Darjeeling: "Hills are falling from above while water below has reached our doors. Where do we go?" asks Kusumlata Gupta of Geilkhola in West Bengal, a small roadside village on National Highway 10 (NH 10), tucked between the Teesta River and mountains through which Tunnel 7 of the Sevoke-Rangpo project goes.

The project, a 45-km long line, 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 NH 10 for land connectivity to other parts of India.

But villagers complain of environmental impacts from the railway line's construction: a fall in the water table, risk of landslides, chemicals and construction waste leaching into natural springs, and threats to the area's biodiversity. They say that the authorities do not pay heed to their concerns, while authorities claim that resident's complaints are overblown.

"IRCON [Indian Railways Construction Private Limited] officials are not addressing public grievances," Ganesh Khati, a member of the Himalayan Forest Village Organisation (HFVO) in Rangpo, said. "Ecological balance of the entire region has been disturbed due to the railway project."

Railways officials claimed ongoing construction works for the Sevoke-Rangpo project along the Teesta river basin were not causing any damage. "No changes have occured in the region and even when trains start running, nothing will happen," Sevoke-Rangpo project director Mohinder Singh said.

On being asked what would the railways' reaction be if any natural disaster is induced due to the line in the future, the IRCON official said, "How will you prove that the disaster has been caused due to our work? We have built tunnels whose structures have been designed perfectly to avoid such disasters. The tunnels are intact and perfect, and nothing has happened due to them and hopefully nothing in future as well."

The state administration refused to talk, saying it was not party to the developments anymore. Kalimpong District Magistrate R. Vimala said IRCON was the only authority to comment on the ongoing project.

This is the final part of a two-part series on the railway line. The first part explored how the project was endangering land rights of indigenous people, and how some whose houses were damaged said they were not eligible for compensation or rehabilitation.

Dams, a warning unheeded in a seismic zone

The track will pass through 14 tunnels and over 28 bridges across Darjeeling and Kalimpong districts 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 NH 10 and adjoining the Teesta river, a transboundary river shared by India and Bangladesh.

According to locals, the double threat of landslides and floods is particularly problematic along the 40 km of track that will pass through tunnels inside mountains that stand right next to the Teesta. Exacerbating the situation is the fact that this region, part of the Darjeeling-Sikkim catchment of the river basin, is prone to earthquakes and has been categorised as high-risk seismic zone IV on the seismic zoning map.

Construction of Tunnel-6 through mountains in Geilkhola village above the Teesta river

A landslide expert committee of the West Bengal govt had recommended in 2000 that no construction should be allowed on the rivers in this seismic zone. A member of the committee said that the presence of multiple dams on the river Teesta and its tributaries could accelerate earthquakes and increase the damages, as per a report by the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People. Residents say that the risk of landslides and earthquakes have increased since the hydropower projects came into being on the Teesta.

There are currently three hydropower projects--Teesta Low Dam III, Teesta Low Dam IV and Teesta V--running on the river with two others on its tributaries Rangit and Rammam. At least 15 other hydel projects, 14 in Sikkim and one in West Bengal, will come up on the Teesta basin in the coming years.

Map showing existing and upcoming hydropower projects in Teesta river. Source: International Water Association.

Teesta Low Dam III regularly impounds water for weeks in the region, including Geilkhola, between Teesta Bazar and Rambi where the proposed Riyang station will come up. It threatens the livelihood and security of local residents in the area, as per a 2016 study published in the Journal of Politics & Governance.

The paper, authored by Vimal Khawas of Sikkim University, says that the water level in the area will rise considerably after the dam, and the area may become susceptible to destabilisation thus triggering new landslides and further destabilisation of already active slides.

"There are concerns," Khawas noted, "that building hydro-dams may lead to river-induced seismicity in this geologically young and seismically active region." The author pointed out that the 2011 earthquake in Sikkim had triggered landslides as far away as 100 km from the rupture zone. "The fragile geology coupled with mega hydro-dams could further induce earthquakes and the resultant landslides and flash floods could result in a disaster," the paper said.

