The Shifting Locks of Shiva

“These aren’t the Alps,” says Suraj Prakash, chief engineer of the General Reserve Engineers Force (GREF), which looks after roads in Sikkim, including most of the well-maintained 130 km National Highway 31A between Siliguri and Gangtok, and the 55 km “all-weather, trafficable” JN (Jawarhalal Nehru) Marg to the Nathu La, that together would form the trade route between China and India. “The Himalayas are young, geologically speaking. Among them, the mountains of Sikkim are the youngest.” Also, he says, unlike places such as Cherrapunjee and Mawsynram in Meghalaya, the rain here is piercing, capable of slowly “disintegrating” the rock mass.

On the ground, for the 600 workers and 1,000 casual labourers of the GREF, part of the Border Roads Organisation (BRO), that translates into hundreds of landslides, and roads sinking into ravines below. Swastik, the BRO project that covers Sikkim, loses two people every month to landslides and other similar accidents. Another two are seriously injured every month, says superintending engineer IR Mathur. The casualties, were “much higher” in the earlier days. Says Prakash: “It’s like cutting off our hands.”

For families of casual labourers, who have recently been covered under group insurance policies, death of their bread-earners while on the job means a payment of Rs 1 lakh, along with a government compensation package of Rs 2 lakh to Rs 3 lakh. Should the person be older, say in his 50s, the government package is half the amount.

These are mountains that are held together with rock piles and wire mesh, with the GREF using 50,000 to 1 lakh square metres of it in Sikkim every year. Much as the government may wish otherwise, NH 31A and JN Marg will be a major bottleneck in the movement of vehicles between the two countries for at least a few years should the route open. The GREF’s progress ranges from 1 km per month (“Provided we are given the necessary resources and money”) to an excruciating 1 metre per day, when it’s people blast and carve out roads in rock faces. The time taken to widen existing roads is longer. “It’s because we will now have to manage the traffic as well, along with the villages that have sprouted up along the roads,” says Prakash. Building the road costs Rs 50 lakh to Rs 1 crore per kilometre; maintenance, Rs 70,000 per month.

According to Prakash, both the roads are already “throttled”, having exceeded their capacities of 5,000 and 1,000 passenger car units (PCUs) respectively. The government of Sikkim has been in touch with the Asian Development Bank for a loan to widen the road. Built mainly for defence traffic, JN Marg, meanwhile, has a carriageway of only 3.75 metres, making it difficult for trucks to pass each other. Under the circumstances, no matter what the expected volume of trade, vehicles will for years have to be regulated, as they are now, till the road is widened. Cars from Gangtok to Nathula are now allowed only up to 11:30 in the morning on JN Marg, after which the road is open to only traffic coming from the border.

Not to mention the climb, rising as Highway 31A and JN Marg do, from 400 ft at Sevak between Gangtok and Siliguri, to 14,600 ft at Nathula, in just 144.5 km. It could be a nightmare for loaded trucks, say drivers. Just now, taxi with one passenger takes about four hours to cover the 56-km stretch between Gangtok and Nathu La.

Even as the Prime Minister’s plane flies overhead from China, the people of the GREF would be working, keeping their road together, ears perked to the whistle of their supervisors posted at every site to warn them of falling boulders, landslides and avalanches. Within its many cascading waterfalls, deep green valleys and breathtaking view, death lurks silent here, unseen in the beauty of the mountains.

Some are lucky. KS Khati, a worker with the GREF, is being recommended for a bravery award for having risked his life to save a co-worker, Havildar OEM Jaisingh, who had got caught under a landslide. Most aren’t. In March-April last year, it took six days to recover the body of a woman who had been crushed by boulders that had rolled down the mountain. In March this year, a GREF vehicle fell off the road into the ravine below, killing all four occupants. A woman labourer was killed hardly a week ago on June 16, again by boulders.

These are the nameless, unsung foot soldiers of the nation.

By Pranab Bora (