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When Gods’ Abode Dissented: Mantam Landslide in North Sikkim

Ugen Bhutia (bhutiaups@gmail.com), Kachyo Lepcha (lepchakachyo@gmail.com) and E K Santha (eksantha@gmail.com) are research scholars at the Department of History, Sikkim University, Gangtok.

When the people’s representatives failed to understand the implications of large projects in the highly seismic and fragile young Himalayan mountain ranges, and failed to act, people took the task upon themselves. The street became the metaphor and several anti-dam movements ensued. However, the resistance is waning in the political discourse of Sikkim.

 


Photo credit: Gyatso Lepcha

Landslides in Sikkim do not make news. It is a routine affair, especially during the monsoon season.  But the recent massive landslide occurred near Mantam village, Passingdong division of the Dzongu region in Sikkim on 13 August 2016 cannot be ignored.  The ecological damages are yet to be ascertained. Fortunately this region is sparingly populated, and hence, no human loss was reported.

 

According to the report on the website of National Remote Sensing Centre,[1] “five houses were damaged, 300 metres of road was washed away and nine villages were completely cut off from other villages”. It has caused irreversible damage to the agricultural land in the area. The intensity of the landslide was so high that, the report continues, “the debris from the landslide had blocked the flow of the Kanka river (locally known as Rangyoung), which is one of the main tributaries of Teesta river. The water impoundment has resulted in the formation of an artificial lake, north of the Mantam village”. And a dam was created on the Rangyoung river. The Mantam village which bore the brunt of the disaster is no more; hence, in situ rehabilitation is out of question.

 

 People in Singtam and Teesta Bazar had to be evicted owing to the threat of breakdown of the newly-built dam.. The amount of water collected in the dam had the capacity to submerge the whole area. In addition, it would have increased the pressure on the 96 MW Dikchu hydroelectric dam in North Sikkim. The implications of this disaster are huge, considering the topography of this region. Fortunately, the water receded and thus a huge tragedy was averted.

 

The Dzongu disaster cannot be treated in isolation; it should be taken in the larger context of the unwarranted human meddling with nature. In other words, it is politically incorrect to prefix these catastrophes natural.  Gyatso Lepcha, one of the leaders of the movement called Affected Citizens of Teesta (ACT),[2] wrote on Facebook:   

 

Our Mountains are slowly giving up to our greed … the biggest worry is that the upstream Rongyoung river has been blocked and a natural reservoir has been formed, similar to a dam reservoir and it looks so huge hopefully it will not burst…We had been telling for ages that do not bulldoze our nature that we worship as God; should not bulldoze it with unnecessary development activities. Our deities have started responding now.[3]

 

Dzongu, the Abode of Gods

Dzongu is perhaps one of the most peaceful areas on earth, a region without a police station. This biosphere reserve is a protected area, exclusively reserved for the Lepcha community since a royal proclamation of Chogyal (the king) declared it as Lepcha Reserve in 1958; it continued to be so after the merger of Sikkim with Indian Union in 1975.  The entry to Dzongu is restricted – one needs a permit, issued from the district headquarter, Mangan. The Lepchas are an indigenous community of Sikkim who are shamanistic (though some of them converted to Christianity or Buddhism and practice shamanism along with the new faith) and they regard land and nature sacrosanct. The Kanchenjunga mountain range, overlooking Dzongu, is the presiding deity of the Lepchas; they believe that it connects them from birth to death. They still maintain a strong community bond and urge to protect their shared culture and tradition from the onslaught of modernity.


Photo credit: Gyatso Lepcha

Dzongu was in the news for the first time when the government decided to construct seven dams across the Kanchenjunga national park and its peripheries as a part of a plan to build 26 hydroelectric projects across this tiny state. The educated–mostly first generation learners–from the region began a peaceful protest against this move in 2004. When the government refused to retract from its commitment towards the so-called development agenda, these young leaders formed a platform for resistance, that is, ACT in 2005 in Dzongu and Dawa Lepcha was elevated to its leadership soon.

