The Affected Citizens of Teesta (ACT) organized a webinar on “Dams in Sikkim: Boon or Bane?” on July 4, 2021. The webinar was conducted on Google Meet platform and witnessed many participants and scholars from different parts of India and the world. Dawa Lhendup Lepcha moderated the webinar which primarily consisted of three speakers. The General Secretary of ACT, Gyatso Lepcha introduced the idea of the webinar and answered the queries the participants had regarding the activities of ACT and the anti-dam movement in Sikkim. He stressed on the importance of saving river Teesta and raised interesting questions on hydro-electric projects being projected as clean and green. He also recalled the disasters that struck Uttarakhand and Nepal and on the contribution of dams to it.
The guest speakers included Jiten Yumnam, the Secretary of Centre for Research and Advocacy, an indigenous peoples’ human right organization in Manipur. The next speaker was Usha Lachungpa, former Principal Chief Research Officer (Wildlife) and Additional Director, Sikkim Biodiversity Board and Neeraj Vagholikar, member of Kalpavrriksh, a leading environmental non-profit organization in India.
Jiten Yumnam discussed the financial angle behind the construction of dam projects. According to him Sikkim and other North-Eastern states have many private and public-private partnered dam projects. The money for many of these projects come from the World Bank and other international financial institutions. And there is a lack of transparency and accountability in these financial transactions. He concluded by noting that dams are unsustainable and they only add to the fragility of the Himalayas.
Usha Lachungpa, the next speaker, highlighted the impact of dam projects on the biodiversity. Her experience while being the Additional Director of Sikkim Biodiversity Board gave her enough exposure to study the rich flora and fauna of Sikkim. According to her, rivers are a part of our life and culture, and the coming of the dam projects challenged and disturbed this aspect. She suggested that it was time to re-think our journey towards development and stressed on the importance of smaller dam projects that would not have an adverse impact on the biodiversity and environment. She also said that most of the disasters that have struck Sikkim in the past years are more man-made than natural.
Neeraj Vagholikar started off his presentation by mentioning the fact of Teesta being a heavily dammed river. He applauded the ACT for their ongoing anti-dam movement against the Stage-IV hydro-electric project. The stretch of Teesta from Mangan to Dikchu is one of the very few free-flowing sections of the river. The Stage-IV project is proposed to construct a dam in this stretch, further disturbing the river. According to Neeraj, the largest dams have already been built in Sikkim, causing enough damage to the environment. He discussed in detail the history of development of dams in India. According to him, many environmental laws were violated in the construction of dams. He reflects that ideally, the State of Sikkim should have been judicious in allowing dam projects in the state. He also made an interesting argument in bringing to light that even if a state government has signed an MoU with any party in the construction of a dam, there are many factors that could nullify the agreement such as clearances from various departments involved with the environment, consent from the Gram Panchayats in the areas where the dam is to be constructed and so on. According to him, the Teesta Stage-IV project is yet to acquire clearance under the provisions of the Forest Conservation Act and attain consent from the GPO in the surrounding villages.
The webinar concluded with a flow of questions and the vote of thanks was proposed by Kelzang Dorjee Lepcha. The participants bid adieu, looking forward to more such enlightening discussions and the decommissioning of many existing dam projects for saving Teesta a better tomorrow.
By Vaidyanath Nishant. The author is a freelance writer. He can be contacted at [email protected]