Gangtok: Sikkim is a hub of natural resource, but that’s not just it. The Himalayan state also boasts of several power plants across its two major rivers, and strives as a major hydroelectric supplier of the country. But this has come at a cost.
Huge dams across its two major rivers — Rangeet and Teesta — have triggered protests over environmental damage over the years, but the government has turned a deaf ear to the issue.
As if that was not eough, now, consider this. A village — Tumin-Barang under the Tumin Lingee constituency of South Sikkim district — is reeling under a ‘towering’ crisis, quite literally.
Two transmission towers — marked tower no. 56 and 56/1 — supporting high-tension wires from Teesta Urja Ltd’s 1,200 MW Teesta-III hydroelectric plant and Sneha Kinetic Power Projects Pvt Ltd’s hydro electric power project pass through the village.
These towers are posing a serious problem to residents over their height which are, at places, precariously close, and this leads to a surge of electricity in and around the area.
Height of electricity
The height of the towers may have been as per the norms laid out by the authorities concerned but with the uneven topography of the hills, at many places, residents claim they are precariously close. Across the alternative walkway, the height of the tower is so close that a surge of electricity can be felt by an average adult. The surge is even felt in the fields is what most of the villagers claimed.
“If we were to walk through the alternative road with an umbrella, the electric current would pass through the umbrella. The distance between the field and the high tension-wires doesn’t exceed beyond 30 feet. We are forced to close our umbrellas when we commute through that particular area to avoid being electrocuted. Much worse, if it’s a rainy day and we are covered in raincoats as an alternative, the electric surge is even felt in the raincoats,” said a villager.
Earlier, the management had surveyed the land and proposed excavation of a few points where such surge of electricity was being faced, but the same has still not been carried out so far. This is despite the assurance that electricity would not be flown through the wires until the excavation of the lands was done, informed another villager.
Walking the talk
Before the wires were even laid out, the first major issue to affect the village was the walkway or ‘Mul Bato’ which served as a lifeline between villages of the constituency. The walkway, made out of concrete, was broken during the construction of the tower when workers were ferrying the iron rods used in them. Now, nothing remains of the concrete walkway, which has now been converted into a village drain, as a source of letting out water from nearby agricultural fields during the monsoon season. The previous drainage system was also destroyed during the construction.
“The importance of the walkway is paramount for our villagers as this used to be the main connectivity between the villages largely because it connects higher hills with the river. In the old days, it was used to take dead bodies to the river for cremation. Today, it serves as the walkway for students but with the amount of slush flowing through with what has now been converted as a drain, commuting through the walkway during the monsoons remains largely impossible,” said a villager.
Elsewhere, with the main walkway being destroyed the villagers, mostly students, have to take an alternative route from the other side of the village, which has been marred by the surge of electricity with the high tension wires being very close to the other walkway.
Since 2012, the issue concerning the walkway has been presented by the villagers to the company in contention as well as others such as local legislator and former tourism minister Ugyen T Gyatso, besides East Sikkim district magistrate Kapil Meena, but nothing has happened so far, villagers lamented.
The ground reality
The towers were constructed in 2011 and the villagers have been highlighting the issue ever since. However, it never mainstream press untill a local resident was allegedly electrocuted in Selebung, during the monsoon of 2018. Even then, the matter was quickly burried by the locals allegedly due to political pressure.
A year later, EastMojo revisited the constituency upon the request of villagers, this time further inward in the village of Tumin-Barang where the locals complained of the high-tension wires being too low as against the hilltops. The adverse effects of the high-tension wires have affected the locals who demand either evacuation or proper fencing as protection before “another life is lost over the development of the nation”.
Child development services hit
With the main walkway being destroyed and the alternative route being marred by the surge of electricity, Barang’s Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) which used to house seven students from the village had to be shut down. The shutdown was carried out by the villagers after due consultation as they feared the electric surge would affect the children even more. The ICDS currently functions from a room in Barang primary school which was granted by the school as an alternative.
ICDS, which is part of the national scheme and maintained by the state social welfare department, has remained shut for over a year. “The ICDS, which caters to students from as far as Ratey Tar in the constituency, was shifted on a temporary basis to the school nearby, but the same temporary shift has also exceeded a year now. Despite it being part of the national scheme, no competent authority has bothered to reopen the centre. We must thank the school for lending us a classroom with seven students currently studying. We must stay safe and keep everyone safe. With that intention, we relocated the students to the primary school,” said the ICDS teacher of the village.
