Development and destruction go hand in hand. Infrastructural development in most cases is like walking on the edge where if not careful, one ends up paying a high price.
Sikkim through a short span of time has witnessed mass developments and infrastructural development is one of them. Being a geographically sensitive region, this tiny Himalayan state has time and again faced topographical conflict. However, despite all the incompatibility, there has been hard tries to balance between the natural resources and the man-made structures making them compatible with each other.
In the line of infrastructural development is the ongoing Sevoke-Rangpo rail route project. This ambitious project has brought along a major problem for the residents of Zitlang village in East Sikkim. The houses in the village have started developing cracks due to the construction triggering protest from the villagers.
Zitlang village is located almost 45kms far from the capital of Sikkim, Gangtok and the tunnel for the first railway in the state passes below this village.
SIKKIM CHRONICLE carried out an investigation regarding the same and visited the village, the construction site and interacted with the people and the concerned authorities.
ABOUT THE RAILWAY PROJECT
Sikkim is fully dependent on National Highway 10 for connectivity with the other regions of the country. Flight operations from Sikkim’s much-hyped Greenfield airport have now come to a halt since June 1 following unprecedented weather conditions.
The second option now remains the 52kms under construction railway link which connects West Bengal and Sikkim. The link will run through 14 tunnels, each of which will be 8 meters in diameter. This is the first railway line which will connect Sikkim with the rest of the country.
In 2009, the project cost was estimated at Rs 1,339 crore but now it has been increased to Rs 4,087 crore. The project which has been taken up by Ircon International Ltd., a government PSU is likely to get completed by 2022.
The foundation stone was laid by the then Vice- President of India, Hamid Ansari in presence of the Bengal Chief Minister, Mamta Banerjee and the former Chief Minister of Sikkim, Pawan Chamling in 2009. The work could not take up the pace after facing delay in getting a clearance from the Forest Ministry as many as 24 forest villages are being affected by the construction.
The said railway track will pass through 97% of land in West Bengal and only 3% of the land in Sikkim would fall under the project. Out of 14 tunnels of the total project, only one falls under the jurisdiction of Sikkim. The tunnel that starts at Kumrek in Sikkim and ends at Khani Khola. The main railway station for Sikkim would be at Khani Khola, almost 3kms far from the border town, Rangpo.
The villagers at Zitlang in East Sikkim on February 2019 submitted a letter to the Sub Divisional Magistrate of Rangpo Sub Division stating that the frequent blasts in the under-construction tunnel has developed cracks in many houses of the village creating a situation of panic among the dwellers. According to the villagers, there are over 50 houses which have been damaged in Shantinagar village and Kerabari in Upper and Lower Zitlang.
Prakash Gurung, one of the villagers at Shantinagar informed SIKKIM CHRONICLE that his house has developed deep cracks making it difficult for them to reside.
“It all started in the month of January. There was loud noise below the ground followed by continuous vibrations. Initially, it was difficult for us to understand as what was happening but later we learnt that it was blasting below the ground,” said Gurung.
According to the villagers, there was no appropriate action taken up by the authorities even after lodging a complaint.
Not only damage to the property, but the construction has also affected the natural resources – drinking water being one of the main problems.
Ram Krishna Chettri, a farmer by profession said that the natural drinking water source in the village has been affected by the rampant blasts adding more trouble for the villagers.
“A natural water source in the village is used for drinking purpose, but for many months the water level in the source has declined which we feel is happening due to the blasting inside the tunnel. We doubt the water is getting seeped inside the ground,” said Chettri who fears that the village may face an acute water shortage during winters as the area is yet to receive water supply from the government.
Health hazard too was an issue that arose. Many villagers during the course of interaction also complained of falling sick due to the continuous blasts followed by vibrations.
“The blasting is usually done from midnight and lasts up to 6 in the morning. Sometimes it is really difficult for us to sleep as the sound is very disturbing. The vibrations and jolts are not less than an earthquake,” complained Meena Sharma, an elderly woman who is an asthma patient.
She added that she gets severe attacks in midnight due to the sound of blasts.
“Life here is turning miserable! There should be a proper solution to this because elderly people like me with health issues don’t have any other option but to bear the brunt. What kind of development is this where the citizens have to face such problems?” Sharma countered.
Meanwhile speaking with SIKKIM CHRONICLE, the Sub Divisional Magistrate of Rangpo Sub Division, Prem Rai informed that his office immediately came into action by requesting the Buildings & Housing Department and Mines & Geology Department to carry out independent investigations for damage assessment.
“Mines & Geology submitted an inconclusive report which could not help us to proceed further with the action. However, the damage assessment of the houses is being carried out by the Buildings and Housing,” said Rai.
The villagers have demanded the authorities to make proper arrangements for the compensation so that the damaged houses could be repaired.
“Either the railway has to compensate us or the state government should shift the whole village to some other place as we feel there are many unforeseen problems yet to come once the railway project is completed”, asserted the villagers.
SIKKIM CHRONICLE NEWS IMPACT
After the news was broadcast in SIKKIM CHRONICLE highlighting the plight of the villagers, an emergency meeting was summoned by the Sub Divisional Magistrate at Block Development office in Duga (East Sikkim) on June 25.
The meeting was attended by the Ircon authorities, government officials, local panchayats, the villagers and the police.
“We have taken note of the problems being faced by the villagers in the meeting. This is the first meeting being held with the villagers after the reported problems of house damage,” said the General Manager of Ircon, Murtaza.
He further informed that a pre and postcondition survey would be conducted within 150 meters (both right and left) of the center of the tunnel.
“It might take a month to complete the survey depending on the weather. After the survey we would be able to tell as what could be the first further course of action to be taken”, added the General Manager.
Also, a decision was taken up in the meeting that the blasting inside the tunnel would not be done during night time.
“We have come to a conclusive decision that the railway authorities would not do blasting after 11 pm to 6 am. The decision has been taken up keeping in view the inconvenience caused by the sound and vibration of the blast,” said the Sub Divisional Magistrate.
The progressive project as of now has turned the dwellers of the village aggressive. It would now be up to the survey and other related reports that would help the concerned authorities find a conducive solution for the villagers. In one hand rest of the state remains hopeful of better connectivity through the rail route, while on the other hand, the affected villagers live in anticipation that a favourable solution would be sought.