The people’s struggle in the Teesta River basin in Sikkim (India) has gone through a change of guard recently. Tseten Lepcha stepped down as working president earlier this year. He had a telephone conversation with Bharat Lal Seth on the changes in their approach to campaigning for a pro-people environment in the Himalayan state.
What is the current status of campaigning in the Teesta Valley?
There is limited campaign activity in the field for the past two years. Previously we gained some success in our struggles against destructive large hydropower projects planned and under construction. Out of the six projects proposed in the sacred Dzongu area of Sikkim, four were scrapped, while construction works for the other two projects have been stalled. There has been no official statement on this though. Also, from merely a civil society movement, our struggles have now gone mainstream. Politicians and panchayat (village council) leaders are now opposing large dams. One of our achievements is to bring elected people on board.
Lately we’re trying to spread our messaging to other areas, outside the Dzongu. It’s not a visible campaign; there aren’t any hunger strikes, and neither mass rallies nor protest marches being carried out like before. We’re investing time and resources to archive the backstory of our movement, and engaging journalists and research students.
How do you plan on approaching the currently stalled projects?
The ideal scenario would be to scrap all large destructive hydropower projects in the Teesta River basin. However projects have come up, and in the case of certain projects the dam civil works and much of the tunneling, such as for the 1200 MW Teesta III project, have already been completed. So the damage to the people and mountainscape has been done. Due to financial mismanagement and underestimation of expenditure, cost overruns have delayed such projects. We now feel that they must reach their logical conclusion, and provide benefits, especially to the affected people, as stated at the outset. It is expected that the first of the 200 MW turbines of the Teesta III project will be commissioned in September or October, later this year.
Why did you step down; how do you foresee the future of the campaign?
The Affected Citizens of Teesta group has seen many changes in the past couple of years. Our General Secretary, Dawa Lepcha, resigned and contested elections in 2014. On March 20, earlier this year, I resigned as the working president of the group. We felt it best to give young people positions of responsibility to take forward our campaign to save Sikkim, its rivers and mountains from destructive hydropower projects. Gyatso and Tenzing Lepcha have been appointed General Secretaries to spearhead the campaign. The movement must now seek a groundswell of support from all sections of society so the political class can no longer be ruled by the fancies of project developers and construction agencies while ignoring the voice of the people of the land.