Yet again, the villagers took up the matter with the HR department concerned along with the local MLA, the district magistrate and even the company management to relocate the ICDS to a new location but no action has been taken so far. In a similar incident, across the hills in Chadey village, the high-tension wires traverse across the walkway and the school nearby has been facing similar issues, informed the locals.
Miscarriages on rise
A woman in the village also cited that there have been a few instances of miscarriages that have happened among women in the village, which they feared could have been triggered by the electric surge.
“When the high-tension wires were laid out, many pregnant women in the area faced problems, even I had an issue wherein the doctors declared my baby was not healthy forcing me to undergo abortion. The doctors did mention that the foetus was not particularly healthy, he couldn’t be sure about the case but when many prompted of similar incidents happening from our same village, we feel the surge of electricity from the high tension wire, is somewhere to be blamed. There have been similar cases with other women. A woman here had to lose her newborn, who was just 21 days old. These women have faced issues even during the delivery”, said a woman from the village.
Hill slopes and mudslides
Hill slopes and the rains in Sikkim trigger landslides round the year. With regards to Tumin-Barang, a landslide occurred during the monsoon of 2013 at the base of tower 56. Locals feared the construction was not done in a proper manner along with the weight of the towers and the subsequent flow of rainwater from the destroyed walkway. The result was a landslide which still has not been properly walled by the company with fears of the tower collapsing and the high tension wires falling upon the village.
“The walling for the same was awarded to the local at a cost of Rs 400 per day as a carriage charge, but with the money not being distributed, the local contractor abandoned the work incompletely. There was slide from above which swept away most of the cultivable field downhill. The contractor appointed few locals at Rs 400 per day for the construction, as the company had promised him to double the amount. It was the cost of head loading from the roadside, but since 2013, the contractor has not been given any money,” a local alleged.
“The tower’s base is in a dreaded condition with water seeping through it, it is certain that the base is weak now. They didn’t even provide us proper materials for construction. The company has not taken into account the effect it will have on the people living downhill. They must construct the base in a proper manner,” informed another local.
A transformer near the tower has also been affected, as there is no electricity in the villages downhill. The electricity comes for a few hours, and then it has to be readjusted as there is more flow of current from the high-tension wire, affecting the transformer, informed the locals.
Fallowed land and lost agriculture
It’s human nature, when there is a possibility for some agricultural growth to happen, the villagers will take up cultivation but who will be responsible if some accidents take place, questioned locals.
“With the high tension wire, we have been evicted from our land. In the future, we could have constructed houses or undertaken agricultural cultivation. Agricultural cultivation used to be carried out upon the fields from paddy to maize to even vegetables, now the land remains fallow. There is no future in these lands now. In terms of compensation, they gave us only for the trees,” shared another aggrieved villager.
Full compensation is the only solution and we have placed our grievances time and again, claiming that the lives of the people are in threat. We urged the previous government to come and visit the place on their own, but that never happened. The then local MLA Ugyen T Gyatso allegedly never bothered to listen to the grievances or to come to visit the spot.
Housing and earthing issues
The intensity of electricity flowing even caused issues with electronic equipment in nearby houses with televisions, mobile phones and bulbs exploding. The roofs of the house used to have a huge surge of electricity and a few incidents of short circuit were also reported by the residents. The solution meted by the company after frequent complaints by the villagers to the company and the district magistrate, the company opted to set up earthing systems for the houses but the villagers complain that the same has not been done in a proper manner.
“When the company came by to do the earthing, they merely put up a stick of a rod on ground claiming the same to be earthing which has been placed three feet deep in the ground. There are no chemicals included, just a mere rod being placed. The wire has been connected to the roof of the house. The carelessness with the wires is so terrible that naked wires have been left. If the wire is somehow untangled, the surge will emit towards the ground. If the earthing is removed, then the roof of the house will get the surge of electricity. The removal of tin roofs will not be carried out by the construction workers,” said Bir Bahadur Chettri, a local.
