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.
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.
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."