-Sonam Wangchuk Nadikpa
It was on May 27, 1927, at Ranikhola near Gangtok, that the first micro hydroelectric project was commissioned in Sikkim. But while the demand for electricity kept on increasing, the period from 1927 to 1957 witnessed a clear neglect of the power sector. It was the post 1993 period that saw the commissioning of numerous micro hydroelectric projects. (Government of Sikkim 2013) Now with a liberalized power policy and an accompanying shift towards mega-hydroelectric projects the state of Sikkim is officially poised towards gain. (i)
However the construction of series of mega-hydroelectric projects raises concerns about displacement of locals, the ecological sustainability of the region and other survival issues. The 2013 Uttarakhand floods warned hilly states like Sikkim against haphazard construction of dams in the name of development. Despite this today there are about 28 Mega Hydroelectric projects in a small state like Sikkim, some completed and some ongoing. (Lepcha 2014) To explore the ground situation, I visited Sikkim, my home state,to conduct field work for my Masters dissertation titled Energy Insecurity in India: A Case Study of Hydroelectric Projects in Sikkim. I met locals and officials affected by Teesta Stage V Hydroelectric Project (East Sikkim) as well as Dikchu Hydroelectric Project (East Sikkim).
Teesta Stage V Hydroelectric Project
The Teesta Stage V Hydroelectric project (510 MW), a run-of-river scheme located in East Sikkim, is one of the first projects commissioned in the cascade development of Teesta River on 31 March 2008 as an undertaking of the National Hydroelectric Power Corporation (NHPC) (ii) It aimed at improving the financial requirements of the state as well as ensuring surplus power to power scarce neighbouring states. It intends to improve the living conditions of locals, increase employment opportunities and thereby control the migration of jobless people to other regions of Sikkim. Officially, the NHPC has also extended rehabilitation and resettlement measures to the displaced persons, which includes compensation for land, house, standing crops and other properties, free education to the children of the displaced locals.
My fieldwork in Lower Samdong, AapDharaand nearby villages like Lower Kambal, amidst people affected by the Teesta Stage V project site, showed that people living near the project site had gained through employment opportunities (wage labourers or contract jobs). Even the local grocery shops had flourished as the officers working in the project site would purchase huge amounts of local grocery. Some people opined that the surrounding areas of the project had gained through construction of better roads. Heath facilities have been provided for the people living near the project site. In addition medical camps for the villages have been organized by NHPC in collaboration with Sikkim State Hospital.
However with the boon comes the bane. The disadvantages of the hydroelectric project according to the locals were majorly environmental. The villagers I met are worried about imbalance in the ecosystem due to the felling of forest trees by the power developers. They worry that the habitat of endangered animals might be destroyed near the project site. Thirty two year old resident of Aap Dhara village, Anil Kumar Rai who works in a nearby veterinary hospital alleges that there have been drastic changes in the environment due to the project.
Besides, hydropower wastes are directly dumped into the river which kills marine life causing an imbalance of river ecology. An investigation report titled “Environmental and Social Impacts of Teesta Stage V Hydroelectric Project, was released by Manju Menon and Neeraj Vagholikar of Kalpavrish, a Delhi-based Environmental Action Group on May 2004. The report highlights that during the construction of tunnels large amount of muck and rock debris have been dumped directly into the river which will have negative bearing on the biodiversity of the area.
There have also been instances of submergence of land leading to displacement of people. Land within 50 metres of the damsite has been acquired citing dangers involving in the project. My field work led me to a small house submerged near the damsite along with its surrounding land. The issue of submergence can also be seen in the houses of Abhi Chandra Sharma, aged 75 years, a resident of Lower Kambal Village and other residents. There have been reported cases of unjust land acquisition along with allegations of disproportionate and discriminatory distribution of compensation money. Small-time farmers complained that they were given less amounts when compared to those in higher influential positions. Keshab Bhattarai, a resident of Lower Samdong as well as Rudra Prasad Ojha, a farmer now residing in Rakdong (East Sikkim), whose lands in Lower Samdong were acquired, complained of indiscriminate compensation amounts. Affected villagers even blamed the state government along with the project developers for such inequality .Some of the villagers are also facing water shortages due to water diversion and allege that this affects agricultural productivity.