The company even brought a land surveyor to the house of Chettri and noted that the distance from wires to the house to be merely seven metres. “When we didn’t allow the company to carry out their work, they issued a notice which was addressed to the buildings department. I had to pay an extra Rs 20,000 just to get the paper from the concerned department. The district administrative centre in Gangtok told us that those that are close to the high tension wire will not get compensation,” he added.
When some of the villagers refused to give permission for the lines to be crossed through their villages, the company brought a land surveyor and allegedly made a fake bill. “They assured of a different house at a different location but once the high tension wires were laid, they refused relocation claiming that they are unaware who gave away the land for relocation and also returned the documents. They refused to relocate me any further,” added Chettri.
On the compensation that the villagers were supposed to get, there is no valid information available. “Those that could bargain got more, those that didn’t got less. The only compensation that I received was Rs 8 lakh for the land, a meagre amount in comparison to others who got Rs 20-30 lakh,” added Chettri.
The villagers have long argued with the company, the local MLA and the district magistrate concerned, that evacuation seems to be the only solution. “There is no future for these lands, they discarded the public grievances and were unable to bring any of their relief work in practice. We wanted the company to make full payment for these lands and help us in evacuating ourselves from this place. Fencing should have been done to the land. They could have concealed the wires, such that the surge would not be felt. The current height could be no higher than 15 feet, but despite the height being 30-40 feet, we are inviting death until the wires are concealed. Rubber concealment could be a solution in some way,” said another aggrieved villager.
The villagers asserted that they are not against the development of the nation, but are only looking to find a solution. “The big damage is to those with smaller dwellings and lands, the person will be curtailed from construction and cultivation throughout his lifetime. The land must be fully compensated and evacuated in such cases. It’s a human instinct as a farmer that we will search for fodder for our cattle, but a proper fencing of such areas with electric surge must be done. A minimum distance of 20 metres must be kept from housing and cultivable lands against the high tension wires. That can either be given to the company or declared as forest land and accordingly, evacuation of the people. If a house falls on the way of high tension wires, then they must be evacuated and given an alternative house elsewhere,” said another villager.
They further claimed that they have been cooperating with the government, including the national as well as with the power supplying companies. “We would have demolished the high-tension wire posts before or not even allowed the construction to happen. We want development but not at the expense of the people. The power minister and the new government must give us justice that is what have been the hopes of the people. The previous government and the current area MLA Ugyen T Gyatso who served as a tourism minister visited the place in 2018, but took no action despite knowing of the situation.”
State power department’s stand
Upon inquiry by EastMojo with the state energy and power department, the principal chief engineer (PCE) Rodan Thapa claimed he was unaware of the gravity of the situation. However, he claimed that the public have requested for a re-survey of the area within the boundaries of state and for the same, intervention will be made by the Central Electricity Authority (CEA).
“A team of CEA will be visiting the state from Delhi soon, who will be providing the technical specification and electrical configuration. We had a meeting in Siliguri recently, as Sikkim falls under the eastern constituency of the CEA with West Bengal, Orissa and Bihar being other member states. The line from Teesta III Hydro Electric Plant reaches Kishanganj in Bihar with the wires being laid by Teesta Valley Power Transmission Limited. We can control what is intra-state but not an affair that is inter-state which is handled by central electricity regulatory council,” Thapa said.
He asserted that the discussion with the public will be vague but claimed that they have been receiving complaints from other parts of the state as well, including Salghari in South Sikkim.
“We will be conducting a re-survey right from the starting point to the end of Sikkim border where these high tensions wires are being hung. If there is any rectification to be made, they will have to redo it or do what is necessary for the safety of the public. We received one report from Lower Tumin, which was of a lightning strike which damaged many houses last year or the year before. We gave away compensation worth Rs 26 lakh which was distributed by the concerned panchayats in the region. After that there was no complaint despite there being an NHPC line, power line and even Sneha Kinetic in the lower regions along with the high tension wires,” Thapa said.
The PCE further claimed that following the incident of lightning, the engineers under the department carried out some form of work with regards to the transmission. “Either there was an underground or concealment of the wires, but action for the safety of the general public was carried out. The height is enough, but during rainy season or due to high-voltage surge or some accident like obstruction on the high tension wire, through that it conducts. All the lines that are very near have been shifted while the transmission from the power plant to the wires is subdued by about four times.”
The PCE discarded the fact that an electricity surge could trigger a miscarriage among women, while a local paediatrician held a similar opinion.