Friday, July 27, 2007

Hunger strike over India's lost paradise

By Andrew Buncombe in Delhi

Published: 27 July 2007

The images are distressing. Two men lie in hospital beds surrounded by their friends. The men barely move, too weak to even sit up. Occasionally, perhaps, one of them will move his head slowly. The friends stroke their foreheads or else rub their feet.

This is a hunger-strike for the YouTube generation. The two men - Dawa Lepcha and Tenzing Gvasto Lepcha - whose protest has been posted on the popular online video site, have not eaten for 39 days. Doctors at the hospital where they lie in the remote Indian state of Sikkim say they are getting weaker each day. There are serious concerns about the functioning of the men's kidneys.

The cause that has led these two men to take this drastic action and for their friends to post this powerful video on the internet is the very land on which they and their families live. A massive hydro-electric power scheme backed by the state government, consisting of more than 20 individual projects, threatens to drive the men and their neighbours from the land close to the Teesta river in the Dzongu region of the state. Campaigners say the project is illegal and claim the authorities have failed to obtain the necessary assessment of the impact the schemes will have.

This land is not only pristine - including as it does parts of a national park on which lies the world's third- highest mountain and a biosphere reserve - but to the people of the region it is also sacred.

The two men refusing food are both Lepcha, the indigenous people who have lived on the mountains for centuries and whose name for the region, Mayel Luang, roughly translates as "paradise". Some clans believe they were created by mother nature, others that mother nature created two deities who then created the Lepcha. The massive Kangchenjunga, reaching up to 28,169 feet, is considered holy.

"Their health is not very good. They are both in the hospital," said Sherab Lepcha, a member of the group Affected Citizens of Teesta who visits the two men every day. "[But] they are very determined."

The issue of hydro-electric schemes and dams driving people off the land in India is nothing new. Throughout the 1990s, there were widespread protests against the construction of massive dams in places such as Gujarat.

Activists have calculated that over the past 50 years, perhaps 33 million Indians have been forced from their land by such projects.

These protests drew the support of several high-profile figures, including the novelist and activist Arundhati Roy, who wrote of the victims in her essay The Greater Common Good: "The millions of displaced people don't exist any more. When history is written, they won't be in it. Not even as statistics. Some of them have subsequently been displaced three and four times - a dam, an artillery range, another dam, a uranium mine, a power project. Once they start rolling, there's no resting place."

The campaign against the projects on the Teesta river has so far gained little attention beyond the immediate locality and within the environmental community. That may be partly because of Sikkim's remoteness. This landlocked Himalayan region bordered by Nepal, Bhutan and Tibet, was a semi-autonomous kingdom until as recently as 1975 when it became the 22nd state of the Indian Union. Today, Sikkim is India's least populous state and is famed for its wilderness areas and unspoilt landscapes.

Campaigners say that the hydro-electricity projects will forever change that and have a huge impact on the local people. "Displacement and resettlement is a highly conflictive and difficult issue, and the affected communities often become impoverished in the process," said Ann Ann-Kathrin Schneider, of the International Rivers Network, a US-based campaign group. "However, the displacement of indigenous people is even more difficult and there are practically no examples in the world where the resettlement of indigenous people has not destroyed their culture and social cohesion, as well as totally destroying their ability to economically support themselves."

Indeed, the campaigners say powerful impacts of the first of the hydro schemes - the 510 megawatt Teesta V project, which is under construction - have already been felt. "The work ... especially the construction of the tunnels for the water that will be diverted for hydro-power generation, has already caused much hardship," said Ms Schneider.

"Water resources have dried up, landslides in areas were people live have been caused and houses have been partly demolished by the construction of the tunnels. The dust pollution that is a by-product of the construction activity is so high that children in schools in the area are affected and fruit trees and other agricultural activities are affected. The productivity of the orchards and the fields has considerably reduced."

Proposals to build the series of dams and harness up to 3500mw of power first emerged in the late 1990s, and despite the protests the state government of Sikkim has so far not backed down from pressing ahead. It readily admits it is lured by the source of wealth the project represents, and says it has negotiated a deal with the private developer of 12 per cent of the generated energy for the first 15 years after completion.

The government believes that the Teesta is ideal for generating electricity because the river plunges down deep gorges, dropping 13,123 feet (4,000 metres) over its initial 50 miles.

In a statement, the state government said it had initiated hydro-electricity schemes to utilise the available natural resource to attain self-reliance, in order to raise the Sikkimese people's socio-economic position and generate adequate revenue for the state.

But the Lepchas are not convinced. Sherab Lepcha, worried about the fate of his friends in the hospital, added: "If the people are driven off the land, there will be nowhere for cultivation. There will be nowhere to go."

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