 

Anti-dam Movement in Sikkim

ACT’s anti-dam movement was not the first of its kind in Sikkim. It began in 1994 in Yuksom,  West Sikkim, the first capital of Sikkim, when the government proposed to construct three dams (99 MW Ting Ting, 96 MW Lethang and 97 MW Tashiding) on the Rathong Chu. Then the actors were monks (Lamas) from the monasteries and the Bhutia community, who have a better social and economic say than the Lepchas. The primary reason for Lamas’ protest was on religious ground, but there were ecological concerns too. The age-old winter ceremony known as Bhumchu [4] conducted in the Tashiding monastery every year, attracts Buddhist pilgrims from all over Sikkim and neighbouring countries such as Bhutan and Nepal. The most important part of the ceremony is the distribution of holy water, taken from the Rathong Chu river, to the devotees. Hence, the Lamas demanded for the preservation of the sanctity of the river. Around 500 monks and commoners marched to Gangtok to protest against the proposal of the government in 1995. After a year-long wait, the Association of Buddhist Monks in Sikkim submitted a memorandum to the government. Subsequently, a joint writ petition by the Bhutia- Lepcha Association, the Tribal Women’s Association and the Association of Buddhist Monks of Sikkim was filed against the project in the Supreme Court[5]which was later transferred to the Sikkim High Court.[6] This was perhapsthe first time since the pro-democratic movement of 1970s, which resulted in the merger of Sikkim with Indian union in May 1975, that the state had witnessed a protest of this scale. This was also the time when Pawan Chamling, representing the Sikkim Democratic Front (SDF), had become chief minister of the state. 

 

However, the government’s inaction led to the formation of a new association – Concerned Citizens of Sikkim (CCS) – to make it an organised movement in May 1995. The protest movement of the CCS gained momentum with a hunger strike of a Lama for about a month and finally the government gave in. The proposal was suspended for the time being and a one-man commission was appointed under P S Ramakrishnan, a well-known ecologist by the government to look into the matter. In 1997, on the recommendations of the committee, the government scrapped two projects – Ting Ting and Lethang on the Rathong Chu. And the next controversy related to hydroelectric projects began in 2004 and this time it was the turn of ACT.

 

ACT’s Resistance

The ACT opposed the hydroelectric projects in Dzongu region mainly for two reasons – cultural and ecological. Ecologically, they argued that, huge hydroelectric projects were not viable in regions like Dzongu (as is the case in entire Sikkim), which is prone to landslides and earthquakes. There are well-recorded incidences of high seismic activities in the region. 

The second argument was that dam construction activities would lead to a huge influx of labourers from outside Sikkim for several years and this will have cultural implications on the lives of the Lepchas. Naturally, this movement was taking place exclusively in the region ofLepchas, and hence, was hardly getting any support from outside their community. When the movement was not going anywhere, the leaders of ACT decided to broaden their campaign beyond Dzongu. Eventually, they shifted its venue to Gangtok in May 2006, to popularise the movement as well as gather support from the other two prominent communities – Bhutia and Nepali – and a wider canvas was sought. This became a movement against major hydroelectric projects in Sikkim.

 

After ACT shifted its venue to the capital, Gangtok was swamped with political activities.  It organised a relay hunger strike in Gangtok, and the protracted resistance that began in Dzongu in 2004 gained momentum with the hunger strike of Dawa Lepcha in the capital in 2006.[7] From the beginning itself, the state government was too antagonistic to the Lepcha anti-dam movement and it projected it as anti-development. Pro-dam protests were organised to counter it. The government used all devices, from persuasion to coercion: denying government jobs to the activists (in Sikkim, the government is the biggest employer), house visits by local politicians to persuade the elders to influence the youth to refrain from the movement, and arbitrarily transferring family members of the activists who were in government services, etc. 

 

The government also went public, condemning these activists as anti-nationals. However, the movement gained momentum since March 2007 with hunger strikes and relay hunger strikes against the plunder of nature. The ACT managed to get some media attention, which is rare in the North East. All these brought the government to the negotiation table. ACT called off the hunger strike in September 2009 on the assurance of the government to scrap four projects –  Rangyoung 141 MW, Lingzya 120 MW, Ringpi 90 MW and Rukel 33 MW–out of the seven projects proposed on Teesta in Dzongu; four dams outside Dzongu were also scrapped.

 

The movement slowed down considerably since then. Some of the projects are in full swing, like the one in Chuntang, a small town in North Sikkim situated at the confluence of the Lachen and Lachung rivers. The whole Chuntang Bazar will be submerged once the dam became operative. The threat continues. But the resistance is waning. On closer look, a number of reasons surface.

