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Primitive Lepcha tribe opposes hydro power projects near UNESCO heritage site

Mega dams are being built near a UNESCO heritage site at the Lepcha reserve called Dzongu in North Sikkim Himalayas, bordering China.
By Soumik Dutta

The Lepcha tribe, Mount Khangchendzonga and River Teesta:

The Dzongu area is traditionally known as Myal Lyang or paradise in Lepcha language. It came to be also known as Beyul Demazong in Bhutia language meaning ‘land of sacred and secret treasures’.

It was here that, according to legend, the Lepcha God created the first Lepcha man and woman from the sacred snow of the mighty Khangchendzonga (Kanchenjunga) third highest peak in the world, the massif that the Bhutia and Lepcha revere to this day as a protective deity.

Lepchas are recognized as a “particularly vulnerable tribal group” and protected within the Dzongu community reserve under provisions of the erstwhile Royal Proclamations, and currently Article 371(f) of the Indian Constitution. Even people from other parts of Sikkim need special permit to enter Dzongu.

Within the core area of Dzongu, are a host of  sacred Buddhist  sites: the Kagey Lha-Tso Lake, the Drag Shingye caves, the revered Tholung Monastery  and the Jhe-Tsa-Tsu and Kong-Tsa-Tsu hot springs, which are said to be endowed with healing properties.

The Khangchendzonga National Park (KNP) and the Biosphere Reserve, which is also a UNESCO world heritage site, are within a radius of just 10 km from Dzongu.

Genesis of protests:

The hydro power boom in Sikkim started during the reign of former Chief Minister Pawan Chamling under his Sikkim Democratic Forum(SDF) party since 2000, the development of projects like a cascade on River Teesta, including Stage IV was conceived and sanctioned in his tenure .

The Lepchas under banner of Affected Citizens of Teesta(ACT) and Save Dzongu, were the first to start a relay hunger strike in Gangtok, back in June 2007 against projects in Dzongu, supported by Buddhist Lamas, environmentalists and social organizations from across the region. The then government was forced to negotiate with the protestors, assuring to relook into the controversial projects.

The Gandhian Satyagraha (hunger strike) was withdrawn after more than two years, on September 27, 2009.

On one hand, the Lepchas have been declared as Primitive Tribe by the state government and on the other hand, crony capitalism is set to devastate the land that had been protected for decades for the Lepchas, in the name of development.

The Renewed protests:

The SIA (Social Impact Assessment) report for Teesta Stage IV evaluation expert group was notified on July 18th, 2020 by the Land Revenue & Disaster Management department of the Sikkim Government, triggering strong protests from the ACT and Save Dzongu groups.

The expert group is to evaluate the Social Impact Assessment (SIA) report and submit recommendations to the government within two months. This notification has come  despite of an ongoing writ petition challenging the SIA report in question , the next hearing of the case is slotted for September 30th, 2020.

Speaking to this correspondent, Gyatso Lepcha, general secretary of ACT said, “We were waiting for the government to announce the scrapping of Teesta Stage IV, but this notification seems to reflect that they are in no mood”.

Against the backdrop of UNESCO’s declaration of the heritage site status to Khangchendzonga National Park (KNP) and on the basis of rejection of the project by the Lepcha community of Dzongu, the elected gram Panchayats (village councils) of Dzongu , and the fact that  Stage II Forest Clearance(FC) is still due, while the High Court and  Supreme Court litigations are still alive, Gyatso is optimistic.

Earlier, in 2017 an appeal  by the Lepcha protestors at the National Green Tribunal (NGT) was partially allowed with the order asking “the project proponent to propose a 3 regime e-flow in consultation with experts, to the satisfaction of the EAC.

It additionally asked NHPC to prepare a mitigation plan to prevent reservoir induced seismicity due to Teesta IV Project for consideration and approval by MoEF & CC.” It may be added here that the Teesta Stage V dam built by the same NHPC had in June this year suffered damage due to huge landslides. The entire region is classified as Seismic Zone IV.

Genesis of the Teesta IV and the Panan project:

The Sikkim Power Development Corporation Limited (SPDC) had issued a letter of Intent [LOI] in August 2002 to the consortium of M/s Amalgamated Transpower India Limited [ATPIL] and Karnataka Power Corporation Limited [KPCL], for drawing up an agreement for development of two  projects, Teesta Stage IV [495 MW] and Teesta Stage VI [440 MW]. This was after issuing a Request for Quotations (RfQ) on 25th November 2000.

The Government of Sikkim had received 8 bids from GVK Industries, ILI Technologies, Tata Power, Jai Prakash Industries, Alstom Power, Ashok Leyland, NHPC and the ATPIL&KPCL consortium. After evaluation of bids of only three out of the eight, WAPCOS, a government undertaking tasked with evaluation of bids, selected ATPIL/KPCL consortium.

To begin with, no target date was fixed by the SPDC for drawing up the actual agreement with the ATPIL/KPCL consortium. ATPIL and KPCL failed to come up with any agreement even after the lapse of two years from the issue of the Letter of Intent. The Letter of Intent was later cancelled in August 2004.

