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The Background

Privatisation of resources

In 2003, the Indian Government, as a part of the ‘liberalisation’ of its power policy, launched the Hydropower initiative, that would produce about 50,000 MW of electricity “through 162 projects in 16 States by 2017, many of them privately built and owned.” The State Government of Sikkim identified 35 potential hydropower projects and invited private companies for development projects since 2001-02. The first aim of India’s 2008 Hydropower policy is “to induce private investment in hydropower” while offering a “bonanza of concessions” to the private companies, and protecting them against major risks by passing on the burden to the public. For instance, a letter sent by the Energy and Power Department of the Government of Sikkim to the Affected Citizens of the Teesta (ACT) – the group that carried out a relayed hunger strike to prevent dam building in Sikkim – argued that any action to stop the Panan Hydro-electric project will cause “severe losses” to the Company, in this case the Himagiri Hydro Energy Pvt. Ltd., as they had invested “huge amount of money and other resources” for the project, and also to the State, as it will have to compensate the Company for its losses. Also, says the letter, such a precedent would create a “negative environment” for hydropower development projects in other parts of Sikkim, and hence in “the interests of all” the strikers must call off their agitation to “usher…a new era of peace and prosperity.” This massive scheme of privatising precious natural resources around the country is based on the delusion that somehow, the business interests of unaccountable private companies and the general interests of the population coincide. Justified incessantly in the name of ‘growth’ or ‘development’ or the mythical ‘national interest,’ this piece of popular fiction has transformed an indigenous Lepcha or a Bhutia into a national enemy, a threat to “democracy and peace and tranquillity” who is expected to silently acquiesce to the desecration of his real homeland in the ‘interests’ of a mythical one

The underground river

The dams being built on the Teesta are of the “run-of-the-river” type, that require diverting river water through tunnels bypassing long stretches of the natural course, before the water is dropped back into the river at a downstream location after passing through a powerhouse. A cascade of projects along these rivers will mean most of the river would essentially end up flowing in tunnels, destroying the riverine ecology. The Teesta IV project is proposed in the vicinity of the confluence of the Rangyong and the Teesta, and if this dam is constructed, it would mean that the last free flowing stretch of the Teesta river will also disappear. These dams have been touted as ‘environmentally benign’ as they do not require reservoirs that submerge large tracts of land. But extensive tunnelling in geologically fragile areas, dumping of excavated debris into the surrounding landscape and unevaluated social and environmental impacts, apart from the loss of culturally significant ecologies, make them a threat to the local communities and their way of life.

“India’s future powerhouse”

When the early plans on dam building on the Teesta were drawn, there was a recognition of the need to undertake a comprehensive study of the social, environmental and ecological impacts of dams in the region. But a year later, in 1999, under pressure from the Ministry of Power, the Teesta V project was granted clearance by the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF), as the first of a six stage ‘cascade’ plan to harness hydropower from the Teesta river. The approval was granted under the condition, that only after a comprehensive carrying capacity study of the Teesta was completed would any subsequent clearances for dams in Sikkim be given. But starting in 2004, the MoEF cleared six other projects on the Teesta river basin, before the study was completed, in violation of “its own stipulations on clearances.” Pressure from other Ministries seems to be the probable reason for such violations, as Sikkim is an important part of the “Central Government’s master vision of North-Eastern region as ‘India’s future powerhouse’ with around 168 dams planned.” This was made quite evident by the Union Power Minister, Sushil Kumar Shinde in 2009, when he “dedicated to the nation” the Teesta V project.

The carrying capacity study, done by Centre for Inter-Disciplinary Studies for Mountain and Hill Environments (CISMHE), began in 2001 and came out in 2007. The report made it very clear that contrary to view promulgated by the Government, the dissenting groups were not ‘anti-development,’ but were in favour of infrastructure development that does not threaten their traditional lifestyle and culture. They desire economic security, and improvement in the quality of life, the report says, in the form of better healthcare, universal education, better communication infrastructure and electricity, “by improving upon the existing resources” rather than by bringing in “factory-oriented industrial development” that threaten their environment, religion and culture.

