage; her last visit was 22 years ago. "She arrived via Attari last time; of course, this time due to the Thar Express, she was able to directly arrive in Rajasthan," he says.His gaze permanently fixed on the station exit and the passengers trickling out from there, he says that his sister's arrival will depend on how quickly the luggage is unloaded from the train. As authorities do not allow family members to enter the station due to security reasons, passengers are dependent upon railway porters to transport their luggage from the platform to outside the station; the porters in turn can charge up to Rs500 for a short distance, which the passengers inevitably end up paying.Regardless of the hurdles that the journey presents, passengers are determined to return to and embrace their roots on either side of the border — and the Thar Express effectively facilitates that desire. Mujahid recounts meeting villagers on the train during previous visits who revealed that they lived in border-side villages in India and Pakistan, literally waving to their neighbours across the border. Yet, to meet them in actuality they have to travel hundreds of kilometres. However, it is this spirit of making borders redundant in their quest to connect which also glimmers in Mujahid's aunt's emphatic words. "I don't care even if [the authorities] ask a hundred questions," Adnan declares. "I will still find a way to come back home."
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