Not anti-dam, but pro-people and pro-environment


The first protest against hydel projects in Sikkim was launched in 1995 when Sonam Paljor Denzongpa sat on a hunger strike for 28 days demanding the scrapping of the Rathong Chu hydel project in West Sikkim. Twelve years later, Dawa Lepcha along with Tenzing Lepcha sat on a 63-day hunger strike also demanding the scrapping of hydel projects, but this time in North Sikkim. Around the same time in Assam, KK Chatradhara was also involved in protests against the Lower Subansiri hydel project, the largest project in the country.

SummitTimes spoke to the three activists, posing them the same set of questions in trying to get an understanding of what convinced them to risk so much for causes which, despite the universal impact, attract the passions of so few. Their activism and their sacrifices are well documented, here we try and delve into their convictions, faith and drive.

[Sikkim monks, with Karma P Denzongpa in white bakhu in the middle, rallying in Gangtok on 09 July, 1995, against the Rathong Chu hydel. Foto courtesy: Jigme N Kazi]

Q. None of you had any overt political or activist engagements until you got involved in your respective movements. What brought about this change? What convinced you to get involved in direct action?

DAWA LEPCHA: I had just finished my training in filmmaking and had come back home. I knew what was happening (with regard to hydel projects) but I thought it would just be one project (Teesta Stage V HEP). In 2002-03, however, I found out that 40-42 projects were being planned and I thought that was not a good idea. I met a few people who were involved with the Teesta-V protest.

There is always that point where you get that spark, you know. One day, I had just met Pemzang Tenzing and was going back to my village. I got off the vehicle and started walking home. It was evening time, the sound of crickets was all around and I was walking thinking about the hydel projects and all that. So as I was mulling over all these things, I got a strong feeling that I cannot let this happen to my place, I am not going to allow that. I was young, in my early 30s. That's when I made up mind I think, to do something about it.

SONAM P DENZONGPA: We were at Pemyangtse Monastery for a wang ceremony sometime in 1994. It was the Dorje Lopen, the Abbot, of the Pemayangtse Monastery who said that these projects (Rathong Chu HEP) will destroy the sanctity of the place. He was discussing plans on how the project could be stopped with some other monks but they could not figure out how to go about it.

We talked to him and he said maybe it's our generation that will have to do something about it. We discussed it amongst ourselves but we'd never done something like this before.

The next day the Abbot passed away.

Then I felt like it had fallen upon me to do something about it. He had passed the ball to us in a way.

KK ‘Bhai’ CHATRADHARA: People of Subansiri valley, even from Assam, were happy to say “Subansiri project is coming and will brighten our future”, long back during the 1990s to 2000. People demanded the project many times and it is even enlisted in Assam Accord of 1985. So, I was born and brought up in an environment where large dams were considered a good thing. At the same time, nature and our culture got me closely involved with the river.

When the construction started, it was disheartening to see the destruction of the beautiful landscape. I, Monoj and Binay started discussing about what development really means, what actually are large dams? That was 17 years ago. That was when I felt the need to get involved and build the movement. A paralysed Subansiri is painful to imagine, not acceptable at all.

From your experience, what are some of the biggest challenges facing environmental activists on ground?

Dawa: The biggest challenges are the lack of awareness among the masses and the well-oiled greed campaign by the vested interests.

Talking about environment here is difficult. I don’t believe in all these programmes held on environment, you know. They are all superficial. Actual work is never done. People haven't really understood the concept of environment. For instance, if you talk about saving trees in the villages, they will say 'there are enough trees here'. When you talk about the harm such projects will bring about in the future, it is difficult to convince people because we don’t have anything to show.

Maybe we were also not well equipped at that time, we could have found other ways to do it. But then, convincing people is very difficult. You talk about environment, that doesn’t work. You talk about social impacts, we don’t have anything to prove that. You talk about culture and people think that is not something that can be affected.

SONAM: We didn’t know how to mobilize people. We relied more on the spirits and prayers. There were a section of people who really believed in it. We also believed that it’s in the mind. We weren't doing anything negative but we didn’t know how to get things out and mobilize.

CHATRADHARA: Environmental activists have been defined as a “Response to some type of threat to a person’s environment, their family or an area or place that they love” (chase, 1999). Environmental activists usually emerge from the grassroots and the shortfall of organic leaders on the ground is one of the biggest challenges in current times. Also, it is easier to change the mindset of people who are anti environmental groups but are not well informed. Those who know the costs of harming the environment and yet oppose environmental groups, changing how they think is a challenge.

