Troubled Waters: Why the Lepcha Community in Sikkim is Resisting Its Government’s Attempts to Build Dams Over The River Teesta

Ren Likden Rongkup, a middle-aged Buddhist monk who presides over the monastery in Passingdang. Nikhil Roshan
27 November, 2015

The thickly forested hills of Dzongu that border the Kanchendzonga Biosphere Reserve in north Sikkim are well-known as the sacred ground and reserve of the Lepcha tribe. But, the deceptive silence that envelops this region disguises the tumult that it has been witnessing for the past ten years. Three months ago, in August 2015, Jitendra Singh, the minister of state for the development of the north-eastern region, announced in a written reply to the Rajya Sabha that, “Presently, 16 hydropower projects aggregating to 5,576 MW [megawatts] are under various stages of construction for the growth and development of the northeastern region.” Of these, 10 projects are in Sikkim. Among these is the Panan hydroelectric power project that threatens to submerge parts of Dzongu. A decade ago, when the Government of Sikkim and Himagiri Hydro Energy, a public-private partnership, jointly announced their plans to construct the dam, they faced fierce opposition from unexpected quarters. The Buddhist monks of Dzongu were at the frontlines of a conflict that purportedly pitted nature and culture against technology and modernity. However, as I discovered during my visit to the state earlier this year, the narrative is hardly that simple.

The reserve traces its origins to a time when Sikkim was still a monarchy, and Dzongu, a part of the queen’s estate. In the late 1800s, the demand for labour by the British set in motion migrations that came to a head by 1956. During this period, the Lepchas’ rising anxiety over the influx of Nepali settlers, combined with concerns over the alteration of Dzongu’s demography, prompted the chogyal (king) of Sikkim to, in 1956, declare the space a “Lepcha Protected Area.” More than 15 years later, Sikkim joined the Indian union and the Lepchas earned the tag of a Scheduled Tribe. The community’s apprehensions now mirror the ones that initially led to these efforts. It is worried, once again, that the large numbers of engineers and workers who come from faraway places to build dams in the state will lead to the erosion of its indigenous culture.

Given that the Teesta river, which flows for nearly the entire length of Sikkim, drops along its course from a height of about 5,280 metres above sea level in the north to 230 metres in the south, it is no wonder that generation of hydropower in the state seems like a lucrative option. But the Himalayas, running across the state, are known to be among the youngest mountains on the planet. Characterised by an ever-changing topography, they make unstable ground for the state’s large infrastructure projects. According to plans announced by the government of Sikkim in 2003, seven dams were to be constructed within the boundaries of Dzongu, to generate a sum total of nearly 1000 MW of power. Of these, three have been scrapped due to the high-decibel Lepcha protests.

Environmentalists across the country have repeatedly sounded warnings about the fragile nature of the area. The Lepcha movement, however, was spurred more by faith than by concerns regarding the environmental repercussions of the construction. For the Lepchas, the Teesta river, which they believe is the path to salvation for their departed in the afterlife, is sacred. According to them, the tunnelling and damming of the Rangyong Chu (river), a tributary of the Teesta, would block this passage. The process of harnessing these rivers for energy would also would also result in a complete alteration of their ecosystem—loss of fishing habitats, lack of water for irrigation and the depletion of a host of plant, insect and bird species that thrive close to the riverbed.

The Lepcha community’s indignation first came to the fore in 2005, when it formed the Affected Citizens of Teesta (ACT) organisation and took its protest to the streets of the state capital, Gangtok. Clashes between Lepchas and the authorities back at the dam site in Dzongu also rattled the state government. Less than a decade ago, it scrapped the 96 MW Lethang and the 99 MW Ting Ting projects on the Rathong Chu.

Through their protests, the Lepchas have succeeded in bringing their religious beliefs and the rights of their community into the conservation discourse. These demonstrations also serve as a unique counterpoint to the form that identity-based conflicts usually tend to take in other parts of India. In West Bengal, for instance, in the late 2000s, the Lepchas responded to the perceived and legitimate threats from the rise of the ethnic Gorkha movement—a demand for a separate state for the Indian Gorkha ethnic community—with an agitation to safeguard their linguistic rights.

On the outskirts of Kalimpong in north Bengal, this battle is being waged, rather peacefully, inside classrooms. For over a decade now, night schools have been springing up in the Lepcha villages here to teach the young ones of the community their native tongue, Rong-Ring. In Pachoak, a hamlet that becomes shrouded in mist during the monsoon, one such school has been functional since 1994. It thrives solely on contributions from Lepchas residing in and around the village. The walls of the classrooms are covered with illustrations of trees that grow in the region. Besides the alphabet, the children who come here are also taught traditional songs and dances along with the mythology and the history of their community. Though the Lepchas of Kalimpong travelled a very different arc to the realisation that there was a need to conserve their culture, six years ago, in 2009, they found common cause with their brethren in Dzongu, albeit for a short while. They headed north in huge numbers to lend solidarity in the anti-dam agitations that were taking place in the state at that time.

For the time being, the Panan dam site is deserted. According to a former politician from Sikkim, this is probably because it lies in the buffer zone — the restricted area established around a protected park in order to enhance the value of the conservation site—of the Khangchendzonga National Park. In 2014, the park was named one of top 100 green destinations in the world, a list compiled by a network of international agencies promoting sustainable tourism. The Sikkim government might also be treading cautiously because of its plans to nominate the park for the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation’s World Heritage Site status under the “Natural and Cultural landscape” category. This moratorium has silenced the agitation in Dzongu, for the time being.