The “misery” of Teesta V

This ‘dedication to the nation,’ the Teesta V 510 MW hydropower project, became a tribulation for the local people. Jung Bahadur Chetri, a resident of the Singbel village was rendered homeless when his house cracked open as a result of dam construction. Farming activities were disrupted, and access to water suffered as sources have dried up. Leila Chetri, one of the affected complained that “If you ask for even a glass of water now, its difficult for people to get. People say that this dam is for our development. But we haven’t got anything from it, not even a single job. Just misery.” According to the Sikkim Government, the dams are “most eco-friendly” with negligible pollution. When questioned about the dangers of dams in a seismically sensitive zone, the Government official claimed that the “entire Himalaya is a sensitive zone but the Central government has planned hundreds of dams across the mountain ranges, not only in Sikkim.” And then almost cynically used the concern to explain the cracking up of homes by stating that “[n]o one can prove that people’s homes were damaged owing to the blasting. It could be for other reasons such as earthquakes or landslides.” In an affidavit to the Supreme Court appointed Central Empowered Comittee in 2007, the Chief Secretary of Sikkim conceded that there was an “environment governance crisis” in the Teesta V project, where the power company had “grossly violated the terms, conditions and guidelines” of the MoEF by dumping excavated debris into the Teesta river, “obstructing its free flow causing thereby huge damage to the forest and environment.” The public hearing for the project, held way back in 1997, took place before the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) report was submitted, a violation of the standard procedure that requires such a report to be handed over at least a month in advance, and the company (NHPC) could not provide satisfactory answers to the questions and concerns raised in the public meeting. The impacts of the dam became known to people only after the construction began, much to their dismay. About 928 families were affected by the construction, no insignificant number in a small State, while the clearances were given based on the assessment that only 72 families will be affected. An RTI application by ACT also revealed that 48 persons died during the construction of the Teesta V, and about 31 seriously injured, a striking indication of the dangerous work conditions and abominable safety procedures – a normal affair as elsewhere in the country. Also, there has been massive corruption in the payment of compensation to the affected, being paid only a faction of what official records indicate.

“We cannot let our sacred land be destroyed”

Ever since the Teesta Hydropower projects were announced in Sikkim and their impacts began to be felt, the regions indigenous communities and the Buddhist community have lined up in opposition to them. After the MoEF cleared six projects on the Teesta Basin after 2004, a resistance movement started developing, that first began in Dzongu villages but then moved to Gangtok. The Affected Citizens of Teesta (ACT) – an organization formed in 2004 – spearheaded this movement. In December 2006 ACT met the Chief Minister of the State and demanded that the projects in Dzongu be scrapped, and other projects in Sikkim be reviewed. Instead, the State Government began acquiring land for the Teesta III and Panan projects, which are planned in the heart of Dzongu. ACT responded by starting its non-violent resistance and relay hunger strike, while Dawa Lepcha and Tenzing Lepcha went on an indefinite hunger strike, a fast that was to last for 63 days. The Hindu Business Line reported that the “decision to go on a hunger strike was prompted by a total lack of empathy on the part of the State Government towards the concerns of the people.” Their extraordinary courage and sacrifice drew attention, and many groups and individuals from outside Sikkim extended their support and expressed solidarity with the protesters, and many even joined them in their struggle. The growing strength of the movement made the authorities nervous, and they resorted to making threats, arbitrary arrests and petty harassments, but under tremendous pressure, they bowed down to the protesters’ demands, agreeing to review the projects. The indefinite strike was called off, but the relay strike continued, subject to the fulfilment of all the Government’s promises, which it did not fulfil. So about seven months later, three members of the ACT fasted again – a fast that would last this time for 96 days — demanding an end to all Hyropower projects in Dzongu. For the Lepchas, the issue is not about fair compensation or land. The strikers made this very clear when they said that “[w]e Lepchas are nature worshippers. Many of our holy lakes and springs are in Dzongu. We cannot let our sacred land be destroyed.”

In February 2009, 43 ACT activists were arrested when they decided to enforce an MoEF condition that no facilities be built for housing workers, which Himagiri Hydro violated by building sheds for its workers, which the activists dismantled. The Government decided to arrest the activists instead of penalising the company, perhaps in its unending crusade to keep the company profitable. The greater the economic power of the malefactor – so it would seem – the softer the hand of the State. One is reminded of Dawa Lepcha’s remark, that “the only law that the Government is currently upholding is the Land Acquisition Act, which allows it to displace people. All other laws are thrown to the winds.”

