Save Teesta – A fight to save the last free-flowing stretch

Save Teesta – A fight to save the last free-flowing stretch

Rising in the eastern Himalayas from one of the highest lakes in the world - Tso Lhamo Lake, an approximately 393 Km long river flowing through Sikkim and West Bengal, and through to Bangladesh to enter the Bay of Bengal is River Teesta. The river is a crucial part of the state, culturally extremely important to the people of Sikkim, revered as one of the deities of the land. Myths, legends, songs and fables of how the river has a soul have been passed down for many generations. The land itself holds caves, mountains, lakes and rivers that are objects of worship for the people of Sikkim, mainly the indigenous Lepcha people.

Before 1787, Teesta was part of the Ganges river system and flowed southward through Jalpaiguri, West Bengal, it now flows in the southeast direction. The name comes from the Sanskrit word ‘Triosta’, which takes the names of the historical channels of Teesta river basin: Karatoa, Purnabhaba and Atrai. Teesta most of its tributaries flow with high velocity and carry boulders and suspended sediments. The velocity of water of Teesta river is about 6 m/sec and the average suspended sediment load is about 15.89 × 106 ton per year. The Teesta river system has the most active floodplain of North Bengal which is bounded with the Himalayan terraces in the northern and northwestern region, the Barind tract in the western and southwestern region, the Ganges floodplain in the southern region and the Jamuna river in the eastern region.

The upper portion of the basin is mostly covered with snow and glaciers, but the lower portion is mostly flat land and some parts are covered with forest. It has been estimated that Sikkim-Darjeeling region of India could produce over 6,000 Megawatts (MW) of hydropower. The upper part of the Teesta basin has a very low population density, but it has all the hydropower potential, whereas, the lower part of the basin is densely populated but lacks the potential.

It is due to this potential that there are a lot of projects developed and in development looking at the huge potential of the river Teesta, which creates several problems:

  1. The proverbial molestation of the river as the locals see it.
  2. Abetting the dispute between India and Bangladesh over Teesta since 1983.
  3. Endangerment of irrigation needs.
  4. The erratic flow of the river due to the dam that will cause harm to the ecosystem throughout the basin.

India’s National Hydropower Corporation got clearance to construct dams on Teesta in Dzongu, North Sikkim, near the village Chandey in 2012, since then it has raised a lot of issues and concerns for the people. The desecration of the river as per the people is an ungodly act and has been opposed by the people since the clearance for the projects.

Here is a list of completed and operational hydropower projects: 

  1. Teesta Low Dam III of 132 MW capacity which is in operation, commissioned in March 2013 and completed by NHPC
  2. Teesta Low Dam IV of 160 MW capacity which is in operation, commissioned in August 2016 and was completed by NHPC.
  3. Teesta Stage V of 510 MW capacity which is in operation, commissioned in March 2008 and was completed by NHPC 

Furthermore, here is a list of projects that are under construction, in the proposal and cancelled:

(COD, Commercial operation date; DPR, Detailed Project Report; SPCB, State Pollution Control Board; MoU, Memorandum of Understanding; IA, Interagency agreement.)

