A total of 256 families will be affected by the project Credit: Soumik Dutta

Type ‘hydropower’ in your news feed and chances are your search results will show at least one story about some human displacement too. One can go on talking about the advantages of hydroelectric energy, and there are many. But the truth is that India, and especially the Northeast, has its fair share of controversial hydel projects. From Assam to Arunachal and Manipur to Sikkim, every state has some controversy around the hydel projects.

In Sikkim, the clash between people and ‘development’ is threatening the people, ecology, and a culture that is both ancient and valued.

Even as the world struggled with the ongoing pandemic, the remote and tranquil Dzongu valley in North Sikkim resonated with strong protests against an issue that dates back over a decade. And at the centre of the protest is the proposed 520 MW (MegaWatt) hydropower project developed by the state-owned National Hydro Power Corporation (NHPC).

From social media to local news media, and even national media to a certain extent, the local struggles have received coverage, but the same has not translated into any meaningful action. The tribes from Dzongu have been very vocal in protecting their ancestral land from what they see as an onslaught of hydropower projects and dams since 2007. As mentioned earlier, the protests go back more than a decade. But this year, it was the SIA (Social Impact Assessment) report for the Teesta Stage IV evaluation expert group that was notified by the Land Revenue & Disaster Management department of the Sikkim Government, which triggered strong protests from the Affected Citizens of Teesta (ACT) and the Save Dzongu groups, both NGOs representing the locals.

Teesta IV, in short, attempts to dam the last stretch of the free-flowing River Teesta. It has been severely dammed in its brief journey of about 175 km from its glacial source in North Sikkim’s cold desert, through its journey in Sikkim. The Teesta flows through Sikkim and West Bengal before finally pouring into the Bay of Bengal in Bangladesh.

The expert group evaluated the SIA report and submitted their recommendations to the government within two months. This notification has come despite an ongoing writ petition challenging the SIA report in question.

Speaking to EastMojo, Gyatso Lepcha, general secretary of ACT, said, “We were waiting for the government to announce the scrapping of Teesta Stage IV, but this notification seems to reflect that they are in no mood to do so.” However, Lepcha remains optimistic, given that the project was unanimously rejected by the Lepcha community of Dzongu, the elected Gram Panchayats (village councils) of Dzongu, and the fact that Stage II Forest Clearance (FC) is still due even as the litigations in the High Court and Supreme Court are still alive.

The concerns of the local community are understandable. The Teesta Stage V dam, built by the same NHPC, suffered extensive damage due to a massive landslide in June this year. The entire region is classified as Seismic Zone IV.

And, it is important to note that the government of Sikkim has drawn flak from the national board of wildlife (NBWL) for the blatant violation of the environmental norms. The Sikkim government also violated the Supreme Court’s standing order over the implementation of several hydropower projects under different stages of construction.

This is one of the reasons why Dzongu resident Sonam Gyatso, a former SDF legislator and also the former power minister, feels so strongly against the protest. “Development has to be sustainable. This large dam will destroy the heritage and sanctity of Dzongu, the cradle of Lepcha religion, culture, and tradition. We already have Teesta III and Teesta V, we do not need to stop the last free-flowing stretch of our Teesta, we need to be united and strong in seeing this to the end, otherwise, vested interests will gain,” Gyatso warned.

Former MLA and convenor of the Sikkim Bhutia-Lepcha Apex Committee, Tseten Tashi Bhutia concurred with Gyatso. “We have been protesting against the cultural and religious genocide being committed by the Sikkim government in the name of developing hydropower and severely degrading the environment. The new government is also toeing the line of the previous regime. They are yet to make any bold decisions.”

Why is the Teesta IV hydropower project so controversial?

In 2002, the Sikkim Power Development Corporation Limited (SPDC) had issued a Letter of Intent (LOI) in August 2002 to the consortium of M/s Amalgamated Transpower India Limited (ATPIL) and Karnataka Power Corporation Limited (KPCL), for drawing up an agreement for the development of two projects, Teesta Stage IV (495 MW) and Teesta Stage VI (440 MW).

The Stage IV project was subsequently awarded to NHPC in March 2006. As on August 31, the Central Electricity Authority (CEA) of the Ministry of Power stated that it concurred Teesta Stage IV, but no construction activity took place.

Initially, the project was for 495 MW capacity, but it was subsequently revised and enhanced to 520 MW due amendments intimated to the CEA. It is a run-of-the-river hydropower scheme, envisioned as a part of a cascade development of hydropower projects on Teesta River. The project was ultimately accorded the Environmental Clearance (EC) by the MoEFCC on January 9, 2014. However, it has not been able to start construction yet due to non-availability of the Forest Clearance (FC)-II.

The MoEFCC subsequently issued a letter to NHPC on August 8, 2017, seeking additional details for the FC-II, which is still due. The letter added that the MoA signed between the NHPC and the Sikkim government would be amended.

