While the government of Sikkim is determined to convert its rivers into so called “white gold” by exploiting its vast hydropower resources, indigenous Lepchas of the state in India’s north eastern Himalayas hope their opposition will halt construction of the proposed 520 MW Teesta Stage IV hydropower project.

If successful, this will be the fifth project the community have successfully stopped in Sikkim – part of a growing wave of anti-dam movements across north eastern India where hydropower developers are struggling with angry protesters and falling profits.

India’s National Hydro Power Corporation (NHPC) got clearance to build the hydropower project on the Teesta River near Chandey village in Dzongu in 2012. Since then, Lepchas have challenged its construction in various forums including the National Green Tribunal (NGT). So far they have succeeded in putting it on hold, though the Sikkim government continues to try to win over other local people.

Lepchas, who are recognised as a ‘particularly vulnerable tribal group’ and protected within the Dzongu community reserve, are at the forefront of anti-dam protests in Sikkim because they worship mountains and rivers.

Future powerhouse

Considered the “future powerhouse” of the country, north-eastern states of Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh have witnessed a lot of hydropower activities in recent years.

While Arunachal Pradesh has signed over 150 memorandums of understanding (MoUs) over the past decade, the Sikkim government has signed letters of intent or MoUs with the government-owned and private power production companies for the construction of 27 small and large power projects, with a total capacity of 5,494MW on the River Teesta and its tributaries. Four of these projects have been scrapped following sustained protests from the Lepcha community.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi was scheduled to visit Sikkim on January 17 to launch the largest of these power projects in north Sikkim near Dzongu – the 1,200 MW Teesta Stage III – but he could not make it. This project will be the country’s second largest dam and a government official in Sikkim said that the formal inauguration of the project will now take place in February or March.

One of the dams on River Teesta (Credit Athar Parvaiz)

One of the dams on River Teesta (Credit Athar Parvaiz)

Don’t desecrate our homeland

Buoyed by their previous success of sustained protests and hunger strikes, the Lepchas have resolved to fight against the implementation of Tessta Stage IV, one of a series of projects planned in the state’s main river and its tributaries.

UNESCO protection

UNESCO’s recognition of Khangchendzonga National Park as a world heritage site in July 2016 has bolstered the case of the protesters.

“Located at the heart of the Himalayan range in northern India, the Khangchendzonga National Park includes a unique diversity of plains, valleys, lakes, glaciers and spectacular snow-capped mountains covered with ancient forests, including the world’s third highest peak, Mount Khangchendzonga,” states the UNESCO website.

“Mythological stories are associated with this mountain and with a great number of natural elements (e.g. caves, rivers, lakes, etc.) that are the object of worship by the indigenous people of Sikkim,” it continues.

The Lepchas argue that this recognition shows the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) report as well as Expert Appraisal Committee (EAC) report, which cleared the Teesta Stage IV project, have ignored the sacred nature of the Kanchendzonga and its importance in the culture and value system of indigenous groups in Sikkim.

“We are now waiting for the government to announce the scrapping of Teesta Stage IV against the backdrop of UNESCO’s observations and on the basis of rejection of the project by the Lepcha community of Dzongu and the elected gram Panchayats of Dzongu in all their meetings with the government so far,” Gyatso Lepcha, general secretary of Affected Citizens of Teesta (ACT), told thethirdpole.net.

“If we feel that the government is dilly-dallying, we will submit a written representation to UNESCO to convey how its listed sites are being treated in India,” Gyatso said.

The people of north Sikkim have already suffered a lot of environmental damage from two other mega projects on the Teesta (Stage III and Stage V) which produce over 1,700 MW of energy, even through Sikkim only needs around 112 MW, said Gyatso. Under the project agreement for Stage IV, Sikkim will get 12% of the electricity for free and the remaining power will be exported to the rest of India.

Lepchas also see the construction of power projects, which bring a lot of new workers flooding into the remote area, as a demographic threat. “We Lepchas are like tigers; an endangered species in India,” Gyatso said. There are only about 4,000 remaining Lepchas living in Dzongu.

The needs of local people in north Sikkim are being ignored as the projects steam ahead, according to Gyatso. “For example no one cares whether we have desirable road connectivity and health facilities. Just look at the pathetic condition of our roads. They are only interested in constructing the power projects at the cost of the destruction of our environment and disrespect to our religious beliefs.”

Government’s justification

Sikkim government officials say the new power projects will bring development to the remote and scarcely populated state and prosperity to the people.

Namgyal Tshering Bhutia, secretary of Sikkim’s Energy and Power Department, claimed that the government has the support of some Gram Sabhas (elected village committees). “Some sections of people are in support of the power project and we are hopeful that all will agree in the end,” Bhutia said.

Lepchas say that their religious beliefs are at the core of their opposition to the power projects in Dzongu. “Dzongu is the place where our race (Lepcha) was created and Khangchendzonga is our mother mountain where our souls ultimately get salvation,” said Sonam Lepcha, a farmer in Dzongu.

“Our religious belief is that our souls, following our death, are taken to Khangchendzonga along the Rongyo (River Teesta). And they are telling us that they are constructing the project on this river,” Sonam told thethirdpole.net.

The environment is also under threat, says Sonam: “What is going to happen to fish and other small creatures when they divert the river?”

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