  1. Bakchachu in North Sikkim with 40 MW capacity - Project under survey and investigation by Sanvijay Power and Allied Industries Ltd 
  2. Bhasmey in East Sikkim with 51 MW capacity - Project under construction by Gati Infrastructures Ltd. As per MoU, date of commissioning was December 2013. Project progress is around 28% 
  3. Chuzachen in East Sikkim with 99 MW capacity - Project under construction by Gati Infrastructures Ltd. As per MoU, date of commissioning was June 2013 
  4. Dikchu in North/East Sikkim with 96 MW capacity - Project under construction by Sneha Kinetic Power Projects Ltd. As per MoU, date of commissioning was December 2013 and project declared COD on March 2017 
  5. Jorethang in South Sikkim with 96 MW capacity -Project under construction by DANS Energy Pvt Ltd. As per MoU, date of commissioning was June 2013 and project declared COD on September 2017 
  6. Paanan in North Sikkim with 300 MW capacity - Project under construction by Himagiri Hydro Energy Pvt Ltd. As per MoU, date of commissioning was September 2013 and only preliminary construction works started.
  7. Rahi Kyoung in North Sikkim with 26 MW capacity - Project under survey and investigation by Sikkim Engineering Pvt Ltd. DPR is under preparation. A public hearing has been concluded by SPCB 
  8. Ranjit II in West Sikkim with 66 MW capacity - Project under construction by Sikkim Hydro Ventures Ltd. As per MoU, date of commissioning was May 2013. Project progress is around 12% 
  9. Ranjit IV in West Sikkim with 120 MW capacity - Project under construction by Jal Power Corporation Ltd. As per MoU, date of commissioning was July 2015. Project progress is around 49% 
  10. Ronginichu in East Sikkim with 96 MW capacity - Project under construction by Madhya Bharati Power Corpora. As per MoU, date of commissioning was December 2013. Project progress is around 64% 
  11. Tashiding - West Sikkim with 99 MW capacity - Project under construction by Shiga Energy Pvt Ltd. As per MoU, date of commissioning was September 2015. Project declared COD on September 2017.
  12. Teesta Stage III in North Sikkim with 1,200 MW capacity - Project under construction by Teesta Urja Limited. As per MoU, date of commissioning was December 2013 and project declared COD on February 2017 
  13. Teesta Stage IV in North Sikkim with 520 MW capacity - Project under construction by NHPC. Only preliminary construction works started. First stage environment clearance is obtained 
  14. Teesta Stage VI in North/ South Sikkim with 500 MW capacity - Project under construction by Lanco Energy Pvt Ltd. As per MoU, date of commissioning was July 2013. Project progress is around 48% 
  15. Bhimkyong in North Sikkim with 99 MW capacity - MoU/IA was terminated in June 2012. High Court of Sikkim has given a new timeline up to 2018 for the development of the project to Teesta Hydro Power Pvt. Ltd 
  16. Bop in North Sikkim with 99 MW capacity - MoU/IA was terminated in June 2012. High Court of Sikkim has given a new timeline up to 2018 for the development of the project to Teesta Hydro Power Pvt. Ltd 
  17. Chakhungchu in North Sikkim with 50 MW capacity - The project was allotted on 2002. An arbitration case is underway with Sikkim Govt. and Amalgamated Trans Power India Ltd 
  18. Kalez Khola I in West Sikkim with 27.5 MW - MoU/IA terminated due to non-performance of the West Sikkim Cosmic Infra Powergen Pvt Ltd in September 2016 
  19. Kalez Khola II in West Sikkim with 54 MW capacity - MoU/IA terminated due to non-performance of the Pentacle Power Pvt Ltd in February 2017 
  20. Lachung in North Sikkim with 99 MW capacity - MoU/IA was terminated in June 2012. High Court of Sikkim has given a new timeline up to 2018 for development of the project to Lachung Hydro Power Pvt. Ltd
  21. Lethang in West Sikkim with 96 MW capacity - Project not granted clearance by National Wild Life Board, Govt. of India. Project cancelled vide Notification No. 12/Home/2012
  22. Lingza in North Sikkim with 120 MW capacity - Project cancelled/not taken up as this area fell within Dzongu area and in the vicinity of Kanchenjunga National Park
  23. Manul and Mangan - North Sikkim with 30 MW capacity - MoU/IA terminated due to non-performance of the Higen in September 2017 
  24. Ralang in South Sikkim with 40 MW capacity - The project was allotted in 2002. An arbitration case is underway with Sikkim Govt. and Amalgamated Trans Power India Ltd
  25. Rangyong in North Sikkim with 80 MW capacity - Project cancelled/not taken up as this area fell within Dzongu area and in the vicinity of Kanchenjunga National Park
  26. Rathangchu in West Sikkim with 30 MW capacity - Projects scrapped due to religious sentiments
  27. Rechu-Meyongchu in North Sikkim with 26 MW capacity - MoU/IA terminated due to non-performance of Planet Infra Projects Pvt. Ltd
  28. Ringpi in North Sikkim with 320 MW capacity - Project cancelled/not taken up as this area fell within Dzongu area and in the vicinity of Kanchenjunga National Park 
  29. Rolep in East Sikkim with 36 MW capacity - The project was allotted in 2002. An arbitration case is underway with Sikkim Govt. and Amalgamated Trans Power India Ltd.
  30. Rukel in North Sikkim with 33 MW capacity - Project cancelled/not taken up as this area fell within Dzongu area and in the vicinity of Kanchenjunga National Park
  31. Sada-Mangder in West/South Sikkim with 71 MW capacity - MoU/IA terminated due to non-achievement of the stipulated milestones by Gati Infrastructures Ltd in February 2017
  32. Suntaleytar in East Sikkim with 40 MW capacity - MoU/IA terminated due to non-performance of Moser Baer Electric Power Ltd/Shreya Powertech Pvt Ltd in February 2017
  33. Teesta Stage I in North Sikkim with 280 MW capacity - MoU/IA cancelled as this area fell within the vicinity of Kanchenjunga National Park 
  34. Teesta Stage II in North Sikkim with 330 MW capacity- MoU/IA terminated in September 2018 due to non-performance of Him Urja Infra Pvt. Ltd 
  35. Ting Ting in West Sikkim with 99 MW capacity - Project cancelled vide Govt. Notification No. 12/Home/2012 as milestones as per MOU not achieved by T.T. Energy Pvt. Ltd 
  36. Upper Rolep (Nathangchu) in East Sikkim with 30 MW capacity - MoU/IA terminated in September 2016 due to non-performance of Cosmic Infrapowergen Pvt Ltd 
  37. Upper Rolep (Tshanguchu) in East Sikkim with 30 MW capacity - MoU terminated in September 2016 due to non-performance of Cosmic Infrapowergen Pvt Ltd

The river is considered by the government as a literal “white-gold mine” and the vast hydropower resource has a potential estimated to about more than 6000 MW in power and thousands of crores in the capital. The conflicts that this hydropower projects bring are in varying degrees. There are conflicts in Water Management, a conflict that is both inside and in between borders; the 35-year-old conflict between India and Bangladesh goes without saying. There’s a conflict of land acquisition, the indigenous Lepchas and locals of Dzongu have been facing this conflict and acting against it since over a decade and is nearing two decades. The last conflict is of ethics, the conflict if the dams would be ethical to go through with, as they cause a tremendous cultural hurt to the sentiments of locals.

