Can the Movement Against Hydropower Projects in Sikkim be Reactivated?

The indigenous tribal community in Sikkim regard their land and the Rivers Teesta and Rangeet as sacred and integral to their civilisations heritage. However, the industrialisation efforts have not only displaced and marginalised this community from the development plans within their ecologically and culturally protected area. The need for grassroots protest and organisation against the construction of hydro-electrical dams along the river and in protected forest areas has recently been reinvigorated. 

Rivers are an integral part of the Sikkimmese ethos. Much of the folklore and traditions of locals revolve around the mighty Teesta and the Rangeet rivers. River Teesta not only sustains the livelihood of  locals by preserving and propagating the rich bio-diversity, but the river also forms the very backbone of Sikkim’s cultural heritage. The Lepchas regard the rivers’ source in the north as holy and believe it to be the cradle of their civilisation.  The river is home to varied ecological systems, inhabited by rich and diverse flora and fauna and therefore, it serves and protects many species of plants and animals. The Lepcha tribal and non-tribal villagers honour the “mighty Teesta River” with their songs and folklore during auspicious times. A number of written accounts and ballads refer to the rivers as the most secret rivers in Sikkim. 

In 1958[1], north Sikkim, especially the Dzongu area[2] was declared a restricted area, and the whole of the North District was declared a “protected area” by the erstwhile King of Sikkim. This special status was upheld by the Constitution as well, which became relevant to Sikkim ever since its formal accession to India in 1975. Notwithstanding tradition and the constitutional imperative, the Dzongu—which also falls within the restricted area of the Kanchendzonga Biosphere Reserve Area—has witnessed construction activities being allowed within this protected area. In this study we look at the subsequent socio-cultural and economic changes, experienced by the local population residing along Teesta in North Sikkim. 

History and Development

After independence, the capitalist model of creating large infrastructure industries with centralised hydro-electric projects prevailed in the development planning. It was in Nehru’s era that large dams were considered to be the “temples of modern India”; thus, making it difficult to raise doubts about the efficacy and propriety of such projects. Even those people who were affected did not dare to question their displacement and destitution. From the late 1970s onwards, after observing the aftermath of various “development” projects across India, various experts and common people, who were concerned about the environment and Sikkimese society, began challenging these projects at a number of levels.  

Projects have proved to be untenable and undesirable—ecologically, economically and socially. Such power projects have been operating in the state even before the accession to India took place in 1975. The first one came up in the year 1913, when a London-based company Burn and Company Limited and the Royal Sikkim Government decided to setup the project on the river Teesta, through a deed titled “Hydro Electricity Scheme[3].”  Basil John Gould was the political officer of Sikkim at that time. However, the project was not successful because of environmental and royalty issues.

Between 1990 and 2000, the state government and various companies began constructing large power projects in Sikkim. These projects were propagated to be low impact projects, since they were “run-of-the-river” projects— which have a small submergence area as compared to large storage dams. Nevertheless, run–of–the–river projects involve large-scale tunnelling and rock–blasting, both of which have severe social impacts on the entire project area and on the surrounding areas as well.  Proposed projects in the northern and eastern districts—  like the Teesta stage V plant with an installed capacity of 510 MW (Mega-Watt) at Dikchu, near the border, as well as the Teesta stage III and Teesta stage VI plants — are all situated where the population is predominantly Lepcha and Bhutia people. These two communities together, are the  indigenous minority population in comparison to the Nepali speaking communities who now constitute the majority of the Sikkimese population. Thus, it was out of question then to raise any objections to such projects because the state of Sikkim is seen by local activists, as the future  power–house of India, albeit at the cost of the indigenous people.  

Moreover, the justification given for proposing more than twenty dams in the tiny Himalayan state is that  it would generate revenue for the state and create employment for the unemployed youth. The argument is that the direct displacement of indigenous people is not significant. This ostensibly win–win situation has in fact, proved to be a myth and the common resources of  people like the forests, cultivable agricultural lands and water are now in the sole custody of the rich and well–heeled. This so called “development” has had a huge and detrimental impact on the environment and has resulted in a gross violation of human rights as the Teesta and Rangeet river and their other streams are the common property resource of the people.  

