Mahananda’s Elephants Face A Second Railway Route
The North-Frontier Railway has proposed the construction of a new broad gauge railway line from Sevoke in Northern West Bengal to Rongpo in Sikkim through 32.586 ha. (the Gola, Chawa, Andheri and Ruyem blocks) of the Mahananda Wildlife Sanctuary, West Bengal.
About the Campaign:
The state government has approved the proposed extension. According to the state’s wildlife advisory board, members had sought an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) and a site survey for the project but were allegedly not informed that the state’s approval had already been forwarded to the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF). Minutes taken during the meeting when the decision to clear the proposal was taken were apparently not circulated among members.
The line will pass through the steep hills and reserved forest of Darjeeling and East Sikkim, along the western bank of the Teesta river, and will then cut through the NH-31A on the right. Additionally, 14 tunnels will be dug, with a total length of almost 32 km., comprising an astounding 72 per cent of the entire route. The project, aimed at providing alternative transport between the two regions, has been heavily criticised by conservationists and wildlifers who argue that it will cause irreparable damage to this fragile ecosystem. The track is aligned through one of the most geologically-unstable and tectonically-disturbed stretches of the Darjeeling Himalaya, where earthquakes have increased in frequency since 2006, following dynamite blasting for dam-building on the river by the National Hydroelectric Power Corporation (NHPC).
According to Biswapriya Rahut, Secretary, the Society for Preservation and Awareness of Wildlife and Nature (SPAWN), Jalpaiguri, the proposed track will pass through an important site for Asiatic elephants, leopards, Asiatic black bear, wild dogs, gaur and a near-isolated tiger population. Equally vital but lesser-known floral species, such as the endemic snow orchid Diplomeris hirsute are also threatened. Rahut estimates that a steady population of 50 elephants all-year-round and 150 in the migratory season frequent the affected area. Mahananda is, of course, part of the Gorumara-Jaldapara-Buxa landscape, which is contiguous with the cloud forests of Bhutan.
The proposed alignment will cut across several forested hills in the wildlife sanctuary, aggravating an already serious landslide problem in a zone known to be seismically active. The fragile rock formations along the biogeographically-sensitive Teesta river gorge zone should be preserved as a heritage for future generations.
Photograph by Samsul Huda Patgiri.
In the petition to the National Board for Wildlife (NBWL), Rahut suggested an alternative route for the track, stating, “We would request you to explore an alignment along the true left bank of the river Teesta (the opposite bank), which will cause less damage. The Teesta gorge has already been ecologically harmed by the construction of a dam at Kalijhora and Rambi.” Renewed dynamiting will cause major havoc. Such losses are impossible to mitigate or compensate in any way. Over 40 elephants, including 10 calves, were run over between 2004 and 2012, after the first broad gauge track in the region was laid from New Jalpaiguri to Sevok across Mahananda. Most of the casualties occurred in Madarihat, Chapramari and Buxa Tiger Reserve (BTR) areas. The deaths of five more elephants in the first two months of 2013 prompted members of the NWBL to conduct a site inspection of the proposed area for the new railway project. Although representatives of the inspection team claim that a decision will be taken only after they submit the site inspection report to the Standing Committee of the NBWL, there is considerable pressure on the MoEF to provide a ‘come what may’ clearance for the project even before considering the committee’s view.
Sanctuary readers should write to the MoEF, NBWL and the Railway Minister. Please make the following points:
1. Mahananda Wildlife Sanctuary is a vital habitat for elephants and other wildlife. The proposed construction of a broad gauge railway line from Sevoke in Northern West Bengal to Rongpo in Sikkim will hamper their movement and lead to increased deaths.
2. A detailed EIA by bonafide third-party organisations like ZSI, BSI and GSI is necessary to assess the risks of this project. The results must be made public before drawing any plans for the same.
3. If a new broad gauge railway connection between Sevoke and Rongpo is important, then the alternate route suggested by SPAWN should be considered after a proper EIA is done.
Letters can be mailed to:
Jayanthi Natarajan, Minister of State for Environment and Forests (Independent Charge), Paryavaran Bhawan, CGO Complex, Lodhi Road, New Delhi – 110 003. Tel.: +91-11-24360721, E-mail:
Dr. Jagdish Kishwan, IFS Member-Secretary, Standing Committee of the National Board for Wildlife, Ministry of Environment and Forests, Paryavaran Bhavan, CGO Complex, Lodhi Road, New Delhi – 110 003. E-mail:
Pawan Kumar Bansal, Minister of Railways, Rail Bhawan, Rafi Marg, New Delhi – 110001. Tel.: +91-11-23386645, 23381213, Fax: +91-11-23387333.
First appeared in Sanctuary Asia, Vol XXXIII No. 2, April 2013.