By Dilip Borah
On May 16, 1975, the Kingdom of Sikkim was merged with India and it became its 22nd state. The last king Padden Thoundup mgyal, with the official title of Chogyal abdicated his power to the elected council of ministers led by Kaji Lendhup Dorji of Sikkim tiol Congress Party and went to USA where he died of cancer in 1982. The position of Chogyal was abolished with the end of the morchy.
Since then I had a desire to see that exotic hilly state of Sikkim. Mala Tamuly, a dear friend of my wife was married to a Sikkimese forest officer and was settled in Gangtok. My wife had gone no less than 5 times to the state either to meet her friend or in connection with her work. Somehow, it never occurred to me to go along with her on one of her trips there for various reasons. Filly I took the trip with my daughter, her kids and wife this winter holidays.
We took the Indigo flight from Borjhar airport on 12th January and arrived an hour later at Bagdogra. A friend of mine had arranged a car to take us from the airport to Gangtok. It was already dusk when we reached Hotel Tara Palace. Nevertheless, after freshening up, we went to M.G. Road for a walk. My wife already told me about the beauty of the place. Still, I was pleasantly surprised to see so many flower beds adorning the central verge of the sprawling road. No vehicles were allowed there. On both sides of the road, there were rows and rows of shops selling all kinds of things including local food, best quality western coffee and mouth watering bakery products like succulent cakes, pastries and many other varieties. Mala joined us in the coffee shop and I had the first taste of Sikkim's coffee and pastry. Both were delicious. The ladies were excited to meet each other after a comparatively long gap. Leaving them to their reminiscence, I looked around the place and was gratified to see so many beautiful and smiling faces. People seemed to be generally happy and contented. It was definitely a very nice feeling. My thoughts went back to the journey from Siliguri to Gangtok.
That was the journey I was looking forward to. Since the days of Indo-Chi war of 1962, I was wondering why Government of India was not taking effective steps to improve communication network in the North-East region. To effectively tackle any threat from Chi, all weather reliable communication network is the most important requirement I could think of. I attended the first course on tiol security organised for the senior level officers of the administration, police and defence services some years back in LBS Academy of Administration in Mussouri. The then tiol Security Advisor M K rayan, besides the three Chiefs of Armed Forces, addressed us on the issue of interl security in the face of exterl threats. The NSA lamented the less than desired importance given by the political bosses to the issue of developing all weather reliable communication network in the North-East in spite of that being the prime reason of the rout of the Indian Army in the hands of the Chinese in the 1962 war. With the new Prime Minister announcing top priority to this long standing issue immediately after assuming office in May, 2014, I was very much eager to see how the new Prime Minister's directives have been implemented on ground. I saw that the road connecting Siliguri with Gangtok is being widened and the work is progressing well under the direct supervision of the Border Road Organisation. However, the quality of the work done could not assuage my apprehensions. The finished portion of the road is no better than what we normally see in any road built in the North-East. The surface has remained uneven and the black topping looks brittle. There are many patches where the bitumen top has come off and the stones of various sizes are strewn all over. By no standard the road could be called of reliable in all weather quality. The winding road is going by the meandering curves of the River Teesta. In many places, on one side, the road is prone to erosion and on the other there is threat of landslide. I have seen a number of spots where the fast flowing Teesta has eaten away half of the tarred road and threatened the remaining portion with imminent destruction. All along the patch, from the foothills of the Himalayas to Gangtok and there to thula, I could see landslides of varying degrees. In a number of patches, two vehicles cannot cross each other, thereby making the time taken to cover the 120 km distance between Siliguri and Gangtok much longer than should normally required. Our Innova car took almost 5 hours to traverse this distance because of the road condition. Similar was our experience in our journey from Gangtok to Sangbo Lake and beyond to thula. Of course, all along the hilly terrain, the BRO workers were seen busy widening and repairing the road. However that was not a reassuring sightseeing the ground condition.
My worst apprehension came true when on the evening before we were to return home, Mala informed over phone that in the early morning of that day, a huge landslide took place on the West Bengal side of the border completely blocking the highway. In the accident few people lost their lives and three vehicles got completely damaged by the falling debris. Though landslide is a common phenomenon in this sector, being the middle of winter and a dry spell, I was not expecting such an incident. It happened due to utter negligence of the BRO personnel who did not take necessary precaution to ensure that the erosion and landslide threatened portions of the road were properly barricaded and required steps were taken to divert the flow of the river to the other side. It became quite clear to me that with the present quality of work, India would be hard pressed to match the Chinese in ensuring a highly reliable and easily negotiable communication network in the vulnerable North-East.
The Prime Minister's declarations of intent became more prone to questions when his own Minister of State for Railways, Manoj Kumar Singh declared on 13th April, 2015 in Agartala, while attending the first-ever trial run of the newly constructed BG railway line from Ambasa to Agartala, that all the state capitals of the North-East will be connected with the BG network by 2020! Such declaration is not only unbelievable but could be termed as preposterous when one realises that five North-Eastern capitals do not have any rail connection till date! Kohima in galand, Imphal in Manipur, Shillong in Meghalaya, Aizawl in Mizoram and Gangtok in Sikkim are yet to see a rail link within 50 kilometers of its location. Kohima, the capital of galand is 74 km away from Dimapur, the nearest rail station; Imphal, the capital of Manipur is 230 km away from the same rail station; Aizwal, the capital of Mizoram is 130 km away from Silchar, its nearest rail station and Gangtok is located at a distance of 120 kms from nearest station New Jalpaiguri! How the Minister is going to connect all these state capitals to the BG network in less than four years time is anybody's guess. When a stretch of railways measuring less than 200 kms between Lumding and Badarpur could take more than fifteen year for mere conversion from meter to broad gauge, one can easily visualise how much time the Indian Railways will take to lay 5 new lines to the five state capitals; in my estimate, not less than 15 years if the work starts now! The Bogibeel Rail-cum-Road Bridge is under construction for last 13 years. How many more years will it take to complete nobody knows. So, how Mr. Manoj Kumar Singh will do the miracle will be best explained by him. I am sure no member of the Indian Railway Board will stick his neck out by claiming to complete the task within the time frame the Minister has set!