How easy or difficult is it to gather information on hydel projects to build arguments against it?

DAWA: Gathering information is not that difficult. By the time our movement came about, the RTI Act had come in and the companies were also forthcoming. I think the difficult part is the actual finances involved; who, where, how. Who really benefits after the peanuts have been handed out.

Having said that, I have reservation about building arguments…it never ends. The back and forth of it, often ending nowhere.

SONAM: It was interesting… things just fell into place. There was a young guy, Sundar, he is in Delhi now. So, he appeared and he was an environmentalist. He said he wanted to help. Then people said that we have to go to court. So he went and found a Supreme Court lawyer, Rajeev Dhawan, who just volunteered to help us. And things started to fall into place. The government would do some kind of video against our argument and they would not be able to release it…they would plan fancy books about how good the hydel projects would be and somehow the books just couldn’t get printed.

I think there were some people within the establishment also who felt that this is really not right. There was land that didn’t exist, which on paper they claimed existed. There were officers in the establishment who really helped us. I guess at that time you couldn’t get such papers out and they just helped us get it.

CHATRADHARA: Up to a level, it is not that difficult. Most powerful way is to gather as much information in favour of the projects, so that one can counter them.

Identity, beliefs or faiths are often invoked more than the environmental costs in building arguments against hydel projects. Do you think it is part of the plan or is there any planning involved at all?

DAWA: Of course, these above points are the most important and things that touch the sentiments of the people facing the direct onslaught of these developmental programs. So obviously they come in play whether there is a plan or not. If the masses were to understand the environmental argument, things won’t be that difficult at all.

SONAM: Sense of sacred is not just religious; it is about those things that have been here for millions of years. Those are sacred. So worship means to appreciate and acknowledge that, accept that because of them we are here. When you destroy them, you are destroying the future generations to come. You have to let them be. You don’t have to do anything. You just have to let them be. Let the lakes be, let the forests be, let the rocks be. There are spirits that live in the rock called 'tsen', there are spirits in the trees called 'lha', there are spirits that live in the water called 'lu'. All these things are like us. They live, they are born. We don’t see them now because our senses have become crude. As you become emotionally cruder you lose access to all these other beings. I, my, me is the focus.

We don’t even see other human beings, forget about other kinds of beings.

People think environmentalism has come from the West but it has been a part of our tradition for thousands of years. Mt Khangchendzonga was not made by Buddha, it predates everybody. That's been here. It's our protecting deity. For thousands of years the rivers have been flowing. The belief that this is a hidden land means that whatever we do here affects the whole cosmos. We don’t realize that. This place is very important and it is important to do positive things here.

Look at the weather patterns. There is no one cause. It is a cycle. When you pollute the sky it passes on to the water and in water lives 'lu' and 'lu' really suffers from pollution and then we get affected. It is all a cycle. But, it is a different way to look at it.

The hydel projects would carry out studies that would sometimes suggest that there were certain probable negative impacts but then suddenly they would come up with another report saying that everything is fine. It is basically greed. I am not so extreme as to say shut down all hydel projects but the river has to run. It is like our bloodstream, it has to run in our body. If you live in the mountains you've got to let the river flow. If you dam all the rivers, every living thing in the river gets damaged. What are you doing? I don’t think that they can promise to produce such things. It's all calculations from their point of view. I wonder what will happen after 10-15 years and what we have destroyed, how would we build it back? Once it's destroyed, it's really destroyed.

Reality is not out there, it is in our minds. Belief is part of the reality. When those beliefs are alive that is the reality. You can't say this is real and that isn't. You can't show calculations and say that is real. That’s also made up. They say once it appears in numbers, that’s real. How is it real? That’s not real. We are living here, this place belongs to us and we have to take care of it.

CHATRADHARA: Identity, beliefs and faiths can be part of the argument against hydel projects, however, we also need to emphasise and link science with each of these. The environmental and socio-economic costs should be highlighted more.

In the case of Subansiri, one of the demands was a downstream impact study from the dam site to the confluence up to Brahmaputra by involving local experts.

What do you think of environmental activists taking an apolitical stand, choosing to steer clear of any links with political parties or ideologies? Do you think activism can or needs to be divorced from politics?

