Tseten Tashi Bhutia, the Convenor of the Sikkim Bhutia Lepcha Apex Committee (SIBLAC) and a member of the National Minority Commission of India has requested a detailed inquiry by the Central Bureau of Investigation and the National Committee of Dam Safety regarding the failure of the Teesta Dam Project in Sikkim.
Bhutia, in his letter, said both present and past governments have shown a complete lack of interest in preventing and saving human lives and property in the state. “The previous government implemented the project in utter disregard to the scientific studies which had warned the dangers of this kind of project. In spite of the protest by local people, the government went ahead and built this project,” he said in his letter.
Bhutia pointed out that multiple government agencies and scientific expeditions red-flagged the vulnerability of Lhonak Lake in North Sikkim to a glacial lake outburst flood (GLOF) at least a decade ago.
“The present government also showed no interest in preventing any disaster predicted by various agencies. In September this year, officials…..conducted another inspection at the lake to install an early warning system and automatic weather station. Early warning sensors were installed in 2013 and 2016, and even last month at the critical glacial lakes in Sikkim, but none survived long enough to forewarn residents downstream,” he pointed out.
Bhutia also said that the current government’s allegations that the previous government’s work was substandard “does not hold any water”.
“It was well known that the previous government had implemented the project ignoring several rules regarding construction norms. The Teesta III project has been referred to as a failed project on numerous counts, including lack of infrastructure for transmission lines, massive cost overruns, and failure of states to purchase power as per agreed Power Purchasing Agreements.
“Indeed, the All India Power Engineers Federation (AIPEF) classified the Teesta-III power project as a failed public-private partnership since it is selling electricity at a discounted rate in the open market, as against the contracted rate. There were numerous financial irregularities connected with the project. But the interesting part is Glenco, the private company with the backing of major private equity funds, Goldman Sachs etc withdrew from the project, possibly because of seeing no prospect from the project…one needs to find an answer why a local Government with limited resources is forced to doll out Rs 4000 crore when its annual budget is much lesser to the amount,” the letter said.
According to Bhutia, the SKM, in their election manifesto, had promised to look into these irregularities “but once they came into power, they forgot all of these promises and instead started making money from this project by illegal means. The allegation now being made that the work was substandard could have been investigated when they came to power. The promise of a CBI investigation was forgotten once they realised that the project was a money-minting opportunity.”
Bhutia also delved deeply into the Dam Safety Act (DSA) in his letter and pointed out that under the Act, there are several specific obligations upon dam owners.
“The safety norms were either neglected or were not followed as per standard DSA guidelines. A part of the devastation can be attributed to dam authorities who did not comply with DSA and NDMA’s Oct 2015 guidelines for water release from the dam and lack of early warning systems.
“The government should investigate if relevant provisions under DSA like setting up of an early warning system, water release guidelines, setting up of control rooms, reservoir maintenance, emergency action plan and better communication between dam sites and powerhouses, are being implemented on the ground,” Bhutia said.
He pointed out that the DSA also envisages a situation where an offence is committed by a government department or is committed in connivance or with the consent of or can be attributed to the neglect of the government department.
“In such cases, either the head of the department or a person specifically held responsible for the same can be punished. If SDSO itself is found lacking, will anyone take action against them and fix accountability? No court can take cognizance of any offence punishable under this Act, except on a complaint made by the central government or the state government or a person authorised by the National Committee or the Authority or the State Committee or the State Dam Safety Organisation, as the case may be. Thus, to fix responsibility of the system is very tough but dam owners can surely be taken to task,” he said.
“The chain of events leading to the disaster clearly shows the failure and indifference of the State Government in preventing loss of lives and property. As reported, an ITBP jawan near the lake alerted the Commandant in Gangtok that the water was rising very fast at 10.30 pm and simultaneously the message was passed to the local government by 10.40 pm.
“The Chief Minister who was in Mangan the same day also received the message as per his press conference but instead of directing all the district officials to take immediate action for the coming disaster, he left for Gangtok at 11 pm without giving any orders. If timely directions were given many lives could have been saved. Since the government had no action plan the impact of the flood has multiplied.
“There was no help available to the flood victims long after the flood hit the river belt areas. The State Disaster Management did not respond immediately since they were not prepared and not equipped. There were no first response teams on the ground due to poor manpower management by the disaster management team of the government. The state waited for the NDRF team from the centre which arrived very late. There was no rescue plan for workers trapped in the tunnel which led to loss of lives. The only relief aid to the victims was by the police, NGOs, different associations and public volunteers. The government has no long-term plan for relief and relocation of displaced victims and also for development of wiped out areas,” the letter said.
“The government needs to be charged for criminal negligence leading to the death of so many people. Teesta Urja must answer why this kind of negligence was ignored and why no effort was immediately made to rescue the workers trapped in the tunnel. The Chief Minister, presently accusing the previous government of building a substandard dam, must explain why he invested crores of public money taken on loan to buy shares of this hydel project if he believed it was substandard. He also needs to explain how the loan taken for this project will be repaid. The government must clarify if the project was insured and for what amount and for what reasons,” he added.
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