Growing up, I was always fascinated by stories of Lepcha culture and wanted to visit their tribal reserve of Dzongu in North Sikkim, India, where the Lepcha are believed to have originated. Recently I had the opportunity to make this trip and jumped at the chance. Dzongu surpassed all of my expectations. It is a rich landscape of snow-clad mountains, evergreen forests, gurgling streams, waterfalls, and roaring rivers. It is home to the region’s rich biodiversity. Small villages dot the landscape and are seen through the wisps of smoke escaping from chimneys.
The Lepchas are warm, friendly, simple and hardworking people. They are religious and we saw water powered prayer wheels in many villages. Every house we stayed in, we were welcome. The entire family would busy itself to look after our every need and comfort. Their traditional millet drink would not stop flowing. I probably gained weight during the trip.
Lepcha culture is rich with stories and traditions – such as the all-night singing festival in which young Lepcha men and women woo their potential mate through songs – and rivers play a central role in many of these stories and in their beliefs. For example, the Lepcha believe that in death, the departed soul travels up the Teesta and Rangyong rivers to the base of Mt. Kanchendzonga, their sacred final resting place.
Sadly these sacred place and the lives of the Lepchas are threatened by large hydropower projects. In Sikkim, the provincial government has awarded contracts to private operators for 26 large hydropower projects on the Teesta River, seven of which would affect Dzongu province.
The 300 MW Panan Dam is planned for the heart of Dzongu on the Rangyong River. The Lepchas are fighting this project and believe that they have the blessings of their ancestors in doing so: On the day that developers for the Panam project addressed communities who would be displaced by the dam, the Rangyong River experienced a flash flood, without any warning – there was no cloud burst, nor any rain. Was this just coincidence, or could it be something more?
The Panan Dam is a stone’s throw from the Kanchendzonga National Park and Biosphere Reserve. The company responsible for the project, Himagiri Hydro Energy Pvt. Ltd., has no prior experience in hydropower development. The project has applied for CDM credits (which local groups, with the support of International Rivers, have opposed). However, the dam has not yet received clearance from the National Board of Wildlife, the financing has not been finalized, and other legal requirements have been overlooked. Local groups are now proposing legal action against the Panan Dam.
Another project that is tearing at the hearts of the Lepcha tribe is the 520 MW Teesta IV Dam – planned for the Teesta River– that forms the eastern boundary of Dzongu Reserve. The Teesta River flows through the length of Sikkim and is considered to be the lifeline of the state. The Teesta IV Dam is planned for the last free-flowing stretch of the Teesta River between Teesta III – currently under construction – and Teesta V, already completed. The proposed Teesta IV Dam and its construction, especially the intake tunnel, would destroy a sacred lake that is believed to be the heart of where a Lepcha clan originated.
The Lepchas boycotted the public hearing that is part of the environmental clearance process. The Expert Committee of the (Federal) Ministry of Environment and Forests is scheduled to consider granting environmental clearance for the project at a meeting this month. While the threats of the Teesta IV Dam are very real, all is not lost. NGOs like Affected Citizens of Teesta, Sikkim Bhutia Lepcha Apex Committee and others have been relentlessly opposing dams in the region. To date, the government of Sikkim has scrapped 10 dams, due to local opposition. People are concerned about the impacts of the dams on the environment and their way of life. They think and feel that the large migrant worker population, mainly from the plains, that will arrive during the construction of the dams will threaten their society’s social and cultural fabric. I have observed that across the width of the Indian Himalayas the hill people are different from those in the plains. The hill people are simpler, warmer, friendlier and trusting.
The indigenous people of Sikkim are continuing their opposition to the Teesta IV Dam, but they need our help. Please take a few minutes to watch this short slideshow that shows the beauty of the Teesta River and her people, and details the urgent threats posed by rapid hydropower development in the region.
Then I hope you will help me spread the word about the threat to the Teesta River by sharing the slideshow with your friends and family. Check back for more updates on how you can take action to support the groups in Sikkim who are fighting to protect their last stretch of free-flowing river.
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