Turbulence Along the Teesta: The Lepchas of Dzongu Valley in Sikkim reignite their protest against the 520 MW hydropower project

The recently elected Sikkim Krantikari Morcha party had promised to set right the overexploitation of natural resources by the previous government. But, the Lepchas allege the government has gone silent on the matter. Since last June, they have launched fresh protests against the project.

Tanmoy Bhaduri
| Updated: January 11th, 2021

Dzongu, North Sikkim

The Lepchas of Dzongu Valley in North Sikkim, the original inhabitants of the state, have stepped up their long standing protest against an upcoming 520 mega watt (MW) hydropower project. The stage IV of the project, allotted in 2012 to National Hydro Power Corporation (NHPC) near Tingchim Chandey and Hee Gyathang village in north Sikkim, was to be commissioned in June last year.

In keeping with the official procedure, the state land revenue department formed an expert committee for Social Impact Assessment (SIA) in the area. However, all the gram panchayats in the region refused to cooperate with the officials of the assessment team who came to the villages to conduct the survey. It is their overriding fear that construction of the hydropower project would destroy the rich Himalayan ecosystem and the cultural heritage of the Lepcha community, which is also known as the Rongkup, meaning the children of God, and the Rong. 

The 315-km-long Teesta river originates in the eastern Himalaya, flows through Sikkim and West Bengal before entering Bangladesh.

Since last June, the indigenous community of Sikkim has upped its protests against the 520 MW project, and has organised several meetings and rallies in the past three months. They met the state power minister M N Sherpa, and also attempted to meet the newly elected chief minister, Prem Singh Tamang, but failed to do so. The local people allege that police deployment in their area has increased and the state is keeping a close eye on outsiders to the villages in the Dzongu Valley.

“Hydropower projects in the ecologically sensitive Himalayan ecosystem that comprises the Teesta river basin and the Khangchendzonga National Park is harmful. Recently, we observed several landslides, flash floods and earthquake after the construction of dams on Teesta river in Dikchu and Chungthang,” Gyatso Tongden Lepcha, Secretary of Affected Citizens of Teesta (ACT), which is spearheading the campaign against hydropower projects in Sikkim since 2007, told Gaon Connection. “We believe dams are not the solution to sustainable development,” he added.

The Khangchendzonga National Park (KNP) was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage list as a Mixed site which recognises both its natural and associative cultural values.

The recently elected Sikkim Krantikari Morcha party came to power on the issue of overexploitation of natural resources by the previous Sikkim Democratic Front government, but has remained silent on the matter ever since it came to power, said Gyatso Tongden.

“They betrayed the people of Dzongu. The government should understand that it is more an environmental issue than a regional, communal or political one. Agriculture, ecosystem, economy — everything will be destroyed if we stop the free-flowing Teesta river. It flows through Sikkim, West Bengal and Bangladesh and thousands of people benefit from its natural flow,” he said.

Dzongu Valley, 520 MW project and the protests

The 315-km-long Teesta river originates in the eastern Himalaya, flows through Sikkim and West Bengal before entering Bangladesh and meeting the Bay of Bengal. Currently, 15 hydropower development projects in the Teesta river basin of Sikkim and West Bengal are at different stages of construction with the biggest, the 1,200 MW Teesta Stage III, commissioned in 2017.

According to the Draft National Electricity Plan 2018, all of these projects will be completed by 2022.

It is believed that the Lepchas originated in Dzongu. Their religious beliefs are at the core of their opposition to the proposed 520 MW hydropower project.

Dzongu is a protected area as per a 1956 notification when Sikkim was a separate kingdom. “They have taken our land for two other mega projects on the Teesta river (Stage III and Stage V). The people of Dzongu have already suffered a lot of environmental damage,” said Tenzing Gyatso Lepcha, vice-president of ACT, who went on an indefinite hunger strike as far back as 2007 demanding the scrapping of the hydropower project.

Teesta stage V dam site at Dikchu. A series of landslides in last monsoon caused significant damages to villagers living adjacent to dam.

Tenzing accused the project of being a planned attack on Lepchas. “We are fighting to protect our lands. The people of Dzongu have tried all options — we tried the pen, used the sickle and now the youth are ready to pick up firearms to protect their land. We are ready to come out on the streets,” he warned.

