The Affected Citizens of Teesta (ACT), an organization established in 2006 completed 14 years of anti-dam and environmental movement today. The organization consists of the people of the Lepcha community, belonging primarily to Dzongu, Sikkim. They came forward to protect their land and people on cultural and environmental grounds. They began their protest the National Hydro Power Corporation (NHPC) in 2007. The proposal then was to construct multiple dams on the river Rangyong in Dzongu. The journey began with an indefinite hunger-strike led by the Lepchas of Dzongu in 2007, and it gained momentum over the years.
The history of anti-dam protests and struggles in Sikkim dates back to 1994. In 1994, the government of Sikkim proposed the construction of three dams in the then capital, Yuksom. According to the proposal, three dams were to be constructed across the Rakthong Chu: 99 MW project in Ting Ting, 96 MW project in Lethang and 97 MW project in Tashiding. This proposal witnessed strong opposition from the Buddhist lamas from West Sikkim, as Rakthong Chu was considered a holy river and the act of tampering with this natural treasure interfered with their religious sentiments.
In 1995, the Association of Buddhist Monks submitted a memorandum to the government of Sikkim to act against the proposal. This was followed by a writ petition being filed at the Supreme Court of India by the Association of Buddhists Monks, Bhutia-Lepcha Association and the Tribal Women’s Association. This petition was transferred to the Sikkim High Court. The year 1995 also witnessed massive protests by Concerned Citizens of Sikkim (CCS) and organization that came together to raise their voice against the silence of the government on this matter.
It concluded with the suspension of two of the projects in Ting Ting and Lethang. The next major movement Sikkim witnessed was the movement led by Affected Citizens of Teesta. This movement encompassed of a larger ideology that was based on the protection of the culture and ecology of a region.
Sikkim is a state that is located in the Eastern Himalayas. The Eastern Himalayas are young and fragile, which makes the region landslide prone. Along with this, Sikkim also lies in a seismic zone, making it vulnerable to frequent earthquakes. We had all witnessed the tragedy Uttarkhand faced in 2013. There was a sudden cloudburst that led to the flooding of the valley in 2013, taking a toll on lives, property and nature. This incident left many in shock as they witnessed the wild, rushing water washing away structures of concrete as it angrily made its path.
A similar incident took place in August 2016, when a sudden cloudburst caused a heavy landslide in Mantem village, Passingdong, Dzongu. Though there were no loss of lives, the water washed away many homes. But for some fortunate reason, this was not followed by a flood. Instead, the water collected and formed itself as a lake. Surprisingly, the government, instead of addressing the calamity and reconsidering their decisions about its interference with nature, turned the newly-formed lake into a tourist destination.
In a land where man has been co-existing with nature for decades, the definition of development is slightly different. It is on the lines of this different ideology of sustainable development and an anti-dam outlook, that the Affected Citizens of Teesta was established in Dzongu.
According to their website, ACT introduces themselves as, “an organization of indigenous Sikkimese citizens to protect the land and people from the threat to the Biodiversity Hotspot (Khanchendzonga Biosphere Reserve), endangering the demographic profile to the indigenous primitive Lepcha tribes and the right to live in one’s own homeland with dignity and security due to implementation of numerous mega hydro-electric power projects in one go.”
The movement marked its beginning in the year 2007 against National Hydro Power Corporation’s Teesta Stage IV project. Many people from Dzongu participated in an indefinite hunger strike that lasted till September 2009.
In 2009, the government of Sikkim assured to suspend four of the seven projects on the Rangyong river (Rangyong 141 MW project, Lingzya 120 MW project, Ringpi 90 MW project and Rukel 33 MW project). The hunger strike began on June 22, 2007 with the then leaders of the movement, Dawa T Lepcha and Tenzing Lepcha in the forefront. Since then, ACT has been involved in a continuous struggle against the State-led dam missionary. They have resorted to peaceful protests and have been creating awareness among the people on the issue. They have also been taking the legal path in representing their voices at various tribunals and courts. For instance, in March 2015, ACT filed a petition at the National Green Tribunal. This movement marks the completion of 14 years today, and the struggle for the conservation of ecology and mankind continues.
Gyatso Lepcha, the General Secretary of ACT, who identifies himself as a River Activist says, “It is a historic day for all of us. We began this movement years ago as young people, and today as we gathered following COVID-19 protocols to mark the anniversary of our movement, it was nice to see many young faces coming forward to participate and take the movement forward.”
“We still have faith in our movement, as it is based on a cause that is universal. We are not against the idea of development, but we are fighting for sustainable development. With this idea, some of us with hopes of a better future for Dzongu and Sikkim, we move forward with the movement.” He added
The idea of development has turned into an antonym of sustainability and anyone who questions the path of development, is projected as anti-State and anti-development. But it is the need of the times to reconsider the idea of development. Any form of development that interferes with nature has resulted in disasters. From floods to earthquakes, the impact of natural disasters is worsened by the man-made ones. The degree to which we contribute to the impact of natural disasters is something we must reflect upon in our understanding of development. On this historic day, let us all congratulate the members of Affected Citizens of Teesta for their seamless and effortless struggle for the people and ecology of Sikkim.
By Vaidyanath Nishant. The author is a freelance writer. He can be contacted at [email protected]