Gangtok: About an acre of a Special Economic Zone (SEZ) land in Namli, Marchak, some 13 kilometres from the state capital, has been ‘rented’ to a private construction company, Mesaso Infrastructures Private Limited, for Rs 50,000 per month to be used as a material dumping ground for the private company till March 31, 2022.

The company had approached the owners of the land, the Information and Technology Department, on December 20, 2021. The special economic zone stretches at a total area of 16.85 acres, of which an acre is now ‘rented as material dumping ground.’

When Mesaso approached the IT department with the application, the department forwarded the application to Sikkim Chief Minister Prem Singh Golay’s office on the very same day. It is still awaiting approval. But even before the approval or a rental agreement in place, the private company has already profiled the field using excavators and dumped its construction materials.

Upon investigation by EastMojo, an official in the IT department requesting anonymity said, “The application is yet to be approved. But as has been the precedence, if someone approaches (in that manner) for a government project, we do not wait for approval. Neither did the company as they commenced with their work. Government lands have been used for material dumping even in the past by private companies.”

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The issue was brought to light by the Sikkim Nagrik Samaj (SNS), an apolitical organisation, on January 11, when it approached the concerned departments regarding what they termed as ‘illegal occupation’ before making the police complaint at Ranipool Police Station and to the east district administration on January 10.

Pasang Sherpa of Sikkim Nagrik Samaj addressing a press conference

Pasang Sherpa of Sikkim Nagrik Samaj on January 11 shared in a press conference, “We were told that the company had applied for using the government land, but so far, no approval has been given. The company brazenly occupied the land and has been using it illegally for around one and half months. In essence, this should give an idea to the people of Sikkim that outside companies are running the government in Sikkim.”

After the press conference highlighted the incident, the department officials informed the Chief Minister about the approval, “but with him being in quarantine currently, we could not get the approval done,” said the official requesting anonymity.

On June 6, 2020, the IT department acquired the land from the state’s commerce and industries department to be used for IT or IT-enabled services projects, with considerations for setting it up as an IT Park. On June 1, 2021, it was converted to a Special Economic Zone.

The land originally belonged to the Department of Agriculture and Horticulture, and horticulture farms continue to exist in the demarcated land. A proposal was exchanged in 2014 for the construction of the state agriculture college. There is an agriculture college in the vicinity, but not in the demarcated land. In 2019, the land was passed to the commerce and industries department and in June 2020, it was passed on to the IT department with the intent of converting it into an IT Park.

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Sherpa demanded the police and district administration to “immediately remove the company from the illegal occupation of the public land as the land falls under the proposed Special Economic Zone (SEZ) industrial park owned by the commerce and industries department. The department had leased out a big plot of SEZ land to Information Technology (IT) department for a proposed IT Park,” said the SNS General Secretary.

On January 12, the IT department, in a statement, defended their decision. “The SEZ land at Namli is lying vacant at present, as the tender process is still ongoing. MS Mesaso have requested in writing to allow them the use of Government land at Namli for a few months on rental basis for the storage of construction materials for Multi-Level Car Park cum Commercial Complex at old West Point School.”

The statement further added, “In order to aid the construction of a Government project, the vacant land was proposed to be given out on rent on a temporary basis until 31st March 2022. In view of various project timelines, storage of construction materials has been started on the said land as storage of construction materials at the site in the heart of the city is not possible.”

The IT department secretary in the statement asserted, “The message given out during the press conference as regards SEZ land at Namli being unlawfully taken over by any person or party is false. The allegations so made by the members of SNS in the said press conference is not based on facts.”

The department inspected how much land can be used days after Mesaso approached with the application to use the land. They fixed an area of around an acre. Meanwhile, Mesaso has used excavators to profile the land.

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An official in IT department shared, “The profiling of the land was something we were looking forward to as the cost of providing basic amenities like roads, electricity, water supply, the internet is the requirements that any private IT company looking to set up an IT park in proposed, might be considerate of. The department has no budget, and the cost of providing these basic amenities might shoot up to Rs 70-80 crore.

At least until March 31, we will be getting Rs 50,000 per month as rent for an acre of space. But the whole of 16.87 acres has not been leased, only a portion has been rented.”

When asked whether the department has received the rental advances yet, the official responded, “Until the agreement comes on paper, after approval from the Chief Minister, we cannot ask them for the rent. After approval and proper agreement, we can ask them for rent. However, this issue may be seen currently, the IT department is earning Rupees 50,000 per month just by renting a small portion of that land.”

To another question of if the company decides to extend the material dumping beyond March 31, the department source informed, “They will have to approach the department 15 days prior with another application.”

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On being asked, if the IT department is considerate of granting the IT Park to Mesaso in the future? The official informed, “So far they have not approached for the same, they have only approached us to use the land temporarily. There are a whole set of board of directors in the central government who look after the development of SEZ or to grant the same as an IT Park or IT Enabled Services (IT/ITES) to a private IT firm or even welcome Foreign Direct Investment (FDI). Over the past year, since the IT department was granted the land, there have been no approaches from companies of repute after the COVID induced economic slump. If that happens in the future, then the IT park will come up.”

Elsewhere, the department official went on to claim that, “today the land belongs to IT department, tomorrow it may go to any other department, as has happened in the past. But for now, the IT department is the landowner. We have land documents related to the same. It has not been awarded or leased to Mesaso, only rented for the next few months for the ease of the completion of a government project.”

Ever since the Mesaso Infrastructure Private Limited initiated the demolition of Old West Point school and adjacent taxi stand in the heart of Gangtok, aiming to construct a 14 storey mall, they have been constantly under scrutiny not from the government but by the Sikkim Nagrik Samaj.

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EastMojo approached Mesaso for a statement and will update the story as and when the company responds.

The fight to stop the demolition is now lost. However, the SNS insists on blaming Mesaso for misusing its close relation with the Sikkim Krantikari Morcha government in power, which, according to them, is led by businessmen backing the government.

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The SNS general secretary pointed out that the SEZ was envisioned to promote and encourage local entrepreneurs to set up their ventures. “It is unfortunate to see that outside companies are illegally using the platform meant for the local entrepreneurs. We are hopeful that the police and district administration would remove the illegal occupation of government land.”

SNS questioned, “As such, does the lease agreement allow renting the land to a third party at the whim and fancy of the IT department? Is there a provision within the agreement of IT parks to rent out land to a third party? Is the IT department leaving precedence that any company/individual can misuse public land by just writing an application to the department? Is the Mesaso company misusing the land just on verbal assurances from corrupt babus and politicians?”

SNS asserted that “as per the PPP module, it is for the company to manage storage, disposal and construction, not the IT department. Why is the IT department advocating in favour of Mesaso Infrastructure? Are they on Mesaso’s payroll?”

SNS reiterated that every information issued during the press conference was based on facts and evidence. While they accused the IT department’s press release a day later as a cover-up to hide their mistakes. “If the department is sincere towards the people, they should immediately remove Mesaso company from the illegal occupation of the public land and publish all the communication and noting of the file that transpired between Mesaso, the commerce and industries department and the IT department.”

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