Sikkim’s rail link project faces hurdles as GTA sets preconditions to issue NOC
The project requires 86.61 of land inside Mahananda Wild Life Sanctuary in Darjeeling district and other forest areas within GTA territory.Updated: Dec 27, 2017 11:57 IST
The project to bring Sikkim into the railway map of India is stuck due to a slew of demands raised by Gorkhaland Territorial Administration (GTA) to give the mandatory no objection certificate for tracks to pass through forest land.
The rail link is vital for the landlocked hill state, which shares its border with three neighbouring countries--China, Nepal and Bhutan. Incidentally, China is rapidly expanding its railway connectivity to the border.
“The rail line will serve defence needs apart from that of civilian transportation,” said Sikkim chief minister Pawan Chamling.
The strategic state also does not have any functional airport.
The proposed broad gauge line between Sevoke in West Bengal to Rangpo in Sikkim are to cover a distance of 44.98-km, of which 41.54 km falls in Darjeeling and Kalimpong districts of West Bengal administered by the GTA, while only 3.44 km is in Sikkim.
Then railway minister Mamata Banerjee laid the foundation stone of the Rs 1,339.48 crore project in 2009. It was to be completed by 2015.
The project requires 86.61 of land inside Mahananda Wild Life Sanctuary in Darjeeling district and other forest areas within GTA territory.
In February 2016, the Supreme Court allowed changing the status of 8.84 hectares of forest land within the wildlife sanctuary. It also asked the Bengal government to denotify the area within two months.
“Though the forest department agreed on principle to give its nod, the status of the land could not be changed in the absence of no- objection certificate from the GTA,” said Tshering Thendup Bhutia, the additional general manager of Indian Railway Constuction Comapan (IRCON), the implementing agency.
The semi autonomous body that runs the affairs in the north Bengal hills has set preconditions for issuing the NOC.
Among others, it wants first land pattas (rights) be given by the West Bengal government to more than 5,000 villagers in 165 forest villages as per Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act 2006.
It’s other demands include GTA should be allowed to monitor the tendering process of the project; permanent jobs for locals in railways and development works be carried out in the affected areas.
The Himalayan Forest Villagers Organisation (HFVO), an influential body, fighting for the implementation of Forest Rights Act 2006, is demanding conversion of the land in 165 forest villages within the GTA area into revenue villages and land rights bestowed on forest village dwellers, before they agree to GTA issuing the NOC.
“We will oppose tooth and nail if the GTA makes any move to issue the NOC unless the Forest Rights Act is implemented in the Darjeeling hills. The Act is already implemented in neighbouring districts of Jalpaiguri and Alipurduar,” said Lila Kumar Gurung, general secretary of HVFO.
Only 24 forest villages would be affected by the project and the state government is unwilling to meet the HFVO and GTA’s demands.
“The GTA was supposed to get back to us in June, but the hills came under sudden bandh for 104 days from that month, upsetting the schedule ,” said Darjeeling district magistrate Joyoshi Dasgupta.
“I am not aware of the development and will have to go through the files,” said Subrata Biswas, who recently joined as GTA principal secretary.
GTA is now headed by Binoy Tamang, who is close to chief minister Mamata Banerjee.
IRCON officials believe only chief minister Mamata Banerjee can now rescue the project.
Though none would publically admit, the ongoing tension between Bengal and Sikkim over Gorkhaland may also work against the project.
On June 20 the Sikkim chief minister wrote to the Union home minister advocating the creation of the separate Gorkhaland state that has irked Bengal government.
The Mamata Banerjee administration also believes that the Sikkim government is helping Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM) chief Bimal Gurung evade the Bengal Police that has slapped UA (P) A against him and several of his associates.
“Inside Sikkim the work for tunnel number 14 has already started. The work for tunnel number 5 in the revenue land areas in Bengal has also begun,” said Bhutia.
For its connectivity with rest of the country, Sikkim is dependent on NH 10, the only road that remains cut off regularly due to natural causes such as landslides and political unrests such as bandh called to press for Gorkhaland state.