Calcutta, India India’s ambitious railway project to connect a small northeastern Indian state along its border with China with the rest of the country is generating concern among forest dwellers and local environmentalists.
The project aims to extend the railway to Nathu La in Sikkim state in the Himalayas, on the border between India and China, to facilitate the movement of troops in the event of an emergency.
The 45-km (28-mile) project, which began in 2009, connects Sevoke in West Bengal with Rangpo in Sikkim, with three stations between them, one underground.
In addition to bringing Sikkim to the rail map of India, the project is touted as an engineering marvel with its network of 14 tunnels and 17 bridges on a single wide gauge railway line. Most of the railway project is in West Bengal, with only 2.44 km (2 miles) in Sikkim.
The government claims that the project, once completed, will generate more income for local communities and boost tourism in the Himalayan region.
But environmentalists fear it could threaten thousands of lives in the ecologically fragile Darjeeling Sikkim Himalayan (DSH) region that is prone to landslides, earthquakes and other natural calamities.
“The area is in seismic zone IV and V, which is highly vulnerable to earthquakes and these huge construction activities increase the possibility of a catastrophic disaster,” Jatishwar Bharati, a West Bengal-based geographic researcher, told Al Jazeera. .
“The rock formations are too young as the area is made up of rocks from the Phillitic Daling group that don’t have a strong bond. The area is still under construction and therefore very unstable. Even minor vibrations can alter its alignment and cause severe landslides and flash floods with mud flow during the monsoon. “
Bharati referred to a accident at the project site last month when the rock inside one of the tunnels collapsed during the blast, killing two workers and injuring five others.
“Natural calamities such as earthquakes could not only damage the railway network, but the loose layer of rocks as an indirect effect of construction activities and heavy vehicular movement can bring further destruction to people’s livelihoods and the biodiversity in the area “.
Former officials with the Geological Survey of India (GSI) admitted that the area is prone to landslides.
“The Darjeeling-Sikkim Himalaya has a history of landslides … But any major engineering project like this must have considered and taken all of those factors into account,” retired GSI deputy director Niraj Kumar Sarkar told Al Jazeera.
“Tunneling in the Himalayas itself is challenging work due to complex geological, geomorphological and hydrological factors. But technology guarantees safe construction, ”he said.
Sarkar said authorities should “initiate some hydrological studies to allay locals’ fear of drying up of natural streams during tunnel construction.”
Hydroelectric dams on the river
Activists say hydroelectric dams on the Teesta, a cross-border river that flows near the rail project, have already made the area vulnerable to natural disasters.
“The Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) report and related Environmental Management Plans (EMP) for two hydroelectric dams in Teesta had admitted that the slopes around the project site were geologically fragile and any alteration of the slopes could result in landslides. of severe land, increasing the danger of sedimentation in the reservoir and affect National Highway 31, “Soumitra Ghosh, an environmental and forest rights activist, told Al Jazeera.
“We are already witnessing roads collapse in areas where dams have been built and river water floods the road and leaves people homeless.”
On July 8, heavy monsoon rains triggered landslides in the Kalimpong and Darjeeling areas of West Bengal, with the Kalimpong site just 3 km from the railway project.
In fact, the water level of the Teesta River crossed the danger mark this year and was flooded, inundating roads and leaving hundreds of families homeless.
The flooded area is less than 10 km (6 miles) from the proposed rail line.
But it is not just dams that accelerate natural disasters, according to environmentalists deforestation and urbanization do the same.
“Dams are just one of the causes that increase the risk of landslides. But other factors such as indiscriminate urbanization, deforestation and massive road construction also lead to natural disasters, ”Himanshu Thakkar, from the South Asia Network of Dams, Rivers and People (SANDRP) told Al Jazeera.
“Unfortunately, in India, no studies are done beforehand to understand the impact of such constructions in an area that is inherently prone to landslides and other natural disasters. Major interventions such as blasting, tunneling, cutting hills, building roads and municipalities all have an impact on the potential for landslides in the area. “
Alleged violation of the Forest Rights Law
Apart from the risks and fears of natural disasters in the Himalayan region, the forest dwellers also accuse the authorities of starting the railway project without their consent under India’s Forest Rights Act.
The law obliges the government to seek approval from local village bodies for any construction in forest areas.
“They did not take away that permission and the compensation [for eviction from the land] it was paid for after several years of starting the project, ”said Amrit Chhetri, chairman of the Forest Rights Committee (FRC) formed by villagers to protect their rights.
Chhetri said the railways department has so far identified 26 families who would be displaced by the project and paid them 50 percent of the compensation.
“But we think the number of people could be several times higher,” he said.
Railway officials also acknowledged that problems related to the rights of forest dwellers led to delays and that none of the 14 proposed tunnels have been completed.
“We haven’t completed any tunnels yet. The project has been delayed because most of the authorizations were received only in 2019 … The pandemic also delayed the project, ”Mohinder Singh, project manager, told Al Jazeera.
As a result, the project’s budget has skyrocketed six times and has forced the government to set March 2023 as the new deadline.
Villagers also say the project has caused serious pollution in the area.
“We are living in a hellish condition as trucks carrying construction materials spew dust, causing respiratory problems,” Bikash Rai, 34, a resident of Melli, where a train station was planned, told Al Jazeera.
“The dumping of construction waste has also blocked the mouth of the local river on which we depend for drinking water and other purposes. Now we have dirty water soaked with mud from the river. “
Rai said villagers used to see deer and other wildlife in the mountains, but that “they have almost disappeared since construction began.”
Construction without clearance?
Swarup Saha, a local activist fighting for the rights of forest communities, plans to file a motion in a court of law, alleging violation of the Forest Conservation Act of 1980.
“The railroads violated the rules by building tunnels that caused a change in the status of the forest area without obtaining final approval,” he said, demanding an “immediate cancellation of the authorization for the project.”
Rail officials admitted that they have not received final approval for the project.
“Final approval takes time, as it has to go through several stages before being granted. We hope to get there soon, ”Subhanan Chanda, director of public relations for Northeast Frontier Railways, under whose jurisdiction the rail network falls, told Al Jazeera.
“We can’t talk much about the legal issues, but all environmental concerns are addressed before green-flagging such projects. The damage to flora and fauna would be minimal since the railway route would mainly go through the tunnels without affecting the surface ”, he added.