The Teesta Stage IV project was subsequently awarded to NHPC in March 2006. As on 31st August, Central Electricity Authority (CEA), Ministry of Power India, states that it has concurred Teesta Stage IV but no construction activity has taken place. The Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, Government of India( MoEFCC) had issued a letter to NHPC on 8th August 2017 seeking some additional details for the Forest Clearance Stage II which is still due. The MoA signed by NHPC with the Sikkim government would be amended, the letter added.

Teesta-IV Hydro Electric Project is a run-of- the-river hydropower scheme, envisioned as a part of a cascade development of hydro power projects on Teesta River. The project was accorded Environmental Clearance (EC) by the Ministry of Environment, Forests& Climate Change (MoEF&CC) on 9th January, 2014. It obtained Forest Clearance-I on 26th February, 2013, the clearance from the National Board of Wild Life (NBWL) on 14th August 2014. However, it has not been able to start construction yet due to non-availability of the Forest Clearance (FC)-II.

The Sikkim Government had signed a Memorandum of Agreement with the National Hydro Electric Power Corporation(NHPC), a public sector undertaking on 1st March ,2006. Initially the Teesta Stage IV project was for 495 MW capacity, but was subsequently revised and enhanced to 520 MW with due amendments intimated to the CEA.

Apart from the 12% of free power from the project which as per the MoA, is entitled to the Sikkim Government, the balance power is to be sold to the eastern states through six power purchase agreements(PPAs), out of which three have been signed while rest three are at a discussion  stage.

A total of 324.07 hectares(ha) of land is required for the project out of which 180.58 ha is private land while 143.49 ha is forest land, a total submergence of land is 105.37 ha.

The total project affected people are from 256 families. As per the MoA, the project is to be built on a build-own-operate-maintain (BOOM) basis, hence during entire life of project, the land and project is vested with NHPC.

The other ongoing controversial hydro power project  being built in Dzongu, is by Himagiri Hydro Energy Private Limited,  a Special Purpose Vehicle (SPV) floated by Hyderabad-based  Nagarjuna Holdings Limited , which was awarded the $383-million, 300 MW Panan project in 2005, but could not achieve Financial Closure facing severe opposition from locals.

It had signed power purchase agreement (PPA) with the West Bengal State Electricity Development Corporation Limited (WBSEDCL) for sale of its power from the project.

The letter of intent was issued on March 1st 2005 while the MOU was signed on December 5th 2005.

The Panan project according to the Project Design Document (PDD) affects 77 families and has acquired 35.933 ha of private land and about 5 ha of forest land. It has obtained FC Stage I and II, EC, and a report on geology and GLOF as sought by the CEA.

The Sikkim Government is yet to infuse 26 per cent equity in the joint venture project (due), which proposes to construct a dam across the Rangyongchu River, at the foot of Lingzya village in Dzongu.

As per the CEA the project stands stalled as on 31st May 2019, whereas a case in the NGT was dismissed on 21st August 2017 and the developer has sought an alternate approach road to dam site from government.

For Panan the civil works were awarded on 22.02.2014. Infrastructural works and geological investigations are in progress. Starting of civil construction works was earlier held up for want of the National Board of Wild Life (NBWL) clearance, which it finally obtained in December 2015. The present Sikkim Krantikari Morcha(SKM) led government has facilitated the NBWL clearance process and a NOC from the state’s forest department on the NBWL angle, as sought by the CEA, informed an industry person on condition of anonymity.

Government’s justification for the projects and crony capitalism:

Sikkim government officials say the new power projects will bring development to the remote and scarcely populated Dzongu region, and prosperity to the people, apart from revenue out of the 12% free power to be given to Sikkim as per the MoA.

In the run up to the elections of 2019, a petition had been submitted to the Sikkim Krantikari Morcha party (SKM) president P S Tamang (the present Chief Minister of Sikkim), and then Legislative Assembly members (MLAs) Kunga Nima Lepcha and Sonam Lama (both are now senior cabinet ministers); the leaders had promised to scrap the project after coming to power.

Ironically, the SKM party which managed to topple Chamling’s SDF in the 2019 elections on the corruption plank, is yet to deliver on its pre-poll promise to scrap projects in Dzongu, particularly Teesta Stage IV and the Panan 300 MW.

Interestingly, in a meeting  with Sikkim Chief Minister P S Golay,  RK Singh, India’s  Minister of State for Power and New & Renewable Energy (IC), while assuring all possible support for the development of power and renewable energy sector in  Sikkim, requested support of the Sikkim Government for various hydro projects under implementation by various central public sector undertakings.

Several attempts by this correspondent through telephone calls and emails, to solicit a response from the Chief Minister’s Office,  the SKM party spokesperson , or from Mr. Kunga Nima Lepcha and Mr. Sonam Lama, on the controversial project and the assurance they had given to scrap it, could be obtained.

