In what may be a damper to GTA board chairman Binoy Tamang’s plans to issue the all-important ‘no-objection certificate’ for the proposed Sevoke-Rangpo (Sikkim) rail line, residents of 24 odd forest villages that fall under the Gorkhaland Territorial Administration have demanded implementation of the Forest Rights Act 2006 before the project kicks off.
Mr Tamang is all set to hold a meeting with seven top officials of the Indian Railways at his office in Darjeeling tomorrow to discuss the Sevoke-Rangpo train project that will finally include Sikkim in the country’s railway network.
It may be mentioned here that a major portion of the railway tracks between Sevoke, around 30 km away from Siliguri, to Rangpo in Sikkim fall in the Bengal part under Darjeeling and Kalimpong districts that are under the GTA, and will cut through several forest villages and hamlets under the GTA areas.
In the absence of Gram Sabhas (due to nonholding of rural elections in the Hills for the past several years), which can give a goahead to such projects, the Union ministry of tribal affairs has given elected GTA members the right to act as panchayat members.
Hundreds of residents of forest villages in Kalimpong and Darjeeling, which constitute the Gram Sabhas as per the Recognition of the Forest Rights Act 2006, have started adopting resolutions, demanding conversion of forest villages into revenue villages to ensure their rights.
The villagers also threatened that they would not allow the authorities concerned to begin construction of the railway project without the NOC from each Gram Sabha. They further claimed that authorities cannot carry out work there without the NOC from the Gram Sabha, and that the GTA does not have the right to issue the NOC to the railway authorities for the forest land.
There are no three-tier elected bodies in the Hills of Darjeeling and Kalimpong as rural polls have not been held there for the past 18 years due to technical and legal matters which have yet to be resolved. As a result, there are no proper records of the Gram Sabha comprising at least 165 forest villages.
According to sources, 24 of the 165 forest villages will be affected by the tunnel to be dug for the railway project. According to Mr Tamang, a 33 km-long tunnel will be constructed for the 43 km-long railway route in the Bengal part. Significantly, many forest villages have allegedly been earmarked as encroached areas, sources said, though forest protection committees were formed, according to other official records.
“We will not allow authorities concerned to begin construction work for the railway project until forest villagers’ rights are ensured,” secretary of the Himalaya Forest Village Organisation (HFVO), Lila Gurung, told reporters at the Siliguri Journalists’ Club here on Tuesday.
“When the administration has converted forest villages into revenue villages in Alipurduar and other districts for other projects, no initiative was taken to ensure forest rights for us in Darjeeling and Kalimpong district,” he added.
Mr Gurung claimed that a conspiracy was being hatched to deprive the forest villagers of their rights. “We had met the then GTA chief executive Bimal Gurung and discussed the matter. Mr Gurung had taken a decision in our favour, and it was decided that all the 165 villages would be converted into revenue villages.
Later, as Binoy Tamang was appointed as the GTA chairman, we also approached him in writing. But we came to know all of a sudden that he will issue the NOC to the railway authorities,” he further claimed.
Forest villagers from Rangpo, Kinley, Melli, Teesta, Rambhi and some others also claimed that they had written to chief minister Mamata Banerjee, demanding that forest villagers’ rights be ensured before implementing the Sevoke-Rango railway link project.
A resident of Rangpo village in Kalimpong area, Smaran Rai, said: “Villagers are worried about their future following continuous threats from the administration during survey on the railway project.
Nobody knows what is in store for them, rehabilitation and alternative livelihood.” “Residents living in the small stretch (of the project) that falls in Sikkim are not facing such problems. The Sikkim government has already compensated them properly,” Mr Rai said.
A rights activist Soumitra Ghosh said the present situation in the Hills is “not suitable” for some persons to assemble in a particular place and demand their fundamental right.
“Where will the forest villages go, seeking justice? Authorities have not yet started talking to villagers, when no work can be carried out without the NOC from the Gram Sabha as per a circular of the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests under the Forest (Conservation) Act 1980, ensuring compliance of the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act 2006,” he said.