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Gangtok: For the past 15 years, the people of Dzongu, North Sikkim, have opposed the dam construction on River Teesta.

The indigenous Lepcha tribe who live in Dzongu have long argued, protested and staged a 915-day hunger strike, fearing that their native village would be submerged after the dam construction.

The hunger strike and protest in Gangtok and Dzongu started around 2004 and went on until 2009.

There are two dam constructions that they oppose: the construction of 520 megawatts Teesta Stage Four Project of the NHPC on River Teesta and the 280 megawatt Panam Hydro Project upon Dzongu’s native Rongyoung River.

North Sikkim already houses Teesta Stage Three in Chungthang and Stage Five in Dikchu, further downhill from Dzongu. There are multiple stages run by the NHPC on Teesta in Sikkim and North Bengal.

The Panam project was supposed to be finished in 2015 but was stopped due to financial constraints. Now, the NHPC has proposed to take over the Panam Project along with Stage IV, which they initiated around 2010.

For over 15 years, the people of Dzongu and various others have come together as ‘Affected Citizens of Teesta’, leading to this defiance. Even as all other frontiers were compromised, people in Dzongu have asserted ‘No More Dams’ or ‘No Dams in Dzongu’. More importantly, they fight for the ‘last 11 km free-flowing Teesta stretch in Dzongu as river sanctuary.’

The Lepchas of Dzongu in North Sikkim reignited their protest against the proposed mega hydropower projects in Dzongu earlier this week.

Hundreds gathered at Namprikdang, the confluence of rivers Teesta and Rongyong Chu in Dzongu, to demonstrate their strong opposition against the two dams, both in Upper Dzongu.

Bongthings, the Lepcha priests, also performed rituals at the riverbank of Teesta, seeking blessings to help them “save Teesta.”

Also Read: A Sikkim tribe trying to save ‘paradise’ from woes of development

The Affected Citizens of Teesta (ACT), an apolitical body, stated that with the setting up of the Teesta Stage-IV and Panan projects in Upper Dzongu, allotted to National Hydro Power Corporation (NHPC), they are concerned the hydropower projects at Dzongu would destroy the rich Himalayan ecosystem and the cultural heritage of the Lepcha community who worship nature.

Gyatso Lepcha, general secretary, ACT, addressed the gathering in Namprikdang, saying, “The State government had during the SDF rule declared Dzongu as indigenous Lepcha habitat and natural habitat for butterflies and wildlife. We are still unable to understand why the government, after declaring Dzongu has a natural and indigenous habitat, is building tunnels. Eight gram panchayats have rejected, so it is clear that at least on the Dzongu side, the affected GPUs are against the project. There is word being spread that the project will bring economic development, but it’s been 13 years since the compensation for the Panam project was provided. We haven’t seen a single family benefit from the project.”

The locals had believed that things would change under the new Prem Singh Golay-led Sikkim Krantikari Morcha government. However, a sitting Zilla Panchayat, Samroo Ugen from Hee Gyathang in Lower Dzongu, stated, “The ruling party made all the tall promises before 2019 elections and even came with a song ‘Teesta, Rangeet; Nadi, khola’. Now, they are blaming the previous government and doing nothing. If you intend to Save Dzongu, you will have to say no even to Mintokgang (official residence of Chief Minister). They are roaming around us. But we will have to tell them no. The government can bring any other developmental projects we will support but hydel projects, not just NHPC, we do not need inside Dzongu.”

The ACT also appealed to the government to declare the last free-flowing stretch of Teesta in Dzongu as a river sanctuary.

“In countries like New Zealand, rivers have been granted the same legal rights as a person. Even if we cannot give the rivers a human status, why can’t we at least declare this stretch of river as a sanctuary?” asked a member of the ACT.

It is important to point out that the area falls in the Kanchenjunga National Park, a UNESCO world heritage site.

The ACT members acknowledged how State Forest minister Karma Loday Bhutia recently asserted that the biodiversity in North Sikkim was in danger because of defence projects and hydro projects. “This is the government openly accepting that hydropower is affecting biodiversity. We welcome the Forest minister’s statement, and at the same time, we want to remind the government that their statement will contradict if Stage-IV is implemented.”

The locals blamed the state government for not being serious on the issue of dams in Dzongu and expressed dismay over the divide-and-rule tactics of the SKM government in resolving the issue.

“It’s no more a Dzongu issue but a Sikkim issue. No means no, no more dam”, shared another ACT member while claiming, “The pro-dam lobby is spreading propaganda that compensation for Teesta Stage-IV will be distributed soon.”

“We also approached the Ministry of Environment in 2018, where we have submitted all these reports. The Sikkim government still has not been able to reply to the ministry in this regard. The Government of Sikkim should stop these illegal practices. Teesta is slowly disappearing through tunnels; it is time to reflect. There are already 15-16 dams in Sikkim, and we have not heard a single success story. Everyone affected by dams is suffering,” stated another Dzongu resident.

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