The Mass Movement 

After consolidating the struggle and declaring total opposition to the dam and their displacement, the villagers of Dzongu  began organising and mobilising themselves with full force. Village-level meetings and district-level coordination committees were formed. There were a number of activities including a dialogue march, with activists from many parts of the north district of Sikkim participating, towards the end of the decade. On 20 June 2007, one of the largest movements against hydropower projects in Sikkim was launched under the banner of Affected Citizens of Teesta (ACT) — which was supported by the Concerned Lepcha of Sikkim (CLOS) and the Sangha of Dzongu (SOD). 

In order to understand and contextualise the mechanism taking place today, this historical dimension has to be brought into fore. In India, the terms “indigenous people”, “tribes” or “tribal people” and “Scheduled Tribe” (ST), are often used interchangeably by locals, activists, administrators and scholars alike. There is a need to understand tribal urges and aspirations within the context of their regional milieu and as emanating from the overall framework of  outside intervention into their lives and into the resources base of  tribal areas—which has social and economic consequences. The tribes have their own social, cultural and political norms and systems; they have their own languages, rituals, mythology and their own literary and performance genres such as songs and myths— though now somewhat diluted and degenerate, there was once a strong tradition. People have been adapting to the socio-political changes in the outside world, according to their own conveniences and needs. There has been an autonomous evolution and to some degree some interactions with the new systems and lifestyles. However, the degeneration of tribal traditions has risen from the disintegration of the people’s lives and resources, brought about by the influence and intrusion of outside forces/and by displacement. 

At the state capital, ACT General Secretary Dawa Tshering Lepcha and CLOS Member Tenzing sat on an indefinite hunger strike. The hunger strikers announced that their protest would continue until all hydro projects proposed for Dzongu were scrapped, and others in north Sikkim reviewed. What ACT lacked was planning. There was no advance notice even to media persons about the hunger strike. The hunger strike was called off in 2009 and within three years of announcing the strike, eight projects were scrapped— four inside Dzongu and four outside. This was a successful moment, but ACT lacked publicity and in the public’s view ACT’s movement was unsuccessful. After September 2009, ACT has disappeared from the public’s mind although they are still vigorous.    

'Our land, their living space' 

Of all the issues identified by  indigenous peoples, in their worldview the question of land rights occupies centre-stage. All other issues, whether  related to the question of indigenous human rights or indigenous right to self-determination, are ineluctably linked to their most basic and fundamental right over land. The indigenous people believe that their right over land is “inalienable” and any attempt on the part of the central government to make them part with their land, would be strongly resisted. Such a move, if undertaken, they fear, would not only result in a “violation” of constitutional provisions—which provides them with “unfettered” and ”absolute” rights over the land— but may also endanger their survival as a people.  

After seven years, since the hunger strike was called off,  in mid-June 2016 ACT reactivated its movement and they have since, conducted workshops and several interactions and public meetings in different villages within the Dzongu area. The consequence is that the people of Dzongu are alert and are now boycotting the Gram Sabha. Officially the panchayat president wrote a letter to the block development office and block administrative centre, which was followed up by ten villages from lower Dzongu and ten from upper Dzongu  unanimously stated their opposition to the National Hydro Electrical Power Corporation’s plans to build the Teesta Stage IV plant. The Gram Sabha even rejected to form the forest right committee. The fact that the Gram Panchayat Unit (GPU) is the actual project component area is a big blow to the proprietor of the dam—as in the past, while activists were wholeheartedly against the building of the dam, most of the common people were for it. However this time around, the majority of people within the affected area at the level of the GPU, along with their panchayat, submitted a memorandum declaring their opposition to the construction project and their wholehearted support to ACT.  

ACT’s General Secretary Gyatso Lepcha extended his gratitude to the panchayats and to the public of Dzongu for standing to move towards the betterment of Dzongu. The ACT condemned the Forest Right Act’s sensitisation of the gram sabha, and ACT also demanded public hearings on the Environmental Management Plan of the Teesta Stage V plant in Dikchu, where NHPC has miserably and deliberately failed to keep its promises to the affected people. The ACT  stated that while the dam had divided us in the past now, the dam is uniting us. Approximately two hundred people from Dzongu submitted a memorandum to the district collector of north Sikkim, stating that it is not about benefiting but that it was for their survival and identity. Although the issue has seen many false starts towards reconciliation, the latest development holds the most hope. ACT has displayed a new resolve not to get distracted or fall for emotional reactions, which might distract them from the issues they pursue. 

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