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

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.

Nikhil Roshan Nikhil Roshan is an independent photojournalist.