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‘Ecology and Livelihood at Stake’: Protests Intensify against Hydropower Project on Teesta

The indigenous Lepcha tribe in Sikkim has started a movement to save the last free flowing stretch of the Teesta river.
Protest against hydropower project on Teesta river

The last free-flowing stretch of the Teesta, North Sikkim. | Image credit: ‘Save Teesta’ campaign

Even as the ideological debate over the capitalist, manmade interventions vs. natural habitats and livelihoods remains unsolved, those directly affected by large scale projects have launched a war cry to save the river-- Teesta.

The pristine, 315-km (196 mi) long river originates in the eastern Himalayas, flows through the Indian states of Sikkim and West Bengal, then enters Bangladesh and meets the Bay of Bengal. The state-run National Hydroelectric Power Corporation (NHPC) has already built a series of dams on the river Teesta, significantly affecting the local topography, ecological balances and livelihoods in the region.

Recently, The NHPC has proposed the Teesta Stage 4 hydropower project in North Sikkim and is planning to go ahead with it despite opposition from people of the downstream areas. The indigenous Lepcha community has strongly opposed the project fearing that their livelihood, land, culture and the sensitive Himalayan ecology will be jeopardised if the dam becomes a reality.

Speaking to NewsClick, Gyatso Lepcha, general secretary of the Affected Citizens of Teesta (ACT), said, “This campaign has been going on for the past 16 years. Now that the government and NHPC have been pushing it, we have started a campaign called ‘Save Teesta’. This (project) is actually coming in the last stretch of the free flowing river. The project also comes under the periphery of UNESCO World Heritage Site KNP (Kanchendzonga National Park).”

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 Dzongu region have objected to the project,” said Gyatso, whose organisation ACT has been spearheading the campaign to save the river. He added, “It has been over 15 years since our rivers our 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.”

Ecology and sacred belief

For the government, there is a huge prospect for capitalising on the potential of the river, which flows for nearly the entire length of Sikkim and drops along its course from a height of 5,280 metres above sea level in the north to 230 metres in the south.

However, The Kanchendzonga Biosphere Reserve in north Sikkim is well-known as the sacred ground and reserve of the Lepcha tribe. For Lepchas, the Teesta is the path to salvation for their departed in the afterlife and is sacred. Environmentalists have over the last 15 years flagged the issues that will stem from harnessing electricity in the region, given that 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. It could also lead to the lack of water for irrigation and threaten bird species that thrive close to the riverbed.

The Lepcha community’s indignation first came to the fore in 2005, when it formed the organisation called ACT and took to the streets of the state capital Gangtok. Following this, clashes between the Lepchas and the authorities back at the dam site in Dzongu also rattled the state government. The current project, which has again irked the community, may stir up another long round of protests in the region.

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