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The new railway line project in northeastern India might raise some concerns6 min read

August 13, 2021 5 min read

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The new railway line project in northeastern India might raise some concerns6 min read

Reading Time: 5 minutes

And these concerns are by environmentalists, forest-dwellers, and activists.

Work on the 45 kilometre long line connecting Sevoke in eastern state of West Bengal to Rangpo in the Himalayan state of Sikkim, started in 2009. It is being called an engineering marvel as it has fourteen tunnels and seventeen bridges. It also has five stations along the way with one that is underground. Most of the line lies in West Bengal with only 3.44 kilometres in Sikkim. The Government believes that it will bring more income for the local communities, and will also give an impetus to tourism.

Image: Al Jazeera

This project might also get extended to Nathu La in Sikkim on the Indo-China border to facilitate the movement of troops, if necessary.

Before we dive right into the problems with the railway line, here’s a detour to understand what’s happening at the Indo-China border:

In the distant past, China and India were good friends, with India accepting Chinese annexation of Tibet, and China chiming in the slogan Hindi-Chini Bhai Bhai (India and Chinese are like brothers). But things changed when a certain map released by China showed 120,000 square kilometres of Indian territory as Chinese. This was further aggravated by the warm reception received by Dalai Lama when he moved to safety to India from Tibet. This tension led to the 1962 war, the echoes of which are still being heard in the mountains. The war that lasted a month saw a clash of 20,000 Indian soldiers against 80,000 Chinese soldiers leading to a painful defeat for India.

Indian troops getting inspected before leaving posts in Ladhak. Image: The Print

More recently, the clashes have resurfaced owing to the 3,440 kilometre long disputed border. The two nations are competing to build infrastructure in the area both to claim the land, and for conflict-preparedness. The year 2020 saw a string of clashes between the Armed Forces of the two countries leading to many fatalities.

While diplomatic talks are on, tension at the border persists.

While there are external concerns to the construction of the line, there are some internal concerns brought forth by environmentalists and activists alike.

Natural-disaster by human-made machines

The Darjeeling Sikkim Himalayan Region called the DSH region is already prone to landslides, earthquakes, and other natural calamities. The area lies in seismic zones IV and V kaing it already vulnerable to earthquakes. The zone is still very young and in the process of building As such it is very unstable and even a minor vibration can alter its natural alignment leading to landslides. The construction of the line could make it all the more susceptible to disasters.

The change of scenery. Image: Al Jazeera

In fact, earthquakes in themselves can cause severe damage to the railway line. The loose layer of rock because of the construction activities poses a threat and comes in the way of people’s livelihoods as a mark of looming disaster.

While the Geological Survey of India believes that all these factors would have been kept in mind before embarking on this ambitious project, its Deputy Director, Niraj Kumar, recommends conducting hydrological studies to assuage the concerns of the locals.

Impact of existing infrastructure

Environmentalists believe that the area has already been compromised because of the construction of the hydropower dams over Teesta river that lies close to the railway project.

Locals are already witnessing roads caving in, and flooding of the highway.

Even the Environment Impact Assessment report and the Environmental Management Plans for the two dams show that the construction has rendered the area fragile and open to disaster.

It is not just dams, but deforestation and growing urbanisation that is adding to the problem.

A view of the village on the banks of Teesta river. Image: Aj Jazeera

Legal violations of green laws

Forest dwellers are also claiming that the railway project started without their consent under India’s Forest Rights Act. The FRA recognises the rights of the forest dwellers over the resources of the forest as the communities depend upon the forest for their survival. This Act makes it compulsory for the government to have the communities’ approval for construction in forest areas. 26 families will be displaced because of the project. According to the President of the Forest Rights Committee, only 50% compensation has been given to them.

Locals also claim that the project has led to increased pollution in the area. The dust from the construction material is leading to respiratory illnesses, and even clogging up the local river.

The construction has also come in the way of spotting wildlife in the area which was a regular occurrence before the commencement of the project.

A scene from the construction site. Image: Al Jazeera

While the project has started, it is yet to receive all clearances.

According to a local activist, Swarup Saha, the creation of the tunnels will alter the forest area. This is a violation of the Forest Conservations Act. He plans to present this motion in court.

The delay in the clearances has also spiked up the budget of the project by six times and resulted in massive delays. The project will only be completed in 2023.

What do you think is the cost of development and progress? The forests are home to many other species beyond humans too. Do you think their rights should also be considered? Let Owliver know in the comments below.

With excerpts from Al Jazeera, BBC, India Today and The Print