Turmoil among the Lepchas, caused by proposed hydropower dams near their communities in northern Sikkim, has increased over the past five weeks.
A report on July 18th indicates that the Lepchas in Dzongu are growing increasingly resentful that the government of the Indian state of Sikkim is ignoring their protests. The article describes the divisions and hostilities the situation is fostering in the region and within each village, where the opinions of supporters and opponents of the proposed projects clash. One landowner said she treasured the peaceful Lepcha lifestyle, which she feels the dams would destroy. “First kill me and my four children and then go ahead with the projects,” she declared. Continuing meetings between the government and the protesting group, Affected Citizens of Teesta (ACT), were unproductive.
On July 21, the Chief Minister of Sikkim, Pawan Chamling, went to Dzongu to confront his critics among the Lepcha community and to defend the proposed dams. From the press reports, it is obvious he was quite outspoken in his comments. He blamed the opposition on his political opponents in Sikkim. “Their agitation is meaningless as the proposed hydel projects would boost the state’s economy and create an employment opportunity for the educated unemployed youths of the state.” He vowed that the state government would not back down from its commitment to building the dams—for the welfare of the people, he argued.
Mr. Chamling also pointed out that the dam projects, once they are in operation, will generate revenues for the state of 20 billion Indian rupees per year (US$493 million). He decried the continuing hunger fast by members of ACT, Dawa T. Lepcha and Tenzing Gyatso, which he said is “sponsored by opposition parties who are using the innocent Lepchas to further their vested interests.”
The government continues to be defensive about the possible harm to the natural environment of northern Sikkim. A report on July 23rd emphasized that the project will disturb land within one km of the Kanchenjunga National Park, and people in Dzongu fear that it will harm the forests and their important bird area. But a government official denied that the dam building will have any impact on the park. He asserted that “the projects near the national park have been found to be quite viable.”
While Lepchas from different areas were marching to show their solidarity with the hunger strikers, a member of the French parliament weighed in on the situation. Jean Lassalle, a French MP, is himself a mountain dweller in France and an avid supporter of the rights of residents of mountains. He went on a 39 day hunger strike last year to protest the unemployment problems of his own constituents. “Mountains are under constant threat from those who want to take advantage of their resources without any respect for their past, their present and their future,” he said in a release.
Lassalle also wrote directly to Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to suggest that protecting the great mountain Kanchenjunga with a national park, then allowing it to be affected by a dam, was highly inconsistent. He is president of the World Mountain People Association, which is trying to help the Lepchas. The group has loaded a petition on its website, in PDF format, so people can sign it and express their solidarity.
The two Lepchas who are enduring the hunger strike are being kept alive in a hospital in Gangtok, where they are being force fed through nasal gastric tubes. The government of the state this week continues to appeal to ACT to give up the fast and try once again to resolve the issue through negotiation. The government reiterates its commitment to protecting the Dzongu. Supporters of the Lepchas, meanwhile, are burning effigies of bureaucrats, getting themselves arrested for their activities, and blocking major highways with their protests. As of Monday, the hunger strike had entered its 59th day.
Also on Monday, Chief Minister Chamling charged that only a handful of people are involved in the hunger strike. “The rest are all outsiders,” he said, and he warned that interference by them would not be tolerated. His attempt to blame opposition to his policies on outside agitators appears to be his way of shifting the blame for the troubles away from his government’s policies and onto hostile outside forces.