Jasmaya Rai, 58, a resident of Teesta Bazar village in West Bengal’s Kalimpong district, is worried that the under-construction Sevoke-Rangpo railway project could make her homeless. Indian Railway Construction Limited – a Government of India undertaking – is in charge of the construction work.
Rai lives with her family on a hilltop, a 40-minute hike from the centre of the village. “They have built a tunnel inside this mountain on which we live,” Rai said. “Trains will go through right under our village. It feels like earthquakes when they work under the mountain.”
Teesta Bazar is one of five stations in the 45-km-long line that will connect Sikkim with India’s railway network for the first time and bring it under the ambit of the Northeast Frontier Railway. Till now, Sikkim has been entirely dependent on NH10 for land connectivity to other parts of India.
The track now being laid will pass through 14 tunnels and over 28 bridges across Darjeeling and Kalimpong districts of West Bengal before ending at Rangpo in Sikkim’s Pakyong district. The line runs across steep terrain in the foothills of the Kanchenjunga mountain range in the outer and lesser Himalayas, alongside NH10 and adjoining the Teesta river.
When the then Union Minister for Railways and current West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee laid the foundation stone of the project in 2009, it was reported that the line would be eventually extended to Sikkim’s capital Gangtok. The Indian government is now planning to extend it till the Nathula mountain pass along the border with China, giving the rail link strategic value.
In the 45-km stretch passing through 24 villages, more than 40,000 people face the threat of damage to their homes. The railways, however, identified only 30 structures for rehabilitation – 26 from Melli and four households from Riyang. Locals say this translates to 30 families, whose homes were on the proposed sites of the two stations, and who were shifted from the locations.
Ganesh Khati, a member of the Himalayan Forest Village Organisation – a forum formed by local forest-dwelling villagers to fight for their land rights – in Rangpo, said that the railways’ apathy stemmed from the lack of land rights of locals, since the Forest Rights Act, 2006, is not applicable in the region. Almost the entire 45-km railway project runs through the Darjeeling Forest Division, Kalimpong Forest Division and Kurseong Forest Division in West Bengal, and the East Sikkim Forest Division.
This is the first of a two-part series on the Sevoke-Rangpo railway line. The first will explore the problems of rehabilitation and villagers’ land rights, and the second the ecological concerns with the project.
Villagers’ concerns ignored
Locals and environmental activists have been flagging concerns ever since construction began. “The base of my house has suffered cracks due to blasting and drilling works they [construction workers] are doing for the tunnel,” Rai said. “I have no problem with trains running here. That will help locals. But why can’t the government give us a safe space to live? I don’t know where I will go if my house breaks down.”
Indian Railway Construction Limited Project Director Mohinder Singh says such views are alarmist. “Nothing will happen, because trains will run mostly through tunnels,” Singh said. “The vibrations that happened during blasting will not be repeated.” The official denied that blasting during tunnel construction led to the damage seen in the homes of Rai and a few others in the neighbourhood. “That is a false statement by the public,” he said.
JB Chhetri, a member of the unofficial Teesta Bazar gram sabha – more on why it is unofficial below – said Indian Railway Construction Limited officials were lying. He claimed the project in charge had assured that any damage caused during construction would be compensated for.
“Some officials had come up to our village to do a survey,” Chhetri, who lives in Teesta Bazar 3rd Block, above Tunnel 7 of the Sevoke-Rangpo railway link, said. “When we told them about houses developing cracks, they said they were minor problems and refused compensation.
“When we demanded rehabilitation, they asked us to go to the BDO [Block Development Officer], SDO [Sub-Divisional Officer] and DM [District Magistrate], who suggested we meet forest department and land reform officials,” he said. “If IRCON [Indian Railway Construction Limited] is building tunnels under the mountains and we are suffering for that, why should anyone else rehabilitate us?”
“Anyone living above tunnels on the mountain top won’t be rehabilitated,” Singh said in response. “We have designed the tunnels perfectly, and they are intact. No structures above them will be damaged. If nothing has happened during blasting, then we are sure there will be no incidents in future.”
About 20 km away from Teesta Bazar, Leengemit Lepcha, 36, lives in a home in the mountains of Melli. “Thirteen-14 families are still here and our houses often tremble due to construction works,” Lepcha said. “We were informed we would be shifted. But since we live about 30-40 feet down from where the station is going to come up, we were not rehabilitated.”
Struggle for Forest Rights Act
The struggle for the enactment of the Forest Rights Act, 2006, in the Darjeeling hills region has been going on for a long time. The majority of the population living in villages in these forest divisions have been denied their rights as forest dwellers. “Despite FRA, we have no rights to this land,” Khati points out. “As a result, NOCs [no-objection certificates] from gram sabhas were not obtained before starting the railway project, which is mandatory for any construction work inside forest lands.”
