Last month, the two-member South Asia team travelled to the West Sikkim Hills, a northern Indian region nestled in the Himalayan mountains, to visit hydroelectric project (HEP) sites and speak with project-affected people. During our travels, the Gorkha earthquake on April 25, with its epicenter in Nepal, was felt across north India. Hundreds of buildings crumbled, killing thousands in Nepal. In West Sikkim, which borders Nepal, we were just a few hundred kilometers from the epicenter. The panic in the region was palpable given the lasting memory of the 2011 earthquake, measuring 6.8 on the Richter scale, which killed more than one hundred people in the state.
Anti-dam activists in Sikkim have been vocal about “over-construction” in the hills and bumper-to-bumper dam projects under construction in the upper reaches of rivers. They fear that geological instability coupled with large dams could induce earthquakes, and that landslides or flash floods could result in catastrophic dam breakages. Hydropower companies have dismissed the activists’ concerns as fear mongering. Yet, downstream communities as well as river and forest ecosystems are undeniably experiencing the disastrous effects of the companies’ practices of blasting, tunneling, dam building, road construction, and muck dumping.
On our journey through West Sikkim, we followed the river Rangit, stopping to visit the series of projects along the river. A perennial glacial-fed river, the Rangit is considered a major right-bank tributary of the river Teesta. We began with a visit to the 96 megawatt (MW) Jorethang Loop HEP, the first in the series of projects under construction on the river.
On a road adjacent to the barrage site we met Prem Lal Chettri, 67, a resident of Vayguni Peeopoley village. He claims that while he was compensated for land acquired by the construction company, the dust from construction negatively affected his agricultural fields. He has two children, both post graduates, but neither were given work. A handful of supervisory jobs were given to other locals. Chettri was also angered by the poor public hearing procedure. At the hearing, project proponents claimed that they would not dam and impede river flow. They built a barrage, but this was a matter of semantics and a gross misrepresentation.
People living in the Rangit river catchment area are acclimatized to the cool mountain air. But hydropower projects, and all the truck movement, road building, and accompanying civil works have coincided with a change in the local climate. “Its getting warm, and with no flowing river beside us, it’ll get even warmer,” said Chhettri, pointing to an immediate concern that the climate is becoming increasingly intolerable. Alluding to the crafty company officials, he said that the company did not share project documents in full, nor give a detailed explanation of the potential adverse impacts.
At a nearby roadside chai shop we also conversed at length with Ranjit Rai, 28, a farmer who worked with a dam company for 24 months. “I knew it was wrong, but I alone can not be a Gandhi. The state government is formed by rice giveaways. If we rise, they cut rice,” he said, explaining why he did not protest against the project.
Rai worked as a supervisor for Jal Power Corporation Ltd, project proponents of the now abandoned Rangit stage-IV HEP, a few kilometers up-river from Jorethang Loop HEP. The company ran in to financial troubles, and now the office, heavy machinery, and partly completed tunneling and powerhouse site lie deserted. The proposed 44-meter-high dam was not built.
While the course of the Rangit was not impeded by a dam, the river course was diverted and infrastructure and machinery now lie in the river bed. To make matters worse, the tunneling work along the mountain resulted in the drying up of natural springs. The Adit tunnel, although locked and inaccessible, constantly leaks as a reminder that many of the natural water channels have been diverted into its shafts. It’s now used as a car wash zone. The diverted and dry streams were previously the only source of water for villages, whose inhabitants now often have to walk in hilly terrain to collect water.
The security guard, who’s the only remaining member at the deserted project site office, is owed 10 months salary. He doubts the project will resume now, and has been told by the company that if he doesn’t get his due, he should collect the tires or pick up bits of machinery from the project site to sell.
Upstream from the abandoned project is the 60 MW Rangit Stage-III HEP, completed in 2000. The project has a 47-meter high dam, and is the only commissioned project in the Rangit river basin. There is little local opposition to the project itself. However, people are concerned with “reservoir washing”. The process involves a sudden gush from the reservoir, to remove sand and silt, which raises water levels by more than six feet in the watercourse. While announcements are made via loudspeakers, only those habitations near the roads are certain to be informed. Some fisher folk and children, especially those in remote habitations, do not hear these broadcasts, and have been known to drown when ambushed by the rising water.
Other major tributaries of the river Rangit – the Rathong Chu, Rimbi Khola, and Kalej Khola – also all have planned HEPs. Projects on the Rathong Chu have been scrapped, for now. A couple of years back the Sikkim cabinet buckled under pressure from activists and Buddhist monks who demanded that projects be cancelled on a tributary that Buddhist literature considers holy. We met a monk who expressed joy that the projects had been scrapped. “In Tashi Deng monastery there is a vessel which is filled every year from the flowing Rathongchu. There are Godly places all along the river. If the river dries, then the amrit (nectar of life) will dry,” said the monk conveying the teachings of Gautama Buddha.
Pawan Chamling, the chief minister of Sikkim, promised that the 97 MW Ting Ting project and the 96 MW Lethang project on the Rathong Chu will remain scrapped. However, a rumor is now making rounds that the Ting Ting project, named after the sound of knocking a local stone, may be restarted. Locals have no information of the same, and people privy to such information rubbish the report.
Projects on the other major tributaries have not been scrapped, yet. The 66 MW Rangit stage-II HEP on the river Rimbi, although abandoned recently for lack of funds, may restart. Construction of the 97 MW Tashiding HEP remains in full swing. The barrage site, located a little more than a hundred meters downstream of the confluence of the Rathong Chu and Rimbi river, will divert water into a tunnel more than 5 km in length. Many affected citizens reside in a nearby village called Doban (means “confluence”) whose homes have been damaged by the blasting. Traditional cattle routes have been cut off.
“We have demanded an open debate on the pros and cons of these projects. But the government flatly refuses. Why don’t they just tell us what the project is about, where is what, and what the adverse impacts are. They should be transparent,” said Yapching Bhutia, a member of activist collective Save Sikkim. “Maybe our protest is wrong. Prove me wrong, this is all I ask,” adds Bhutia.
The activists in the valley argue that the incessant pursuit of so called ‘development’ through HEPs will worsen the occurrence and impact of landslides, earthquakes and floods as the state government seeks to manipulate an already fragile Himalayan mountainscape.
To view a Flickr set of our West Sikkim, Rangit river tour, click here or scroll through below.