Teesta Hydro Projects: Toeing the line between industrial development and ecological destruction

Teesta Hydro Projects: Toeing the line between industrial development and ecological destruction
Picture Courtesy: loupiote.com

The Teesta River which is a 315 km (196 mi) long river that rises in the eastern Himalayas, passes through the Indian states of Sikkim and West Bengal through Bangladesh and enters the Bay of Bengal. It drains an area of 12,540 km2 (4,840 sq mi). In India, it flows through the Darjeeling district and the cities of Rangpo, Jalpaiguri, and Mekhliganj. It joins the Jamuna River at Fulchhari in Bangladesh. While India has an appraised total hydroelectric power potential of 84 GW (at 60% load factor), out of this, Sikkim's potential share is 2.9% or about 4.29 GW. As of 2010, 13.9% (594 MW) of Sikkim's potential had been implemented and was under operation, 44.8% was under implementation (1919 MW), and another 41.3% (1773 MW) is yet to be examined from an environmental and engineering design perspective. 

To date, the state-run National Hydroelectric Power Corporation (NHPC), which is an enterprise of the Central Government incorporated intending to plan, promote and organize an integrated and efficient development of hydroelectric power in all aspects, has already successfully executed some major power projects and dams, despite the local communities protest and outcry due to the power project greatly influencing the local topography, ecological balances, and livelihoods in the region, some projects like:

  1. Teesta -V dam, which is the largest project so far, was completed in 2007 on Teesta in Dikchu, East Sikkim district. Its height is 87 meters (285 ft) and its length is 176 meters (577 ft). It generates 510 MW hydroelectric power and assists flood control.
  2. Rangit III hydroelectric project was completed in 2000 on the Greater Rangit River which is a tributary of the Teesta River. The catchment area of the Rangit III dam is 979 square kilometres (378 sq mi) and the dam is 47 meters (154 ft) high. The project has a 60 MW generation capacity and is already online.
  3. The other three completed projects are significantly smaller and minor—Lower Lagyap, Upper Rongni Chhu, and Mayang Chhu projects.
  4. There are seven more hydropower electric projects in Sikkim which are likely to begin soon which also includes the biggest so far – the 1,200 MW Teesta Urja that has already been commissioned.

Recently the NHPC proposed and is adamant about going forward with the Teesta Stage - IV Hydropower Plant project in Sikkim’s North District despite the strong opposition and public outcry from the community of North Sikkim as it falls under the power project’s downstream areas.

The Lepchas or Rongkups, the indigenous tribe of Sikkim, have been vocal against this proposal of NHPC to go forward with the Teesta Stage IV Hydropower Plant project in Sikkim’s  Dzongu, North District. Dzongu is established as an official reserve for the Lepcha people - it is a triangular region in North Sikkim which is bounded by the Teesta River in the south-east, Tholung Chu River in the north-east and by the mighty mountains in the west, it also borders the Kanchenjunga Biosphere Reserve.

The Lepchas have very strong ties with nature and have a deep-rooted appreciation of the beautiful mountains, thick forests, and the emerald-coloured Teesta River and they have been in very vocal protest against the construction of the power plant as they fear that it would cost them their not just their livelihood, land, culture, and the already delicate ecosystem of not just the Teesta River basin‘s, the Khangchendzonga National Park’s, as well as Dzongu’s, which is considered hold land as mentioned above will be jeopardized if the dam becomes a reality, as many environmentalists have already warned of the possible damage such power projects could cause.

More tension has been caused among the Sikkimese Lepchas after the State government on July 18, established an expert group for an evaluation report called the Social Impact Assessment (SIA) of the effect caused by the NHPC’s acquisition of land for the carrying out of the Teesta Stage IVHydropower Plant project. The locals have tried to stall the Teesta Stage IV Hydropower Plant project with them boycotting the compulsory public hearing in protest of the project. In the past as well, the members of  Affected Citizens of Teesta (ACT) who have been spearheading the campaign to save the Teesta river went into a 915-day-long hunger strike which stretched from 2007-2009 demanding for the State government to scrap some hydropower projects which caused some significant stalling in their construction.