The process of granting settlement rights to forest dwellers here began only in 2020, when the West Bengal government issued a gazette notification announcing the conversion of 64 forest villages in Kalimpong district into revenue villages, the first step of granting them parja-patta, or title deeds, of the land they live on. A similar notification was released a year later regarding 79 forest villages in Darjeeling district.
The problem in areas outside the limits of Darjeeling Municipal Corporation, Kalimpong Municipality and Kurseong Municipality is that panchayat elections were last held in 2000. As a result, panchayat bodies have been unrepresented since 2005. Thus, gram sabhas for the implementation of Forest Rights Act have no official recognition.
The Forest Rights Act, 2006, rules issued by the Ministry of Tribal Affairs to make amends for the “historical injustice” done to “the forest dwelling tribal communities and other traditional forest dwellers”– came into focus in this area in 2017-18 when the Indian Railway Construction Limited and the West Bengal government were pushing ahead to finish the Sevoke-Rangpo rail project. The Himalayan Forest Village Organisation, and other groups fighting for forest rights, led massive movements demanding implementation of the Forest Rights Act.
In a November 2017 letter to the West Bengal government, the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change gave “Stage-I approval” to the project after considering “the proposal of the State [West Bengal] government” and “on the basis of decisions” taken in a meeting of the Forest Advisory Committee and Regional Empowered Committee under the Forest (Conservation) Act (FCA), 1980. A copy of the letter was sent to the Northeast Frontier Railway as well.
“Till then, IRCON maintained they had not received forest clearance, which was true,” said Soumitra Ghosh, an environmental and forest rights activist in the region. “Nothing changed on the ground after that – and yet IRCON received Stage-I ‘in-principle’ clearance and went ahead with the project. Stage-II clearance has not yet been received, but 60% of construction work has already been completed by the railways, and this is a clear violation of the FRA.”
Violation of law?
Despite the mutual agreement between the Ministry of Tribal Affairs and Environment Ministry that “proof of having initiated FRA clearance process should be produced at the point of going in for Stage-I FCA clearance”, the environment ministry did not conform to the provisions.
For the Sevoke-Rangpo project, the Union government directed the state government “to complete settlement of rights” in terms of the Forest Rights Act, 2006, while mentioning in one line that the Regional Empowered Committee had recommended providing Forest Rights Act certificates.
In 2019, the Environment Ministry stated that complying with the Forest Rights Act was not necessary to give Stage-I or “in-principle” forest clearances. Registering a strong objection, the tribal affairs ministry asked the Environment Ministry to refrain from such action as it could eventually dilute powers of gram sabhas. The Environment Ministry’s suggestions effectively meant that presentation of details of projects before the gram sabha was no longer mandatory to divert forest lands to acquire the first forest clearance.
The tribal ministry’s fear was turning into reality for the Sevoke-Rangpo project. In 2018, the Gorkha Territorial Administration, the semi-autonomous council responsible for administrative works in the Darjeeling hills, released its no-objection certificate for the Sevoke-Rangpo project as the authorised body in charge of gram sabhas in the absence of panchayats. In terms of the enactment of the Forest Rights Act, the Gorkha Territorial Administration has not done anything for settlement rights of local forest dwellers and tribals.
The government authorities had taken refuge in the West Bengal Panchayat Act, 1973 to obtain no-objection certificates from 26 now-rehabilitated families. In March 2017, the Department of Panchayats and Rural Development, West Bengal, issued a notice giving Block Development Officers the authority to convene gram sabha meetings “to deal with granting of Forest Rights of the claimants, including the cases filed by the Railway authorities to use and occupy forest land for the purpose of construction of Sevoke-Rangpo new broad gauge railway lines of North Frontier Railway”.
Several media reports (here, here) have documented the deliberate violations of the Forest Rights Act by the state government and railways while obtaining no-objection certificates from locals. For example, in June 2018, officials from railways and district administrations met only members of the 26 families from Melli, who were eventually rehabilitated, and refused to interact with gram sabha members as directed under the Forest Rights Act.
“At that closed-door meeting, all the 26 families agreed to take the compensations that were offered to them. Soon after, railways began construction work without meeting the gram sabha or the Forest Rights Committee. We still haven’t provided the NOC,” said a Melli Forest Rights Committee member on the condition of anonymity, as they are afraid of repercussions for speaking out in the media.
The Forest Rights Act, 2006, states that the “Gram Sabha is the authority to initiate the process for determining the nature and extent of individual or community forest rights.” A gram sabha is defined as a village assembly which shall consist of all adult members of a village, according to Section 2 (g) of the Forest Rights Act, 2006.
The Act directs the government, or any other institutions, to give legal recognition to the traditional rights of tribals and forest dwellers living in forests before diverting their lands.
