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End to hill road protest in sight

Kaimpong, Dec. 23: The impasse in the construction of a road alternative to the stretch between 27th Mile and Ravi Jhora on NH31A is set to end with the agency in charge of the highway promising to maintain the existing link even after the completion of the new alignment.

The assurance was given by the Border Roads Organisation at a meeting attended by Gorkha Janmukti Morcha leaders in Darjeeling yesterday.

Most of the 250-odd families living in Geil Khola and 29th Mile have been protesting the construction of the 18km-long alignment as they fear that it will rob them of their source of livelihood.

The residents sustain a living by running eateries and shops, which are patronised by travellers on NH31A.

Most of the vehicles plying between Siliguri and Sikkim or Kalimpong stop before these shops and hotels so that the passengers can buy food and knick-knacks.

The villagers’ grouse was that once the alternative link was ready, vehicles would skirt the present road and it would make a dent in their income.

“BRO officials told Morcha president Bimal Gurung and general secretary Roshan Giri yesterday that the agency would continue to maintain the existing stretch even after the alternative road was completed. Representatives of the affected villagers were present at the meeting,” said Norbu Lama, a member of the Morcha’s highway block committee, which is spearheading the protest.

“Moreover, the new alignment will be much narrower and steeper which means it would be difficult for heavy vehicles to ply on it. So, the heavy vehicles might continue to use the existing road, thus ensuring steady business for many shops in the two villages,” said Lama.

He, however, said the embargo on the felling of trees for the construction of the new alignment would not be lifted till the BRO came out with a written assurance on the maintenance of the road.

“We will take a call on whether or not to withdraw the agitation after reading the statement,” he said.

A BRO official confirmed that the agency had promised to give a written assurance. “They have asked for a written statement that we will continue to maintain the lower (read existing) alignment even after the new road is completed. We will be sending our statement today or tomorrow,” said the official.

The people of the two villages had a fortnight back stopped the forest department from felling trees in the area to the pave the way for the construction of the road.

Since then, they have been picketing frequently to ensure that the forest officers do not come back to chop trees.

The new alignment, which is on a higher and a more stable gradient than the existing road, is from Reang in 27th Mile to near Ravi Jhora.

The alternative link has been proposed to skirt two major landslide-prone areas at 27th Mile and Likhubhir.