Sikkim Power Minister Mr. M N Sherpa told this correspondent over phone that both projects were given during the previous government’s tenure and added that Teesta IV has majority landowners consent.

Questions sent to the land revenue and forest departments by email pertaining to the two projects were unanswered till the time of going to print. If received, would be updated subsequently.

Sikkim Bhutia Lepcha Apex Committee (SIBLAC), (an apolitical organization) convener Tseten Tashi Bhutia, a former Legislator,  while speaking to this correspondent  said, “We have been protesting cultural and religious genocide being committed by the Sikkim government in the name of developing hydro power, apart from severely degrading the environment, the new government too is toeing the line of the previous regime. They are yet to take bold decisions”.

Litigations and Environmental violations:

The Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) done by the Centre for Inter Disciplinary Studies of Mountains and Hill Environment ( CISMHE) for the Panan 300 MW hydro power project does not mention the Lepcha Tribe,  except for a single line (under social and anthropological assessment).

More than half of Dzongu, especially the upper region, is inside the Khangchendzonga National Park (KNP) and Khangchendzonga Biosphere Reserve. The dam site of Panan project is within few kilometers of KNP. 4005 hectares of Biosphere Reserve is being offered to the company in the guise of Catchment Area, including portions of the core zone, the KNP.

Deemed as the greenest state in India, the government of Sikkim has drawn flak of the national board of wildlife (NBWL) for blatant violation of the environmental norms and the standing order of the Supreme Court in implementation of several hydro power projects under different stages of construction.

In its 28th meeting held on 20th March 2013, the proposal for 520 MW Teesta Stage-IV Hydroelectric Power Project, on River Teesta in North Sikkim to be developed by NHPC Ltd, was placed before the SC-NBWL (Standing Committee-National Board of Wild Life) for consideration. The Member Secretary had informed the SC-NBWL that the project location falls 4 km away from the Fambong Lho Wildlife Sanctuary and was recommended by the State Board for Wildlife.

The report raised serious concerns about a number of hydropower projects in Sikkim under construction without wildlife clearance in contravention to the Supreme Court order (in the Goa foundation case).

Ironically, the buffer zone or the eco-sensitive zone around the Fhambong Lho WS and the KNP were reduced drastically through gazette notifications in August, 2014 by the Sikkim government in consultation with the MOEFCC.

An appeal was filed by ACT members in the National Green Tribunal (NGT) against the ESZ notification, which was dismissed. Following which, a civil appeal has been filed in the Supreme Court of India by ACT challenging the NGT order and the matter is pending.

Vested interest at play?

A section of landowners whose lands fall under the controversial NHPC Teesta-IV 520 MW hydro power project proposed in Dzongu area have welcomed the State government’s decision to form an expert group to study the SIA report.

In a recent press statement, a group representing the landowners said the landowners welcome the SIA report expert group adding that the “landowners have been victims of hydro-power politics in North Sikkim”.

“The total relief and rehabilitation benefits from the project will boost the infrastructure development in the affected GPUs “, they added.

Attempts to contact these landowners over phone by this correspondent went unanswered. “Who are these people? Certainly not from Dzongu”, informed Gyatso Lepcha.

Other versions:

Speaking to this correspondent, Sahadev Khatua, NHPC’s General Manager in Charge, for Teesta IV, reiterated NHPC’s commitment to develop the project and deliver the promised benefits including R&R facilities as per norms.

Khatua admitted that three remaining GPUs not consenting for the project, has been delaying the obtaining of the FC Stage-II for the project, coupled with the ongoing High Court litigation and protests.

A Supreme Court lawyer versed in corporate law and environmental issues , on conditions of anonymity told Peace Data that the Teesta Stage IV  as well as the controversial Panan project, could still be scrapped by the state government, if it feels that the damage caused to the environment and the fragile social, cultural and religious sentiments of indigenous Lepchas is serious and far outweighs the benefits.

He added that the legal complications arising out of scrapping of the MoA for Teesta Stage IV and Panan could be sorted out legally.

The most unexpected protest had over the years come from Sonam Gyatso Lepcha, a former SDF Party MLA who was also the Power Minister, from Dzongu. Sonam Gyatso had reiterated his objection to Teesta IV even while he was a sitting MLA and asked the people and panchayat to boycott the public hearings.

Speaking exclusively to this correspondent, Sonam Gyatso once again reiterated his strong objection to the project. “ Development has to be sustainable, this large dam will destroy the heritage and sanctity of Dzongu, the cradle of Lepcha religion, culture, and  tradition, already we have Teesta III and Teesta V we do not need to stop the last free flowing stretch of our Teesta, we need to be united and strong in seeing this to the end, otherwise vested interest will gain”, Sonam Gyatso warned.

Time will tell the fate of the last stretch of the free flowing River Teesta (on which the proposed project dam is planned), which has been severely dammed in its brief journey of about 175 kilometers from its glacial source in North Sikkim’s cold desert, through its journey along Sikkim. The Teesta flows through Sikkim, West Bengal before finally pouring into the Bay of Bengal in Bangladesh.

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