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, there are 35 more projects listed as “under construction”, in the proposal but were cancelled.

The Teesta 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 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.”