 

Waning Resistance

Dawa Lepcha, the leader of the movement, had decided to expand the movement into electoral politics with the support he garnered over these years as an activist. He contested assembly elections from Dzongu, the very region where he began his activism, from the opposition platform, Sikkim Krantikari Morcha (SKM). The SKM was officially formed on 4 February 2013 by Prem Singh Golay, once a close aide of Chief Minister Chamling.  He resigned from the Sikkim Democratic Front (SDF), the ruling party in Sikkim since 1994 in 2013 and floated SKM. The SKM gained immensely in its first election in 2014, securing 10 seats in the 32-member assembly. Dawa Lepcha lost the election from Dzongu to SDF. That was a huge disappointment, personally as well as organisationally.

 

The democratic culture in the state is very parochial. Democracy is still in a developing stage, and protests or movements are practically unheard of in Sikkim. There were hardly any opposition parties in the state. Pawan Chamling has beaten the record of Jyoti Basu, the ex-chief minister of West Bengal in number of years in power. In the 2009 election, the SDF won all the 32 seats. But the 2014 elections brought some hope for an effective opposition, when the SKM won 10 out of 32 seats. However, soon the hope vanished, when seven out of the 10 legislators went back to the parent party, SDF. An element of political democracy is thus missing in Sikkim.

 

An important weakness of ACT was that it could not gather large mass support in the state. The first and foremost reason for this was that in the beginning, the movement was projected as a Lepcha exclusive movement and other communities thought that they have nothing to do with it. Dzongu, being Lepcha reserve area, where the movement began, also contributed to this misconception. The initial slogans of the leaders to protect the culture and tradition of the Lepchas were also misguided. The larger ecological concern did not get adequate attention. 

 

In several occasions, ACT honestly attempted to build a pan-Sikkim identity, rather than confine itself to an exclusive Lepcha movement, focusing on all the dams in the state. However, the Dzongu region always remained in centre stage. This gave an opportunity to the pro-dam lobby, (including the government) to project it as the movement of the Lepchas, only for the protection of Dzongu. This is not to say that the people from outside Dzongu did not sympathise with or participate in the movement, rather the point is that because of such an image, the movement could not take a mass character. It was restricted to the north of Sikkim, and to some extent, to the east as the capital is situated there. The south and west Sikkim largely remained out of its reach. In addition, the alienation was complete when ACT tried to garner support from the Lepchas residing outside Sikkim, especially in the Darjeeling district of West Bengal. Lepchas of Darjeeling even conducted a march to their magistrate’s office in Darjeeling to express their solidarity with ACT on 30 July 2007. But these cost ACT dearly. However, ACT did not vanish altogether; activities suffered greatly.

 

Here the most important matter is not about a particular movement. The larger issue is the protection of these young Himalayan ranges, which are highly seismic and vulnerable as well as fragile in various ways. For the ordinary people of Sikkim, nobody has to explain the meaning of these scientific terms; they have learned to live with occasional tremors. It does not make national news unless there is a big quake like the one that occurred on 18 September 2011. When the people’s representatives fail to understand the implications of the larger projects in this region, when they fail to act, then the people are the answer. Street is the metaphor! This aspect is missing from the political discourse of Sikkim now.  The impact of these massive landslips, deforestation and destruction of the river banks will not be restricted to this region alone. This is not rhetoric.      

 

 

 

 

[1] “Brief Report on ‘SoBhir’ Landslide on 13/08/2016 Near the Mantam Village, North Sikkim,” National Remote Sensing Centre, Indian Space Research Organisation, Government of India posted on 17 August, 2016; available at:  http://www.nrsc.gov.in/sites/all/pdf/Sikkim_Landslide_17_08_2016.pdf

[4] It is believed that “in the eight century Guru Rinpoche consecrated the Bhumchu, or the sacred vase, which is the very same one that is preserved today in Tashiding Monastery in West Sikkim”(Chewang Pintso Bhutia and Another vs State of Sikkim and Others:WP –C -No: S 22 and 23 of 2012).

[5] Chewang Pintso Bhutia and Another  vs State of Sikkim and Others: WP – C – Nos 101 and 102 of 2012.

[6] Chewang Pintso Bhutia and Another vs State of Sikkim and Others:WP –C -No: S 22 and 23 of 2012). 

 

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