ACT’s General Secretary, Gyatso Lepcha, says that their campaign against the constructions of such hydropower projects gas been continuing for almost the past 16 years, adding that since almost 99% of the land in the hills of Sikkim and Darjeeling is currently being held by the Teesta Basin and the project is coming in the last stretch of the free-flowing river. 

In an excerpt from his interview with media house NewsClick, Gyatso has said- “The government and NHPC have been pushing the Teesta Stage IV Hydropower Plant project, we have started a campaign called ‘Save Teesta’. The current status of the project is that it has not got Forest Clearance II yet; they have done Social Impact Assessment (SIA), but under the Forest Rights Act, the indigenous people of four-gram panchayat units from the Dzongu region have objected to the project. It has been over 15 years since our rivers and we have been undergoing this onslaught; since 2004, we have been raising our voices against the big dams in Sikkim. We are receiving support from across the globe; this is not just about the tribe of Dzongu, this is a global movement to save rivers. We see a lot of people resonating with our cause.”

Just on Friday, former MLA of Dzongu,  Sonam Gyatso Lepcha for almost two decades during a press meet voiced his strong resistance to the proposal of the project saying that the mere existence of the Lepcha community of Dzongu is very much at threat because of the state’s many hydropower projects in North Sikkim. Lepcha also added that the present SKM Government just before the 2019 General Elections had guaranteed to the Dzongu public that it would get rid of the hydropower plant proposal but that it seemed the State government planned to fully move forward with it proven by how they had formed an expert group in order to study the SIA.

Lepcha also stated that as most of the power projects fall under the four GPUs of Upper Dzongu and Lower Dzongu but since the committee does not have any representatives from these GPUs it shows that `the expert committee formed by the State government has no representation from the area that is actually affected by the power project. Lepcha assures that while Dzongu and its residents are not against the interests and development of Sikkim and its people, this move by the State government shows that the same cannot be said for the present government ho wants to bulldoze the feelings of the residents of Dzongu, as they have time and again shown that they are not in favour of the project.

“The power project cannot be considered for a variety of reasons among which stands the question of the survival of the Lepcha community of Dzongu. There have been tunnels created from both ends of Dzongu which have left us with less than 5% of the actual land that is cultivable in Dzongu, is that is taken away too what will we leave for our future generations? Adding to the fact that the construction of the power project could cause a geographical disaster that is waiting to happen because not only is the terrain delicate, the rock quality of Dzongu at the moment is at its lowest quality,” said Lepcha during Friday’s press meet.

Lepcha also took this opportunity to deny the allegation made against him that when he was the MLA of Dzongu and also the Power Minister in the past, he had agreed to the construction. Regarding this, he has said that he had always been in opposition to this and had stressed to the former Chief Minister P.K. Chamling that the last of the free land of the Lepchas- Dzongu had to be saved. Lepcha has also emphasized that if the State government were to continue with the project and hurts the sentiments of the Lepcha community, they will approach and appeal to the Bhutia, Nepali, and the old business communities of the state to save their Lepcha compatriots and Dzongu from going out of existence.

As the State government has a tremendous possibility of profiting from the potential of the Teesta river, even though many environmentalists have warned of the problems that could arise from harnessing electricity in the region, given that the Himalayas, which run across Sikkim, are known to be among the youngest mountains on the planet, topped with an ever-changing topography, which causes for an unstable terrain which is to be used for Sikkim’s massive infrastructure project such as the Teesta Stage IV Hydropower Plant project. As the State government witnesses, the Lepcha community’s ire and their periodically increasing animosity, it is reminiscent the street protests by Act of 2005, succeeding in delaying the project. Will they finally achieve a complete halt on it?

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