Bengal govt prepares to revive work on Sikkim’s only rail link
The Bengal government has started work to revive a stalled scheme for a rail link to connect Sikkim with the rest of the country amid allegations that the district administration is coercing gram sabhas to obtain no objection certificates.kolkata Updated: May 21, 2018 17:15 IST
The West Bengal government has started preparatory work to revive a stalled scheme for a rail link to connect Sikkim with the rest of the country amid allegations that the district administration was coercing gram sabhas to obtain no-objection certificates (NOCs) to push the project.
Officials have started visiting the villages in the forest areas of Kalimpong district through which the tracks will pass and interacting with locals to mobilise opinion in favour of granting NOC to the project. The nod of the villagers is required according to the Forest Rights Act 2006.
The initiative follows a meeting between Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee and her Sikkim counterpart Pawan Kumar Chamling on March 16 that helped in reducing tension between the two states after the latter’s open support to the demand for a separate state of Gorkhaland in the north Bengal hills.
The railway project is extremely important since it will bring Sikkim which borders China, Nepal and Bhutan into the railway map of India. Incidentally, China is rapidly expanding its railway connectivity to the border.
Sikkim does not yet have a functioning airport, and is connected to the rest of India only by National Highway 10, which is often cut off by landslides or political unrest in the north Bengal hills.
“For the past three weeks government officials are visiting our villages. They are telling us that the government will consider our demand sympathetically, and we should agree to issue the NOC,” said Saran Rai, a resident of Rangpo Forest Village through which the link will pass.
Meena Sherpa of 29 Mile Forest Village said the officials are accompanied by surveyors. “The officials are bringing amins (surveyors) with them. Surveyors never came to the villages earlier,” she said.
The proposed broad gauge line between Sevoke in West Bengal to Rangpo in Sikkim will cover a distance of 44.98-km, of which 41.54 km falls in Darjeeling and Kalimpong districts of West Bengal administered by the Gorkhaland Territorial Administration (GTA), while only 3.44 km is in Sikkim.
In 2009 the foundation stone was laid by Mamata Banerjee, who was then the Union railway minister. The Rs 1,339.48 crore project was supposed to be completed by 2015. The estimated cost has now almost quadrupled to Rs 4,100 crore because of the time overrun.
“The project cannot move ahead unless gram sabhas in forest villages give their nod. It is only after the NOC from gram sabhas, that it would get green signal from the Union ministry of environment and forests and Union ministry of tribal affairs,” said a senior official of Indian Railway Construction Company (IRCON), the agency tasked with building the track.
However, activists have warned of opposition if the government takes the path of coercion without implementing the Forest Rights Act first that grants locals the rights over local forest resources.
“We will oppose tooth and nail if the project work is started 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 Himalayan Forest Villagers Organisation (HFVO). He put the number of villagers that will be affected by the project at about 40,000.
The HFVO, an influential body, is demanding conversion of the land in 165 forest villages into revenue villages and land rights for forest village dwellers before the gram sabhas agree to issue NOCs.
Given the sensitive issue, the Bengal government has refused to commit itself to expediting the process. “The matter is very sensitive and I would not like to make comments,” said Binoy Krishna Burman, Bengal forest minister.
“The district administrative is adopting coercive measures to seek NOC from gram sabhas which is illegal,” alleged Soumitra Ghosh, secretary North Eastern Society for Preservation of Nature and Wildlife (NESPON).
State government officials point out that the issue is a sensitive one and needs to be tackled appropriately. It has got the potential of snowballing to a political issue in the Darjeeling and Kalimpong hills that witnessed 104-day-long strike and the loss of 13 lives in the unrest in 2017.
The Bimal Gurung faction of the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM) is also supporting the forest dwellers’ demand.
The forest dwellers agitating under the banner of HFVO, is backed by local political parties and various social and environmental organisations at national and local levels. They include the All India Forum of Forest Movement, Campaign for Survival and Dignity, Community Forest Resource Learning and Advocacy Network and NESPON.