 The Affected Citizens of Teesta (ACT) established in early 2004, since the proposal of hydropower projects and dams near Dzongu, is a forum which consisted mainly of indigenous Sikkimese (Lepchas) have been advocating and fighting against the hydropower projects. Since a couple of months, with the SKM government announcing the supposed approval of the Stage IV dam and to save the last free-flowing, untouched stretch of Teesta, the campaign Save Teesta spawned.

A team of young Sikkimese people under the banner of ACT have taken up the mantle to dismantle the proposal of the alleged unholy Teesta Stage IV, that would molest the last remaining stretch that is just about 11 Kms. The hunger strike that went on in 2007, 2008 and 2009 which was historic in Sikkim led by ACT against the instalments of big Dams in the local rivers spoke in volumes that led the charge. In the strike, two Lepcha youths from Dzongu had sat down on a hunger strike from June 22nd, 2007, to September 27th, 2009. Even after the withdrawal of the hunger strike the struggle continued and does till this day. 

Gyatso Lepcha, General Secretary of the ACT forum informed Sikkim chronicle of the struggles concerned citizens of Sikkim and the members of ACT have been facing. 

“ACT was established in the early 2000s and has been striving to raise concerns and voices against the big dams in our rivers and has been doing so tirelessly till this day. Since the recent government started pushing for the implementation of Teesta Stage IV hydropower project, a group led by young members of the ACT, named Save Teesta, has been set up as a campaign,” Gyatso says.

“There are almost a 100 members who have been doing this campaign and our social media is also flooded with the pictures with hashtags, poetry and songs, and we also are advocated by international organizations like UNESCO and International Rivers Organization and we hope more people join the cause,” he adds.

The main course of action for the Save Teesta movement and for ACT to act against the newest threat against the violation of free-flowing Teesta have been campaigns through social media and petitions that give a people’s mandate. The long-drawn protests and campaigns have mostly been led by ACT that has been in the forefront, with some intermittent smattering of people and leaders who occasionally light up the charge against it and obscurely disappear, but ACT has been holding the fort since their arrival.

“The ACT youth team and the Save Teesta campaign is right now focusing on online petitions and social media,” says Gyatso.

The petition online has been garnering attention, but not the way the youths of Save Teesta would want to. 

“Since ACT has been closely working with International forums that voice issues of indigenous nature, and we hope that probably in the next session of the UN’s indigenous forums, this issue will be addressed,” Gyatso says hopefully. 

“We have some litigation in National Green Tribunal NGT, and Supreme Court regarding dams and Kangchengdzonga National Parks which is an eco-sensitive zone, it is not against Teesta Stage IV but for the river ecology. We already have one writ petition in High Court against Stage IV,” informs Gyatso.

Finally, he adds, “Through Sikkim Chronicle, we would love to appeal to all the masses, especially the younger generation to come out and try to understand, even if you don’t, try to understand about the ramifications on the ecology and environment. Dzongu isn’t asking any political rights, it is about saving the last stretch of Teesta and we would like to appeal to each one of Sikkim to come forward and support this campaign.” 

CITATIONS:

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Acharjee M. L. Barat S. (2013). Ichthyofaunal diversity of Teesta River in Darjeeling Himalaya of West Bengal, India. Asian Journal of Experimental Biological Sciences 4, 112–122.

Roy S. (2011). Flood Hazard in Jalpaiguri District and its Management. PhD thesis, University of North Bengal, Darjeeling, India. Available at: http://hdl.handle.net/10603/149931

Islam M. F. (2016). The Teesta River and its basin area. In: Water Use and Poverty Reduction. Islam M. F. (ed.). Springer, Japan. DOI:10.1007/978-4-431-55172-0.

Islam M. F. (2016). The Teesta River and its basin area. In: Water Use and Poverty Reduction. Islam M. F. (ed.). Springer, Japan. DOI:10.1007/978-4-431-55172-0.

Khawas V. (2016). Hydro-fever in the Upper Tista Basin and issues of regional environmental security. Journal of Politics & Governance 5(3), 49–56. Available at: http://jpg.net.in/wp-content/uploads/2016/09/Vimal-Khawas.pdf

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Central Electricity Authority (CEA) (2016). Draft National Electricity Plan. The report, Ministry of Power, India.

Energy and Power Department Sikkim (EDPS) (2019). Status of Ongoing and/or Completed Schemes. Available at: https://power.sikkim.gov.in/status-of-ongoing-andor-completed-schemes/

National Hydroelectric Power Corporation (NHPC) (2020). Power Stations. Available at: http://www.nhpcindia.com/Default.aspx?id=192&lg=eng&CatId=1