“efficient climate”

The “gold rush” for hydro-electric projects in Sikkim has been spurred by the “efficient climate” that has been created by the State Government by bending over backwards to bring in private companies, as Latha Jishnu reports in the Business Standard. Land acquisition, environment and forest clearances that normally take three to four years are done in two years, by a government that is “proactive” and “quick in decision making,” according to one of the major private developers. This can be safely translated as ‘ruthless’ and ‘subservient to business interests’ in normal English. The Comptroller Auditor General (CAG) of India report noted that all the projects that were awarded by the State government were through MOUs without calling for bids, which ought to be the standard method — not a surprise as there were reports of “handsome commissions…changing hands as promoters vie for projects.”

The CAG report illustrates the shocking disregard and callousness towards the people and the environment with which these projects were conceived and implemented. For example, in a section on Disaster Management Plans, it noted that the projects “entailed extensive excavation, blasting, construction of mammoth water reservoirs, power houses and allied activities…[that puts] tremendous stress on the fragile environment of the State which could bring about unanticipated disasters and calamities…[threatening] tremendous loss of life and property besides long term damage to environment.” It observed that only two out of ten projects whose Environment Management Plans were examined had a plan for disaster management, both with meagre allotments. It also pointed out that “[n]o affective risk and responsibility sharing arrangement…had been worked out” between the State Government and the developers.

The standard argument for exploiting local resources here as in other parts of the country has always been that such projects bring in “benefits like employment [or jobs], education, business and better infrastructure….[and other] socio-economic gains.” For this, the State Government was to constitute a Project Level Welfare Committee for each project “to look after the welfare of the local people in respect of socio-economic development and employment opportunities, etc.” But the CAG notes that the Sikkim Government could not provide any evidence that such a committee was even set up, let alone carrying out welfare activities – a good indication of how high real benefits to people figure on the State’s agenda.

The CAG also concludes that hydro power projects were handed over to private companies “at throwaway charges which compared very poorly with the charges imposed by all other hydro power States in the country…[p]erformance guarantee was not obtained to ensure earnestness of the developers to execute the projects…[e]ffective safeguards were not incorporated in the agreements against delay…and negligence in maintaining the projects after commissioning…[e]nvironmental issues…and biodiversity preservation were neglected and delayed. Monitoring of execution was virtually non-existent.”

Environmental Impact mis-Assessments

The Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) reports, a mandatory document for large projects, are the basis on which public hearings are conducted and environmental clearances granted. Shripad Dharmadhikary notes that this crucial mechanism has been reduced to a “ritual” almost always “done in haste” and the proper procedures and processes “have often been subverted.” They remain, he says, the “shoddiest documents” around, in which “vital facts are ignored, and impacts downplayed.” The documents presuppose the building of the dam, “and often include glowing tributes to the benefits of the project” rather than being honest assessments of the ecological and environmental impacts and costs.

The EIA reports often contain arguments that seem to range from the incredible to a carefully choreographed farce; for instance, the EIA for Teesta IV contains a section titled ‘Aquatic Ecosystems’ that begins with what looks like an objective assessment of the disruption of aquatic habitat due to dam building. It notes that the water quality of the Teesta presently “does not show any sign of strain from anthropogenic pressures” but construction activity, creation of a reservoir, reduction of water downstream, etc. will lead to “habitat fragmentation, hamper the fish migration and pose serious threat to biota within the stretch” and other disruptive effects. It immediately adds however, that since there is a dam downstream (Teesta V) that has already blocked fish migration, and there will be dams upstream (like the Teesta III), and since damming has already killed the river’s ecosystem, lets dam it anyway!

Dams and democracy

It is not surprising why even limited mechanisms for public debate and participation are dangerous for the planners and builders of large ‘development’ projects, especially dams. Large dam projects around the world have a very poor record in terms of economic performance and environmental and social impacts, and many would not have been built if their true costs were assessed and made public. In a poor country like India, crowding out public funds and resources for mega-projects deprive other sectors such as education, health, communications, and others that might really benefit the local communities and the poor. Moreover, the amount of risks and construction costs for large dams are so high and pay-back periods so long that they make most large dam projects economically unviable, if not generously subsidised by the public. Hence, dam builders and their agents have done their best to shield themselves from democratic control, and the the role of the local communities has most often been reduced to that of a passive spectator, that must capitulate to these large schemes built in their name without making too much fuss.

For instance, Public Hearings, a “small but crucial window” for people to voice their opinions and raise objections about environmental impacts, are now no longer mandatory according to an EIA legislation passed in 2006. Dharmadhikary writes: “The new notification also restricts participation in the hearing to ‘local people,’ while other ‘persons having a plausible stake in the environmental impacts’ can submit their opinions in writing. Since neither of these two is defined, these new semantics collectively give enormous scope to authorities to exclude people from the process, as well as exclude those who may have the expertise and skills to help the locals in the opposition to large dams.”

