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Darjeeling, Kalimpong, Sikkim facing price rice on essentials as hill highways collapse

Landslide at NH 10 Setikhola
With the National Highway 55 remaining closed now for years together and the National Highway 10 (earlier N.H. 31A) rendered impassable since Thursday last week, people in the hills of Sikkim, Darjeeling and Kalimpong are facing the spectre of rise in prices of essentials.

“Small vehicles have started passing the stretch since Sunday, but unless the road is opened to larger goods vehicle traffic in a day or two prices of essentials will start rising here,” a source in Gangtok said on Monday. Landslides on the arterial road had been frequent this year, but last week’s was the worst, on a 250 feet stretch of the highway.

N.H.10 is not only the lifeline for Sikkim but also a strategically important road which is used by the army which is deployed on the China border. The road is maintained by the Border Roads Organization, run by army engineers. There was no official explanation from the BRO why the road had not been maintained properly, but sources said BRO often suffered from shortage of manpower which was recruited locally to work on the roads. Following erection of guard walls, the stretch of the national highway in Sikkim had become less prone to landslides, but the stretch inside West Bengal continued to be in poor shape.

“It is because of the dams build for hydel power stations and other development projects that N.H. 31A has become landslide-prone,” Kalimpong-based Indigenous Lepcha Tribal Association president L. Tamsong said. “Development must not be at the cost of environment.” The recent series of earthquakes in Sikkim and Nepal could also have made the area around the highway landslide-prone, he said. “When goods vehicles are stranded, the villages don’t suffer as they have their own sources of vegetables, but prices start increasing in Kalimpong.”

Smaller vehicles to Kalimpong were now using the alternative route via Jorbungalow, near Darjeeling town, but this route was too steep for larger vehicles. The army was, however, executing a project to widen another route to Kalimpong via Garubathan, he said.

“The story of N.H. 55 is nothing short of scandalous,” Darjeeling MLA Trilok Pradhan said. “Have you ever heard of a national highway being closed for five years?” N.H. 55, which connects Darjeeling town with the plains, was rendered impassable in a landslide in 2010 and it had still not been restored. The adjoining toy train track had been restored a few weeks ago, to be blocked again shortly afterwards in a fresh landslide.

“A large population in the Tindharia area is suffering because the N.H. 55 is closed,” Pradhan said. “Also, prices in Darjeeling town had  gone up as goods vehicles have to take a longer route via Mirik. A Gorkha Janmukti Morcha delegation had met Union surface transport minister Nitin Gadkari to narrate the plight. “He said the road will be repaired, but nothing has been done.”

Pradhan said the landslide-prone area near Tindharia on N.H. 55 would need the attention of experts to tackle the problem. “It has not been possible to restore the road as they are doing it under the guidance of local PWD engineers. A team of experts must visit the area and suggest how the road can be restored and landslides prevented.” The national highway was not under the Gorkhaland Territorial Administration, he said.(EOIC)

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