In the event of any activities that require settlement of the rights of local tribals and forest dwellers, gram sabhas call for claims and authorise their respective Forest Rights Committee, made up of 10-15 members elected by the sabha, verify them and present their findings to the gram sabha for consideration.
Thus, when railway and district officials met with only 26 families instead of with the gram sabha, and refused to consider the findings of the local Forest Rights Committee in Melli, their actions were in violation of the Forest Rights Act, 2006. Even as per the West Bengal Panchayat Act, 1973, a Gram Sabha is defined as a body consisting of persons registered in the electoral rolls. So, a Gram Sabha meeting under the state Act should have involved every voter of the region.
Indian Railway Construction Limited however says it has nothing to do with land rights issues. “We took land from the state government and it’s their matter,” said project director Singh. “The issue of land rights is not our subject. We haven’t displaced people [except 30 families] so there’s no question of land rights.”
Kalimpong District Magistrate R. Vimala refused to speak about the Sevoke-Rangpo project. “The district administration cannot comment on anything. Railways is the concerned authority now. Please connect with them,” the district magistrate said.
In a notice issued in January 2020, the Darjeeling district administration informed that “the complete process for identification and settlement of rights under the Forest Rights Act has been carried out” in Lower Kandung, Upper Kandung and Kamath Forest Villages in Kurseong and in Deorali village in Darjeeling tehsils.
Reportedly, the Kalimpong administration had convened gram sabha meetings in 17 villages of Kalimpong-I and Kalimpong-II CD Blocks in 2018.
The question here is regarding the legality of those meetings. “Apart from those who were not allowed to attend, residents of other concerned forest villages had mostly boycotted such meetings as FRA 2006 doesn’t authorise either the BDOs or the panchayat and rural development department to hold meetings related to settlement of rights of forest dwellers and tribal people,” said Ghosh, the forest rights activist.
Elsewhere, about 100 families living in India’s only Cinchona plantation – started by the British in the 1850s for quinine, a drug used in treating malaria – in Kalimpong’s Moonsung region worry about their future. Tunnel number 14 of the line connecting Sikkim with mainland India passes under the plantation.
“There is no question of FRA here because it is not forest land,” said Pancham Sundas, a retired school teacher from Moonsung Primary School. “It belongs to the Cinchona plantation directorate. We don’t know if the status of this land will change in future. The railway officials met directly with the plantation authorities and began work.”
Sundas said people living within the plantation, in Moonsung’s Barrack village, initially supported the project and gave their verbal approval to the Cinchona directorate. “The plantation authority told us that in case of any damage during constructions, the Railways would rehabilitate affected families. But now several houses have developed cracks.”
Subhash Tamang, a Moonsung resident, who has earned the contract to supply construction materials at Indian Railway Construction Limited, said that the 14th tunnel, built by the company, was only 75 metres below ground level. “They had earlier said it would be at least 150 metres below the surface. This is why many houses above the tunnel have developed cracks,” the 30-year-old said. The Indian Railway Construction Limited refused the claim and said its construction work is fool-proof and has not caused any damage.
Having failed to achieve any positive outcome from the Calcutta High Court, Ghosh and members of the Himalayan Forest Village Organisation have moved the National Green Tribunal. “We don’t expect anything to change,” the activist said. “From the very beginning of the hearing, the central government has said it is a project of national interest.”
‘Nationalism’ in question
Area residents say that “nationalism” has been invoked since the early days of the project. “Every time we complained, they [railways and government officials] would say we were acting against national interest by restricting the growth of defence infrastructure,” Khati, a member of the Himalayan Forest Village Organisation said. “We were also told that opposing the rail project could create major issues.”
The Sevoke-Rangpo railway project is one of the three Northeast Frontier Railway projects that will extend India’s railway networks till the Line of Actual Control, which separates Indian-controlled territory from Chinese-controlled territory. The two other projects are in Arunachal Pradesh. These projects carry strategic importance due to China’s ramping up of transportation infrastructure on its side of the border.
“We were told that China has trains till the border with India, whereas on our side soldiers need to travel long hours to reach the border,” said the Melli Forest Rights Committee member. “[Government officials told] if we can have trains as well to the border, thousands of our troops can easily reach there in four-five hours.”
“People got scared after this issue was raised. We don’t want to be responsible, if something happens [on the border] tomorrow. The officials repeatedly said this project has national interest and that the government won’t even be earning back the investment it is making.” The Indian Railway Construction Limited official said the government has no commercial interest in the project and that it is a project of “national value”.
Residents in the Sevoke-Rangpo region point out that they are not opposed to trains running – their only interest lies in securing their rights to the land, because absent that, they will not qualify for compensation in the event of any calamity triggered by the project.
This article first appeared on IndiaSpend, a data-driven and public-interest journalism non-profit.