Public hearings often fail to perform their limited function as sometimes people are not informed in time about the meetings or those opposing the project are not allowed to speak. Sometimes the meetings become opportunities for politicians to make speeches, as in the Teesta III project public hearing, where a Chairperson of the Sikkim Pollution Control Board concocted this diatribe [link]:

“you should reap the benefit-because no one can stop this project, no matter which political party comes to power tomorrow. No one can stop this as the Govt. of India has given the orders. These projects are not meant to harm or bring tension to anyone….anyone who disturbs this project is not a Sikkimese…[and] is a useless person if he opposes such a good project; such people are your opposition and anti-social elements…but because you are in the opposition, you are opposing the Government…since you are opposing the Government of India you are an anti-national…”

‘Convert all concerns to cash’

The CISME report points out that to the people of Sikkim in general, “satisfaction in personal and community life is much more important than a highly progressive, modern society,” and that they “do not necessarily relate their well being with [their] economic situation.” Traditional lifestyle and culture are of primary importance to the people, and the indigenous communities such as the Lepchas and Bhutias “value their religion and culture much more than material comfort.” From 1993-97, the Bhutias and the Buddhist activists who resisted the Rathongchu hydroelectric project (and succeeded) argued that such a project will destroy their “sacred landscape.” To extol the advantages of dams, often cost and benefit analyses are presented, and the numbers are so overwhelmingly in favour of the project that even the hardest sceptic cannot help but be impressed. So for example, the EIA report on Teesta IV calculates that the total environmental costs for the project would amount to exactly 7,218.92 crore, while benefits would be 32,789 crore. It says that “cost of human resettlement,” “environmental losses” and “suffering to oustees” will be “quantified and expressed in monetary terms.” But how much is a Lepcha ‘Willing To Pay’ for her sacred river that will soon go underground? How much is he ‘Willing To Accept’ for his mountain that is about to be bored?

The report acknowledges in one of its tables that “impacts on culture” are “difficult to quantify” and hence provides no ‘value’ for such impacts; and since the costs are added up, effectively the “impacts on culture” are measured as nil. And by measuring only what it assumes is measurable, it concludes that since “the quantifiable benefits…far outweigh the quantifiable cost” it is “proven that [the project] is an environmentally sustainable activity.” So how can a sacred symbol, the value of which cannot even be assessed, be compensated in monetary terms? This so called ‘objective’ method of evaluating project benefits and costs conceal serious ideological assumptions, that divide the world into portions that can be measured and portions that cannot, and only things that can be measured matter, the rest becomes irrelevant or is simply labelled “difficult to quantify.” Incidentally, also, costs and benefits do not talk about who is bearing the cost and who earns the benefits, as almost always, it is the weakest and poorest that who bear the costs, and the powerful that reap the rewards.

The struggle continues

In October 2008 the MoEF declared that “No Hydro electric Power projects would be implemented beyond Chungthang, in North Sikkim,” admitting that this was a step taken in light of the findings by the CISMHE carrying capacity study. The Sikkim Government made desperate attempts to make MoEF overturn its decision to disallow dams in this eco-sensitive region, by questioning certain findings of the CISMHE report, and starting August 2009, began to see a bit of success. By April 2010, all projects in North Sikkim were cleared for investigations, and by November, the MoEF granted Terms of Reference (ToR) to three projects to initiate EIAs, “which will set the ball rolling for procuring environmental clearances.”

The hard fought large and small victories that the people of Sikkim and their supporters had won over the past decade to preserve their culture and environment are today in the process of being undone. What is needed now is a collective effort in the form of a long and sustained campaign by all concerned about democracy, self-determination and environmental and social justice to call for an honest assessment and review of all existing dam projects, and scrapping of all proposed projects in Sikkim, to prevent the last stretch of the Teesta, the rights of the indigenous communities and the delicate biodiversity of the region from being violated. The Independent Expert Committee on Big Hydro Projects of Sikkim has warned that if these projects are allowed to continue, “the rivers, environment, culture, forests and mountains of Sikkim will be completely and irreversibly destroyed.” The protesters’ heroic resistance may serve as an inspiration to all, and their despairing words during their historic hunger strike must be remembered: “We will die in our efforts, but we will not see our land being plundered by capitalists.”

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