According to the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) report, while 256 families are likely to be affected due to construction of the dam, there will be no displacement. However, local people say about 324 hectares of land will be acquired for this project. This includes 31.5 hectares of the river bed, 14.40 hectares of land for underground works and the rest is private land belonging to indigenous people.

Around 4,000 villagers living in the four gram panchayat units of Hee Gyathang, Barfok Lingdong, Lingthem Lingdem and Lum Gor Sangtok will be directly affected. And, they refuse to accept any compensation or rehabilitation package in exchange for their land. 

“We are connected to our land and we won’t give our land for the hydropower project,” Sangdup Lepcha, a farmer at Hee Gyathang village told Gaon Connection. “They listed my 1.6 hectares of orange and paddy farmland for the proposed state IV project without informing me. I have been opposing this project since 2009 and I have been targeted for it,” he said.  Sangdup was arrested and sent to jail for 40 days in 2009. “We will oppose this project because dams are not good for the environment and we will not bargain for our traditional lands with NHPC or the state government,” he declared.

Sangdup Lepcha, a farmer at Hee Gyathang village in Dzondu. He is unwilling to give his land for hydrowpower projects.

“The proposed project has ignored the sacred nature of the Kanchendzonga and its importance in the culture of Lepchas. We believe God created Nazaong, the first Lepcha man, and Nyooking, the first Lepcha woman, in Dzongu. We worship the river, mountains and nature, and the region has plenty of sacred sites including Keshong Lake, Kongsa hotspring and several caves sacred to the Lepchas,” Thakit Lepcha, a local resource person at Dzongu told Gaon Connection

The upcoming project will block the natural flow of Teesta river and the proposed powerhouse under the Teesta river will affect the sub-surface flow of water as a result of which springs will dry up, feared Thakit.

In June last year, there were massive landslides in several places in North Sikkim. Dzongu was completely cut off from Gangtok. There was a huge landslide at Dikchu near NHPC Teesta stage-V dam. 

The Lepchas of Dzongu Valley in Sikkim reignite their protest against the 520 MW hydropower project.

SIA and broken promises

“NHPC started its operation without building protective walls on either side of the dam. They said that they would construct walls to reduce damage to nearby houses but nothing happened,” Padam Chetri, a villager of Apdara near NHPC Teesta Stage V dam in Dikchu told Gaon Connection. “Currently, 22 families are living in risky homes on the banks of the Teesta river and NHPC hasn’t compensated us since 2013,” he claimed.

Padam Chetri, a villager of Apdara near stage V dam in Dikchu, residing in a risky house which have several cracks on its wall and complaining about NHPC’s apathy towards affected villagers.

In July last year, the state land revenue and disaster management department notified that the state government had constituted an expert group for evaluation of the Social Impact Assessment Report, in respect of the acquisition of land by NHPC for Teesta stage IV hydropower project.

“I do not understand what assessment report the government was talking about when they haven’t got the forest clearance. Villagers of four gram panchayat units in Dzongu have boycotted the mandatory public hearing and rejected the project under the Forest Rights Act”, Nimlay Lepcha, vice president of Hee Gyathang gram panchayat unit told Gaon Connection

He further claimed that the expert group had representative panchayats from Namok Swayam and Tingchim Chandey, but none from the panchayats that were most affected. “This gives us a clear intention of the government that they don’t want any representatives from the place which is going to get affected the most,” he said.

Meanwhile, a few landowners on the left bank of the Teesta river, opposite the Dzongu valley, living in the Namok Swayam and Tingchim Chandey gram panchayat support the hydropower project. “I want to give my land for the development of the state. We are told that we will be compensated properly for our land and local people will get jobs,” said T R Limboo, a resident of Namok village.

Protestors claim that the government is trying to misguide villagers and every time there is an anti-dam protest in Sikkim, the state government labels it as a “Lepcha issue”. 

Gaon Connection reached out to the regional office of NHPC at Siliguri and spoke to Sahadev Khatua, general manager and head of stage-IV hydropower project but he refused to comment on the matter.

Tanmoy Bhaduri is Kolkata-based independent journalist who writes on social, cultural and environmental issues.