Sahadev Khatua, NHPC’s general manager-in-charge for the Teesta IV project told EastMojo of the company’s commitment to develop the project and deliver the promised benefits, including R&R facilities, as per norms.

“There are delays in obtaining FC-II clearance for the project because of the three remaining gram panchayats not consenting for the project as well as the ongoing High Court litigations and protests,” Khatua said.

Apart from the 12% free power from the project, which as per the MoA is entitled to the Sikkim Government, the balance power is to be sold to the eastern states through six power purchase agreements (PPAs), out of which three have been signed, while the rest are at a discussion stage.

A total of 324.07 hectares (ha) of land is required for the project, out of which 180.58 ha is private land, while 143.49 ha is forest land, total submergence of land is 105.37 ha.

A total of 256 families will be affected by the project. As per the MoA, the project is to be built on a build-own-operate-maintain (BOOM) basis, which means the land and project is vested with NHPC during the entire life of the project.

Interestingly, Teesta IV is not the only controversial project in the region. The Panan hydropower project is the other ongoing controversial project meant for Dzongu.

The Panan project, according to the Project Design Document (PDD), affects 77 families and has acquired 35.933 ha of private land and about 5 ha of forest land. It has obtained FC Stage I and II, EC, and a report on geology and GLOF as sought by the CEA.

More than half of Dzongu, especially the upper region, is inside the Khangchendzonga National Park (KNP) and Biosphere Reserve. The dam site of the Panan project is within a few kilometres of KNP. About 4,005 ha of the biosphere reserve is being offered to the company as the ‘catchment area’, including portions of the core zone of the KNP.

Vulnerable, not defeated: Resilience & history of Lepchas

These projects and their potential impact have meant that for the past two decades, the locals have been on the edge about their future.

The Dzongu area in Sikkim is traditionally known as Myal Lyang or paradise in Lepcha language. It came to be also known as Beyul Demazong in Bhutia language, meaning ‘land of sacred and secret treasures’.

Lepchas are recognised as a Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Group (PVTG) and protected within the Dzongu community reserve under provisions of the erstwhile Royal Proclamation of the Chogyal (King) of Sikkim, and currently Article 371(f) of the Indian Constitution. Even people from other parts of Sikkim need special permits to enter Dzongu valley.

The Khangchendzonga National Park and the Biosphere Reserve, also a UNESCO world-heritage site, are within a 10 km radius from Dzongu.

The hydropower boom in Sikkim, however, started during the reign of former Chief Minister Pawan Chamling under his Sikkim Democratic Front (SDF) party in 2000. The development of projects like a cascade on River Teesta, including Teesta Stage IV, was conceived and sanctioned during his tenure.

The Lepchas, under the banner of ACT and Save Dzongu, were the first to start a relay hunger strike in Gangtok back in June 2007 against projects in Dzongu. The protests received widespread support from Buddhist monks, environmentalists and social organisations from across the region. The then government was forced to negotiate with the protestors, assuring a relook into the controversial projects. The Gandhian Satyagraha was withdrawn after more than two years on September 27, 2009. The opposition, however, is far from over, since even after 11 years, the issue remains unresolved.

The Sikkim government’s stand

Sikkim government officials say the new power projects will bring development to the remote and the scarcely-populated Dzongu region, and prosperity to the people, apart from revenue out of the 12% free power to be given to Sikkim as per the MoA.

In the run-up to the elections of 2019, a petition submitted to the Sikkim Krantikari Morcha party (SKM) president P S Tamang (the present Chief Minister of Sikkim), and then Legislative Assembly members (MLAs) Kunga Nima Lepcha and Sonam Lama (both are now senior cabinet ministers); the leaders had promised to scrap the project after coming to power.

However, the SKM party, which managed to topple Chamling’s SDF in the 2019 elections on the corruption plank, is yet to deliver on its pre-poll promise to scrap projects in Dzongu region, particularly Teesta Stage IV and the Panan 300 MW.

During a meeting with Sikkim Chief Minister Tamang, RK Singh, India’s Minister of State for Power and New & Renewable Energy (IC), while assuring all possible support for the development of power and renewable energy sector in Sikkim, requested the support of the Sikkim Government for various hydro projects under implementation by various central public sector undertakings.

Several attempts by this correspondent to solicit a response on the controversial project and their earlier assurances could not be obtained either from the Chief Minister’s Office, the SKM party spokesperson or from MLAs Kunga Nima Lepcha and Sonam Lama.

Sikkim Power Minister M N Sherpa, too, was unavailable for comments over phone.

A legal expert, on the condition of anonymity, said the Teesta Stage IV, as well as the controversial Panan projects, could still be scrapped by the state government if it feels the damage caused to the environment and the fragile social, cultural and religious sentiments of indigenous Lepchas is serious and far outweighs the benefits.

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