A file photo of environment minister Prakash Javadekar. With the prime minister’s office keen on developing links to the country’s northeastern region, the cabinet secretariat has stepped in, asking the environment ministry to consult the law ministry and hammer out a solution to take the project forward. Photo: Ramesh Pathania/Mint
A file photo of environment minister Prakash Javadekar. With the prime minister’s office keen on developing links to the country’s northeastern region, the cabinet secretariat has stepped in, asking the environment ministry to consult the law ministry and hammer out a solution to take the project forward. Photo: Ramesh Pathania/Mint

Rail link to Sikkim entangled in green tape

The 52.7km rail link between Sevoke in West Bengal and Rangpo in Sikkim is supposed to be ready by December 2015

New Delhi: A train to Sikkim continues to be a distant possibility despite the fact that it has been a priority project for the Union government.

The 52.7km rail link between Sevoke in West Bengal and Rangpo in Sikkim was supposed to be ready by December 2015, but is now stuck in a procedural tangle.

The 3,380-crore project will take up around 86 hectares of forest land, which needs clearance from the Union environment ministry. But prior to that, under the Forest Rights Act, 2006, the project needs to be cleared by local gram sabhas. However, in this case, the Kurseong and Kalimpong divisions of the Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council do not have panchayats.

“The main problem is, India’s Constitution exempts Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council area from having a district panchayat. But as per the Forest Rights Act, 2006, permission from gram sabha is required for diversion of forest area. However, in the absence of a panchayat and a go-ahead from them, we have not been able to clear the project," said an environment ministry official who did not wished to be named.

As Sikkim shares its border with China, the project has strategic importance, too. Once the rail lines are laid, movement of both men and material to the border areas becomes easier. Former railway minister Mamata Banerjee laid the foundation stone for the project in October 2009.

With the prime minister’s office keen on developing links to the country’s northeastern region, the cabinet secretariat has stepped in, asking the environment ministry to consult the law ministry and hammer out a solution to take the project forward.

“It has been suggested to us to approach the law ministry to find the legal solution for this problem. We hope to reach a consensus soon," the environment ministry official said.

The official quoted above said that though the ministry’s forest advisory committee cleared the project in September 2014 subject to gram sabha approval, the ministry of tribal affairs has refused its approval.

According to documents reviewed by Mint, the tribal affairs ministry stated that the Forest Rights Act, 2006, does not provide any exemptions in procedure when it comes to the gram sabha nod for diversion of forest land.

However, the ministry had suggested a solution to the environment ministry, said a senior tribal affairs ministry official who did not wish to be named.

“Our Constitution exempts Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council area from having district panchayat but there is no exemption for village panchayats and gram sabha. Thus, the area is required to have gram panchayat and gram sabhas. Thus, if Kurseong and Kalimpong divisions have gram sabhas, their consent can be sought for the railway line," the tribal ministry official said.

However, the suggestion did not make any headway, forcing the cabinet secretariat to intervene as the government wants the project to happen but does not want to violate the Forest Rights Act, 2006, which gives forest dwellers and tribals rights over forests and forest produce.

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