"Officials had earlier said that the water level would rise only near the dam at 27th Mile in Rambi," near the Teesta Low Dam 3, in the monsoon, explained Kusumlata's neighbour Shyam Karki. But now it goes above the protection level in other areas, in "29th Mile Geilkhola, Teesta Bazar and even in Melli sometimes." Teesta Low Dam III is operated by the Union Ministry of Power-owned NHPC (National Hydroelectric Power Corporation) Limited.

The Teesta flowing high in 29th Mile

Similarities with the Jiribam-Imphal rail line

The construction for the railway line is worsening the situation created by damming the area's rivers.

"Rocks fall from the hills during their [IRCON] construction works, and the water level of the Teesta has been rising every year since dams were built on it," said Karki.

The best example of what a fully-functioning passenger railway system could do in such vulnerable terrain is the recent landslide in Manipur's Noney district on June 30, 2022. The landslide, which killed at least 60 people, occurred at the construction site near Tupul station, part of the 111-km long railway line which will connect Manipur's capital Imphal with Jiribam.

The Jiribam-Imphal and Sevoke-Rangpo railway projects are alike in nature. Just like the Sevoke-Rangpo line, which has strategic value as it will be extended to the Indo-China border, the track via Manipur is intended to extend till Moreh on the India-Myanmar border. Both are being built in hilly terrains that are prone to earthquakes, landslides and other natural disasters. Both of them run through forest lands belonging to tribal communities and dwellers. Much like what has happened along the Sevoke-Rangpo line, allegations have been floated that indigenous people were "not consulted" for the railway project in Manipur as well.

Water problems

George Rai of Tarkhola, a serene village on NH 10 between Melli and Rangpo in the Kalimpong forest division, doesn't need to worry about the overflowing Teesta or the tunnels for the Sevoke-Rangpo line. His worries have a different cause. "Ever since railways started construction, we are facing severe water scarcity. Water streams have dried up."

Area villagers had asked the sub-contracting companies working on the nearby Tunnel 10 and Tunnel 11 to arrange for alternative water systems. "They haven't considered our demands," he said. "We will now place our demands through the GTA [Gorkhaland Territorial Administration] once the new board is formed," said George Rai, who is the FRC president of Sangsay gram panchayat, which includes Tarkhola.

"Water level has gone down under the tunnels, causing scarcity. We requested them to ensure alternative water facilities for us, but they don't pay heed to our concerns," said Khati of HFVO.

Teesta crossing Melli. Structures seen at the other side are in Sikkim

Not just the railway project, existing and upcoming hydro projects are equally at fault for drying up of water sources in the region. Vimal Khawas in his paper pointed out that several dams in the Teesta basin are causing degradation of the region's environment and ecosystem.

"It is feared that construction of dams, fluctuation in natural river discharge and diversion of river waters through closed tunnels are gradually changing the ecological settings of the upper Teesta basin," the paper notes.

"The water which comes out of mountain springs is not drinkable and it cannot be used for livestock as well, as it gets mixed with concrete and other chemicals used for construction works," said Leengemit Lepcha of Melli. A similar water crisis was faced by locals during tunnel construction for a railway project in Jammu and Kashmir as well.

A NITI Aayog report in 2018 said that almost 50% of the springs, the most important source of water in the mountains, have dried up in the Indian Himalayan region. "Erratic rainfall, seismic activity and ecological degradation associated with land use change for infrastructural development are impacting mountain aquifer systems," the report noted.

Adding that most water supply systems in the mountains have their origins in a spring, the NITI Aayog report warned, "Springs have provided water to the mountain communities for centuries and the revival of this traditional source of water is extremely important for the region's sustainable growth." The report further said that "the increasing push for development and a changing climate" have put natural resources such as groundwater under threat in the Himalayas.

"More than 100 houses are facing issues due to water scarcity," said Pancham Sundas, a retired school teacher from Moonsung Primary School. "Water level has gone down since construction works began. Yet IRCON is not providing for anything. They are only constructing a community hall for our village with the CSR [Corporate Social Responsibility] funds."

"We always welcomed the railway project," Khati told IndiaSpend, "because it was for national security. But we are also citizens of India, and all we ask for is the implementation of rights that we have."

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