Sikkim is slated to get on the country’s rail map by the end of this year. Work on the massive project that has posed many engineering challenges is progressing on schedule and is being closely monitored by Railway Minister Ashwin Vaishnav.
Senior officials in the Northeast Frontier Railways (NFR) told Swarajya that the recent ‘breakthrough’ in the last major tunnel on the 44.98 kilometer route, from Sevoke near Siliguri in North Bengal to Rangpo in Sikkim, has put the ambitious project on track.
‘Breakthrough’ in engineering parlance means completing the construction of a tunnel.
The biggest challenge faced by this project was the construction of tunnels through the unstable Kanchenjunga range of the Eastern Himalayas. Of the 44.98 kilometres of tracks, 38.65 kilometres pass through tunnels.
“This project is nothing short of an engineering marvel. About 86 per cent of the total tracks will pass through 14 major tunnels, the longest one being 5.1 kilometres. And there are 17 bridges, some spanning very deep gorges.” a senior officer of the public-sector IRCON International, which is executing the project, told Swarajya.
A major part of this rail link (41.48 kilometres) passes through the Darjeeling and Kalimpong districts of Bengal, while the remaining 3.5 kilometres is in Sikkim. The tracks also pass through the Mahananda Wildlife Reserve and cross the fast-flowing Teesta and Rangpo rivers.
The project, like most others planned during the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) era, was mired in delays and cost overruns. The foundation stone of the project was laid by the then vice-president Hamid Ansari in October 2009.
The contract for executing the project was awarded to IRCON International in May 2010, even before the route alignment was finalised. The original alignment of 53 kilometres had to be altered and cut down to 44.98 kilometres due to land acquisition and other problems.
“Engineers had to go back to the drawing boards and that delayed the project,” said the NFR official. But even as the engineers were drawing the new alignment, the Rail Ministry dragged its feet over the necessary paperwork.
Even three years after the foundation stone of the Sevoke-Rangpo rail link was laid, the necessary clearances from the environment ministry had not been obtained.
This, despite the fact that the rail link is of crucial strategic importance since it will facilitate faster movement of troops, military hardware and supplies to the areas along the country’s border with China-occupied Tibet.
The project also got mired in litigation with people challenging notices to acquire their lands and environmentalists objecting to the project since it passes through wildlife habitats and ecologically sensitive zones. Little effort was made to sort out these logjams.
It was only after the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) came to power in May 2014, that this vital rail project was put on track. NFR officials said that former Railway minister Suresh Prabhu asked top officials of his ministry to fast-track the entire project.
“He (Suresh Prabhu) took the initiative to clear the legal, environment and other tangles that were delaying the execution of the project. It was due to his intervention that the legal hurdles were finally cleared with the Supreme Court approving the project in February 2016,” said the NFR officer who did not want to be named since he is not the authorised spokesperson.
Suresh Prabhu, and his successors — Piyush Goyal and Ashwini Vaishnaw — kept their eyes firmly on this project.
“The present Railway Minister, like his two immediate predecessors, is closely monitoring the project and ensuring that all timelines are being adhered to. They have made it clear repeatedly that no delay will be accepted. But what’s more important is that they have personally intervened to sort out all issues, be they government clearances or engineering challenges,” said a former general manager of NFR.
The three Railway ministers have facilitated the involvement of renowned engineers from other countries, especially Germany and some European nations that have a lot of expertise in such rail projects, in the Sevoke-Rangpo rail project.
Getting foreign experts involved in the project was crucial since the rail line passes through vulnerable and challenging topography.
“The eastern Himalayas are very young and so very unstable. The soil is loose and landslides are common. Even the boulders and rocks are unstable. Tunnelling through such conditions was very tough,” said the IRCON International executive.
In stark contrast, the UPA-era Railway ministers (since October 2009) — Mamata Banerjee, Dinesh Trivedi, Mukul Roy (all of Trinamool), CP Joshi, Pawan Kumar Bansal and Mallikarjun Kharge (of the Congress) — took little interest in the project.
“They did not take any initiative and allowed the project to flounder,” said the former NFR general manager.
Last week’s ‘breakthrough’ of tunnel number 12, a major one on the route, marked a major milestone in the project. “With this breakthrough, we are now sure that we will be able to complete the project by the end of this year,” said the NFR official.
More than 25 kilometres of tunnelling work has been completed and the remaining 13.55 kilometres will be completed within the next few months.
“We are working on a war footing and aim to complete tunnelling and other major works before the onset of the monsoons,” said the IRCON International executive.
Once the Sevoke-Rangpo rail link is commissioned, work will start on the second phase of the project: the Rangpo-Gangtok rail link. Rangpo is a major trading centre and town in Sikkim’s Pakyong district and the gateway to the tiny Himalayan state.
The Sevoke-Rangpo rail link will also enhance tourist inflow into Sikkim and boost the state’s economy.
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