Concerns as India builds rail network in remote state near China

India’s ambitious railway project to connect a small northeastern Indian state along its border with China to the rest of the country is raising concerns among local forest dwellers and environmentalists.

The 45km (28-mile) project, work on which began in 2009, connects Sevoke in eastern state of West Bengal to Rangpo in the Himalayan state of Sikkim, with five stations between them, one of them underground.

Apart from bringing Sikkim onto India’s railway map, the project is being touted as an engineering marvel with its network of 14 tunnels and 17 bridges in a single broad-gauge rail line. Most of the railway project lies in West Bengal, with only 3.44km (2 miles) in Sikkim.

A view of a village along the Teesta river in the Himalayan region [Gurvinder Singh/Al Jazeera]

The government claims the project, once completed, will bring more income for local communities and boost tourism in the Himalayan region.

The project also aims to extend the railroad to Nathu La in Sikkim, on the India-China border, to facilitate troop movement in case of an emergency.

But environmentalists fear the railway project could threaten thousands of lives in the ecologically fragile Darjeeling Sikkim Himalayan (DSH) region that is prone to landslides, earthquakes and other natural calamities.

“The area lies in seismic zone IV and V which is highly vulnerable to earthquakes and such huge construction activities enhances the possibility of a catastrophic disaster,” Jatishwar Bharati, a geographical researcher based in West Bengal, told Al Jazeera.

“The rock formations are too young as the zone is formed with Phillitic Daling group rocks that do not have strong bonding. The zone is still building up and hence very unstable. Even minor vibrations can disturb their alignment leading to severe landslides and flash floods with mudflow during monsoon.”

Bharati referred to an accident at the project site last month when the rock inside one of the tunnels caved in during blasting, killing two workers and injuring five others.