Social media Credit: Concerned residents highlighted how the stretch of forest cover was home to many pine trees, rhododendron plantations, and blankets of flower cover in spring

Gangtok: On World Environment Day, Gangtok residents woke up to viral images of trees being cut in the Millennium Park area near Sadar Police Station in the heart of the state capital.

Concerned residents highlighted how the stretch of forest cover was home to many pine trees, rhododendron plantations, and blankets of flower cover in spring and was also a famous dating spot in the hill town of Sikkim.

For years, with rapid urbanisation, Gangtok has been reeling with the issue of traffic jams on a daily basis. The state government has proposed and completed alternative highways and connecting roads, implemented odd-even rationing of vehicles and even proposed plans for escalators across the hills.

However, no solution perhaps is more promising than the age-old ‘road extension and back cutting’. Gangtok was declared a Smart City in 2017 and projects started being proposed since 2018. But with the change in government and model code of conduct, the execution of the project — ‘Improvement of Roads and Junctions in Gangtok’ — suffered. The project was tendered and approved for funding by March 2019.

Gangtok Smart City chief executive officer (CEO) Tarzan Subba, who took over the reins in June last year, said: “The project for improvement of roads and junctions in Gangtok is responsible for the felling of trees. We have envisaged a project that will ease the burning problem of traffic jams in Gangtok. Our engineers conducted a survey and they found that National Highway 10 along the Gangtok stretch is very narrow with sharp curves with no room for two-lane roads or passing of vehicles at these crucial junctures. It has a cascading effect on jams and the only solution is widening of roads from Zero Point to Ranipool.”

Gangtok Smart City includes 17 municipal wards in Gangtok and the Smart City project has identified 17 such crucial junctures where road extensions will be carried out.

“Of the 17 such crucial junctions along NH 10, the Development Area junction above Manan Kendra stretching till the High Court of Sikkim premises falls as one of junctions. Another one will be above State Bank of Sikkim and Hospital Dara area, even on the narrow stretch of Deorali below Chorten Gumpa which has forest cover with more to follow till Ranipool and also the tributary road of By Pass Road near East District Administrative Centre,” said Subba.

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The project was placed and discussed in 2018, approved and put to tender, and awarded before the model code of conduct in March 2019. With the formation of the new SKM government and subsequent appointment of Tarzan Subba as the CEO under Gangtok Smart City in June 2019, the project is finally seeing implementation. “When I took over, the project was already sanctioned, so we went towards the implementation phase. In Gangtok, we have been asked to design a smart city out of a city that already exists, not on a flat land given by the state government. There were many issues as such, there were only tenders but no work. There was permission needed from PHE, sewerage, National Highway, Urban Development as well as Forest Department. So duly following the entire course, we wrote to the forest department with the proposal for widening of roads, with the need for felling of trees. Following all norms, the deparatment inspected the sites and presented the estimates. We then transferred the compensation to the forest department and with their permission, these trees are being fallen. It is the duty of the forest department how it is being carried out,” said Subba.

Residents’ concern is not merely of Millennium Park — similar deforestation activities are being carried out at Zero Point for widening of road. This project will make room for traffic coming from three ways –- down below from Hospital Dara, up above from Vajra Cinema hall area and the adjacent road connecting with Tashiling Secretariat.

“Whenever trees are fallen, the forest department takes into consideration the aspect of reforestation somewhere else. When they send the estimate to us, this was taken care of. There were some species of plants available which were taken over by the Botanical Survey of India, who adopted the same. I don’t think any species will be damaged. As far as forestation is concerned, it cannot be done in the same place, but it will be done somewhere else. Without their clearance we won’t touch a single plant. No new structure will come up, it is the widening of the existing roads,” said Subba.

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Meanwhile, Divisional Forest Officer (Territorial) Smita Shilal highlighted how the road extension is 5 metres from the centre of the road and in due process some 400 trees will be cut from Zero Point to Millennium Park. “Being the custodian of the road reserve, we had previously diverted 100 feet; the same has now been diverted to the Smart City Project. We are unsure about the total permit but inclines on road extension along with other projects in the area. Concerns were ripe that taller and bigger trees were cut, the process was prior to my appointment as DFO Territorial. Many of the trees were handed over to Smart City already by then”.

There are different varieties of trees from pine to many other species, from Zero Point to Hospital Dara. The forest department has identified over 400 trees that will be cut down. “There was no fauna in the area but there were birds that used to come for the green cover there. It was a park, so all plants were shifted to nurseries. There were rhododendrons and flowery plants in the area,” the DFO said. Ironically, it was the forest department that carried out many such plantations in the past, on occasions like World Environment Day.

The DFO further highlighted that Smart City Project has a proposal of more felling of trees till as far as CRH Manipal Premises in 5th Mile, Tadong. “Until now, we have given permission only till Hospital Dara, but beyond that they will have to make another proposal,” Shilal said.

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