Saturday, September 22, 2007

Satyagraha For The Teesta

Protestors from across Sikkim are on hunger strike against projects on the river. NEERAJ VAGHOLIKAR reports

(Tehelka, 29 September 2007)

The Sikkim government's plans to expedite a major plumbing exercise — involving 26 large hydroelectric projects in the ecologically and culturally sensitive Teesta river basin — is meeting with resistance. Protestors have joined together in an organisation called the Affected Citizens of Teesta (ACT); they have been on satyagraha against these plans since June 20. The ongoing protests are focused on projects proposed in North Sikkim, particularly in Dzongu, the holy land and exclusive reserve of the Lepcha tribe. The satyagraha has been characterised by a prominent youth presence; another important feature was the support lent by the state's Buddhist monks, who have been offering prayers to protect the satyagrahis and the sacred landscape threatened with desecration.

While Sikkim has seen dam-related protests before, there have never been any on this scale. The 1990s saw the construction of the 60MW Rangit project, clearances for the 510MW Teesta V project (currently under construction) and the scrapping of the Rathong Chu project following protests about its impact on a sacred landscape. But in the last three years, the state government has signed MOUs for no less than 26 large hydroelectric projects in the state.

On December 12, 2006, ACT met Chief Minister Pawan Chamling. They demanded the scrapping of the projects in Dzongu, and sought a review of the other projects in Sikkim. Based on an assurance from the CM that these issues would be looked into, they called off a proposed rally in Gangtok. But ACT's concerns were not addressed and in the months preceding the satyagraha, the state government started land acquisition procedures for the 1200MW Teesta III and the 280MW Panan projects, both of which involve construction work inside Dzongu. This was the last straw and ACT started its satyagraha on June 20, with 34-year-old Dawa Lepcha and 20- year-old Tenzing Lepcha on an indefinite fast, while others supported them with a relay hunger strike.

The arguments used to justify these large projects in Sikkim are: exploitation of the state's perennial water system to produce power for the nation; economic benefits to the state through power export; employment generation and low displacement of local communities. However, several unique features of the state — its ecological and geological fragility, its indigenous communities, their cultural and spiritual association with the river system and the landscape — pose a challenge to these ambitious plans.

The erstwhile kings of Sikkim had accorded special legal protection to Dzongu and North Sikkim, further reinforced after the merger with India through constitutional protection of old laws and traditions. "The spurt of large hydel projects in Sikkim is in direct contradiction of the constitutional and legal protection given to us. The simultaneous construction of so many projects is going to involve an influx of a huge number of outside labour for a long period of time. These demographic changes are going to have a serious socio cultural impact, particularly in North Sikkim. We want the seven proposed projects in Dzongu scrapped and others in Sikkim reviewed," says Dawa Lepcha of ACT.

The ministry of Environment & Forests (MOEF), while granting environmental clearance to the 510MW Teesta V project in 1999 asked for a detailed 'carrying capacity' study of the entire Teesta river basin. The clearance letter states: "No other project in Sikkim will be considered for environmental clearance till the carrying capacity study is completed."

Pemzang Tenzing, a civil engineer and ACT member, says: "We were hopeful that this process would enable a comprehensive assessment of the cumulative impact of the many proposed hydel projects and a serious options assessment for ecologically and culturally sensitive development in Sikkim. But even as the study is being finalised, the MOEF has already granted environmental clearance to at least six hydel projects in Sikkim since 2004 in violation of its own condition." At least two of these — the 1,200 MW Teesta III and the 280 MW Panan — are on the border of the Khangchendzonga National Park. A large part of the first is, in fact, inside the biosphere reserve and the second involves carrying out ancillary works inside the national park in violation of Supreme Court orders.

Tenzing adds, "Even as per official figures, the projects involve diverting up to 85-90 percent of the river flow in the lean season through long tunnels before the water is dropped downstream. Not only will this destroy the riverine ecology but a cascade of projects will mean the Teesta is in full flow only in brief stretches between the two hydel projects. That is why we are saying that the Teesta is being converted into an underground river."

There have been repeated appeals from the state government to withdraw the satyagraha and at least six rounds of talks were held between the government and ACT, but none led to a conclusive breakthrough. After a personal appeal from the CM, Dawa and Tenzing withdrew their indefinite fast on August 21 after 63 days, but the satyagraha continues with the relay hunger strike by other members.

On September 6, the government informed ACT that a seven-member review committee is being set up to "examine various issues related to implementation of hydel projects in Dzongu area of North Sikkim" and that until the submission of a report by the committee within 100 days all activities related to five projects in Dzongu would be stopped with immediate effect. The government has conveniently left out two major projects directly impacting Dzongu — TeestaIII & Teesta IV. While it has chosen to leave out Teesta III where land acquisition procedures have been on, four of the five projects it claims to stop work on are yet to get necessary clearances to start work. On September 10, ACT rejected this proposition and renewed the demand for scrapping all hydel projects in Dzongu.

During this entire period there has been tremendous support to the satyagrahis from around the country and the world. The Lepchas in the Darjeeling hills have also lent their support to the cause, with a road blockade of NH31A as well as ongoing relay hunger strikes in Kalimpong and Darjeeling. Opposition parties have also taken up the issue, but this has been conveniently used by the ruling Sikkim Democratic Front government to dismiss the entire protest as being "politically motivated". In a speech on Independence Day, the CM made personal attacks on several individuals associated with the protests, including respected Buddhist monk Sonam Paljor Denjongpa. The attack was condemned even by those who support the hydel projects.

Sikkim's Information and Public Relations secretary MG Kiran says: "We do not yet know what their (ACT's) problem is. These are benign projects and we can handle them well." It is ironic that just a few months ago, the state Chief Secretary admitted to an environmental governance crisis in the 510MW Teesta V project in an affidavit to the Supreme Court-appointed Central Empowered Committee. The affidavit says the power company has "grossly violated the terms, conditions and guidelines" of the MOEF and dumped excavated material "into the river Teesta obstructing its free flow causing thereby huge damage to the forest and environment."

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Its a pity that in spite of sacred promises made by prime minister indira gandhi to protect Sikkim and its way of life--these are being violated withot compunctions under a congress government led by her daughter in law----No body will ever believe them again as a country ws handed over on the basis of sacred trust that the hill people had in the Nehru FAMILY.