Dikchu Hydroelectric Project
Tenkilometres away from the ongoing Teesta Stage V Hydroelectric Project, is the Dikchu hydroelectric project (96 Megawatt), an under construction run-of-river project on the Dikchu River, a tributary of Teesta River at Dikchu village in East Sikkim (taken up by Sneha Kinetic Power Projects Private Limited (SKPPPL), a private conglomerate).The power house is located in Dikchu village whereas the dam site is situated up north in a village name Lingdok. When I went to meet officials at the power house of Dikchu, they were reluctant to share any information about the dam.
The residents here are worried about the impact on the environment of the felling of trees. Noise and air pollution due to the ongoing construction are also cause of concern for them. I interviewed the locals and all of them added that their houses have been damaged due to the blasting activities in the project site. Residents Hem Prasad Chettri and Pushpa Lal of Lingdok village alleged that constant blasting at the construction site has created deep cracks in their houses. There has been official acceptance that the blasting for tunnel-construction has damaged nearby buildings. This has also resulted in landslides in the area. However for such damages villagers are unlikely to get any kind of compensation. During my meeting with a group of Lingdok villagers a consensus also emerged that the animal species living near the project site are on the verge of extinction. (iii)
Displacement of people living on the proposed project site and the area to be submerged has become an emotional issue. Most of the projects are located in the remote areas where people are illiterate and have few options of gainful employment. Thus the state government or developers are successful in acquiring their lands at cheaper price. There have been rehabilitation and resettlement programmes but they are neither satisfying nor adequate. The displaced people are given a small piece of land in nearby or distant places which is fit neither for living nor for cultivation of any crops.
One of the major advantages of the hydroelectric projects that the people accepted was the fact that people were hired contractually. The power developers have also started afforestation programmes, health check-up camps and other awareness programmes. People said that there has been supply of drinking water with water tanks provided. Even though the majority of villagers I met were unhappy with the construction of hydroelectric project, the most interesting point to note is that some locals favour such projects despite of the disadvantages, for these benefits.
In recent months unhappy with the resettlement the locals along with NGOs like Affected Citizens of Teesta (ACT) and Sikkim Bhutia Lepcha Apex Committee (SIBLAC) have been staging regular agitations, hunger strikes. Some of their concerns have been aired by television channels and online websites. Locals are becoming more and more vocal about their concerns and disappointed that their concerns are largely unheard. West and North Sikkim has witnessed mobilisation of Lepcha and Bhutia tribes against such protests. Challenging such projects in courts might be one way of resolving their problems. The 97 MW Tashiding Hydroelectric project (West Sikkim), 300 MW Panam Hydroelectric Project (North Sikkim) have witnessed massive protests from the residents as well as from independent organisations of Sikkim. The Panam Hydroelectric Project has been suspended for the time being whereas power developers of Tashiding Hydroelectric project has been challenged in High Court of Sikkim by the public as well as independent organisation like SIBLAC.
But due to immigration of contractual labourers there has been a reported increase in crime and such inflow of outsiders is viewed as a threat to employment of locals. The government needs to scrutinise the projects on grounds of sustainability before sanctioning them. The locals, NGOs and independent environment experts should be involved in the decision making process. In addition to threat to life and occupation these projects are also affecting the cultural heritage of indigenous tribes. Lands of the primitive tribes have been taken away. The heritage and natural beauty of Sikkim is not being preserved.
* All pictures courtesy Sonam Wangchuk Nadikpa
i)For each mega Hydroelectric Project being set up Sikkim Government gets 12 per cent of free power. This would mean a profit of 80 to 85 crores annually which will definitely improve the socio- economic conditions of the people of Sikkim and also revenue base which will make the state economically self-dependent in future.
ii) NHPC, where the Government of India has a major stake, in return for setting up the power project allocates the Sikkim government 12 per cent of 510 Megawatt power absolutely free of cost. Financially this free power could mean an annual profit of Rs 80 to 85 crore to the government of Sikkim as mentioned in the salient features of Teesta Stage V Hydroelctric project prospectus published in June 2008.
iii) Teesta eco-region is rich in plants, animals and micro-organisms. It is world’s 12 mega biodiversity zones. The region is also rich repository of 500 odd species of medicinal herbs.
1.“About Energy and Power Department”, Government of Sikkim, (online: Web) http://www.sikkimpower.in/irj/go/km/docs/internet/webpage/AboutUs.html Accessed on November 22, 2013
2.Lepcha, Tseten (2014), Email Interview with the Working President of Affected Citizens of Teesta (ACT), February 23, 2014