Stir over forest rights likely to hit rail link project to landlocked Sikkim
The agitated villagers claim that while offering the compensation the authorities ignored the provisions of the Forest Rights Act, 2006, under which it is mandatory to get the consent of the villagers through gram sabhas.india Updated: Jun 24, 2018 17:50 IST
The ambitious project of Indian Railways connecting Sevoke in West Bengal with Rangpo in Sikkim is in troubled waters once again. Residents of the forest villages through which the proposed railway tracks will pass have rejected the compensation offered to them, alleging discrimination by the authorities.
The agitated villagers claim that while offering the compensation the authorities ignored the provisions of the Forest Rights Act, 2006, under which it is mandatory to get the consent of the villagers through gram sabhas, the lowest tier of the panchayat system.
The state government has convened an emergency review meeting with the forest villagers on June 26 in Kalimpong district.
The foundation stone for the project was laid by West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee in 2009, when she was the railways minister in the UPA-2 government lead by then prime minister Manmohan Singh. Although in 2009, the cost of the project was estimated at Rs 1,339.48 crore, it has now escalated by over three times to Rs 4,100 crore.
The initiative got a further push after Mamata Banerjee met Sikkim chief minister Pawan Chamling in March this year to end the tension between the two states over the latter’s support to the demand for a separate Gorkhaland stated spearheaded by the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM).
The railway project is also of strategic important to the country as it will bring Sikkim, which borders China, Nepal and Bhutan, onto the railway map of India. Incidentally, China is rapidly expanding its railway connectivity on the border. Sikkim does not yet have a functional airport, and is connected to the rest of the country only by National Highway 10, which is often cut off by landslides or political unrest in the north Bengal hills.An airport has come up near capital Gangtok, but is yet to be operationalised.
On Saturday, SK Thade, principal secretary in the West Bengal government’s backward classes welfare department and other senior railway and state officials visited the affected areas at Malli under Kalimpong district and announced that 26 families there would be affected by the project. Thade announced the affected people would get their compensation within 15 days.
That announcement lead to agitation among the forest villagers. Prakash Rai, son of Surya Kumari Rai of Malli forest village said although his house is identified by the railways as one to be affected by the project, he will not accept compensation unless the Forest Rights Act is implemented and the villagers given their dues.
Ganga Rai, another forest villager said the government officials on Saturday had no reply when he asked them how houses above and below his were identified as “affected” by the railway project and not his .
Lila Kumar Gurung, general secretary of Himalayan Forest Villagers Organisation (HFVO) that is spearheading the movement for the Forest Rights Act said the announcement to give compensation to 26 people is only a ploy to weaken the movement. “We will not bow down unless the Forest Rights Act is implemented,” said Gurung.
Dr Vishwanath, district magistrate of Kalimpong said the work to implement Forest Rights Act was going in a parallel manner along with the work of the railway project. “We will sit with the affected people on June 26 and clear their confusion,” he said.
When asked why only the 26 forest villagers are identified for compensation, he said they are the people to be directly affected by the proposed railway station at Malli.
First Published: Jun 24, 2018 17:50 IST