The current issue of Frontline, a major Indian magazine, carries an informative feature story on the proposed Dzongu hydroelectric projects and the threat they pose to the Lepcha community of Sikkim. The article presents arguments from all sides in the controversy.

The government of Sikkim has proposed some 26 dams, many along the major river of the state, the Teesta. These proposed projects are part of a larger national development scheme which envisions the construction of 168 dams in northeastern India.

The article makes it clear that many powerful people support constructing the dams. For instance, Sonam Gecho Lepcha, a Member of the state Legislative Assembly from the Dzongu region, the area sacred to the Lepcha people in the northern part of the state, was formerly against the dams but he switched his allegiance. He told the Frontline reporter why. “Sikkim has the potential to generate 8,000 MW of power. We will get 12 per cent of the revenue from these projects. In every development project, there will be some minor destruction, but it’s not much,” he said. “No doubt there is some apprehension in my constituency, but the majority of people are in favour of the project. Why else would our party win in the local elections?”

An official from the Sikkim Energy and Power Ministry echoed the sentiments of the politician and insisted the dam project will be harmless. “It is the most eco-friendly project. There is no pollution, only a little during the construction,” he said. “We have got all the environmental clearances from the Central government. These are not big dams, just small diversion dams.”

The official maintained that the local Lepcha people of Dzongu willingly sold their lands for the proposed projects. “All landholders have given up their land for the Teesta projects without any objection. We have acquired 40 hectares of land. There was no force. They willingly took the money,” he said.

Lepcha activists strongly disagree with all of that, especially with the proposed desecration of the Dzongu. That area was protected from outside incursion even when Sikkim was an independent state, before it joined the Indian Union in 1975. Outsiders, even Lepchas who did not live there, had to apply for permits to enter the Dzongu.

The leaders of the Affected Citizens of Teesta (ACT), the leading anti-dam group, are in a hospital in Gangtok, the capital of Sikkim, with feeding tubes stuck down their throats to prevent them from dying due to their hunger strike. Last year Dawa Lepcha fasted for 63 days, and this year he has again been fasting since March 10.

Mr. Lepcha, interviewed in the hospital, decried the entire project and what he sees as its destructiveness. He argued that the state is rich in biodiversity, which the dams will help destroy. “If they are allowed to go ahead with the hydel projects, they will ravage, plunder and destroy everything,” he said. But he was especially agitated about the prospect of desecrating the Dzongu, much of which consists of the Kanchenjunga National Park that protects the world’s third highest peak.

“They plan to build four dams inside the Kanchenjunga National Park, two inside the Kanchenjunga Biosphere Reserve and two on the border of the reserve. Most of Dzongu falls in the Kanchenjunga Biosphere Reserve. The biodiversity of the entire region is at stake,” he maintained. “We Lepchas are nature worshippers. Many of our holy lakes and springs are in Dzongu. We cannot let our sacred land be destroyed.”

He gave the reporter some sound arguments along with his passion. “By building seven dams in the Lepcha-protected area, and allowing such a large influx of migrant labour, the government is violating its own laws. There are only 7,000 Lepchas in Dzongu. With just one project, we will be outnumbered. Our culture is under threat,” he says.

His hunger-striking colleague on the next hospital bed, Onchuk Lepcha, had similar things to say. “If the land is taken by industrialists, we will be refugees in our own land. It hurts us to see Dzongu being destroyed.”

Onchuk Lepcha explained to the reporter how politicians are brow beating the Lepcha people into submission. The fact is, he said, that the politicians and the large land owners stand to make money off of the construction. “People in our villages are innocent. They don’t understand the value of our land. Others can take advantage of them. That’s why the educated Lepcha youth are fighting. We know the dangers.”

The article includes a map of Sikkim, showing the Teesta River and the many proposed dam sites. It also includes a summary of the problems that have occurred due to the construction of the only dam so far that has been built, Teesta 5. According to the dam opponents, the blasting of tunnels caused landslides in villages near that project, and water sources have dried up.

The reporter visited the Teesta 5 project and quotes a number of local residents who claim that the construction of the dam destroyed their homes and farms. As one of them said, “This dam has destroyed Sikkim. Water used to spring out of the earth here. Now, it’s all gone – the trees, the farms, the grass. All the villages are hungry. This is the mango season. But there is no fruit. The flowers dry up because there is no water below.”

The article reviews a report submitted in August 2007 to the state Ministry of Environment and Forest (MOEF) on the final carrying capacity of the Teesta Projects. It opposes any construction above the town of Chungthang, located well south of the Dzongu, due to the danger of earthquakes, flash floods and landslides. It proposes small-scale projects in the more southern regions of Sikkim, and it urges agencies to heed local community sensitivities. It recommends community development projects that would help the farmers, such as small-scale irrigation works, health care, better schools, and protecting endemic species. However, the MOEF approved the construction of six dam projects even before the report was submitted.