DAWA: After my experience and whatever environmental successes or failures there have been around the world, it is not easy to have apolitical stand. One way or the other politics will get in. Even when the activists try to keep the movement clean of politics it is difficult. All these because there is the scrupulous opposite group hell bent on having their vested interest implemented one way or the other. ACT was projected as opposition party! Ground reality is very different. I think it all boils down to ‘whether you want result or you want to plod on and on and on?!”

So, my analysis is something like this. Suppose there is a political party which is in power and on the other side there are a few activists. When the activists' voices are not heard, they have to look for support elsewhere. That's when the opposition parties will try to come in. Even if the activists refuse their support, the ruling party will accuse the activists of being hand in glove with the opposition. Then the ruling party will activate its grass root level workers to lobby against the activists making it all the more difficult for the latter to convince people.

SONAM: We try to stay away from politics, as in party politics. When it comes to party politics, suppose one person comes to support you, because of that, another guy is against you. And you are in a camp now. When (opposition) politicians came to us, I just said look… this is for us, for the people, for the sacred land. Staying away from politics means not falling under any camp to avoid getting used. But I think it is political…in a way.

CHATRADHARA: Environmental activism is beyond political ideology or parties but one can’t ignore the politics in activism as well. A meaningful distance from political and religious activists helps to achieve the purpose of environmentalism. It seems political activists put environmental issues in their agenda to take the chair for 5-10 yrs. As the present Prime Minister did in 2014 by saying that “I know citizens of Arunachal Pradesh are against the large projects. I respect your sentiments. But protecting the environment and using environmental technology, hydropower can also be harnessed using smaller projects.” It was propaganda to win over the people for the short run.

Environmental activism continues to struggle in garnering mass support and wider public participation. What do you think is the reason behind the failure of so many protests across the globe? Why is environmental activism limited to the directly affected and how would you define 'stakeholders'?

DAWA: If you talk about environment, people don’t understand. So you’ve got to find a strategy that works. Otherwise you are just 2-3 people shouting and nobody is listening. In the case of Dzongu, whether you like it or not, most of the land being taken for hydel projects belonged to Lepchas. So you can't help the movement becoming about Lepchas.

And it also becomes a strategy when all else fails. You talk about impacts on fish migration and they (project developers) will show you fish ladders. By the way, not one dam has a fish ladder. If you talk about deforestation, they’ll say mass plantations will be carried out.

As for the definition of stakeholders, it would comprise of the entire state and not only the directly affected but I think awareness levels among the general public is low.

SONAM: Sometimes I feel like we are not a nation anymore. It's Dzongu… its religion. For instance our movement was about religion. There was incredible opposition but there wasn’t any real mobilization either, mass mobilization that is. It's Dzongu, it's Lepchas. There was no mass movement and that shows that the connection was missing. We fail to understand that this is our land, no matter who you are. Actually Guru Rinpoche had said people born here are my people, you take care of this land. Somehow this unity has broken down into different communities. Movements like these would be branded as Buddhist movement but we all share the river. It's ours, for generations to come. But that was difficult to overcome.

The positive thing was that those who could not support us openly were not ready to be manipulated by the political camps either. They did maybe feel like they weren't directly affected by the dams but they did not allow political groups with vested interests to push them against us either. So, it's unique.

CHATRADHARA: Romanticising environmental movements is one of the reasons for their failure. Class structures amongst the environmentalists/ activists is also adversely affecting movements as a whole. This happens to any form of movement. The concept of development is imposed with colonial mindsets and this is deeply rooted everywhere, so it is difficult to change the present form of developmental attitude within a limited period. It is human behaviour to respond or react only when you are hit and so is the case with environmental movements limiting activism to the directly affected.

But, Subansiri includes many other environmental movements so such limitations do not apply here. There is good support for the movements, only a few do not support us.

What do you think of anti-dam activists/activism always being branded as anti-development?

DAWA: The term is coined by groups with vested interests, be it the company or the authorities and all those down the ladder, which is fed to the masses who have no inkling of what it really means in totality. Activists should not be perturbed by such branding.

Personally, I think development is happiness in the long run and the hydel projects will make us cry in the future. I don’t think that's development. Let's have a smaller project, find a balance, maybe we can have one or two mega projects. But we are damming every river, tributary, stream from mega to micro to mini. None of them are functioning properly or are implemented well. So is that development? If you have one good project, maybe 10-20 MW, I think that will do a good job.

Why do we need so much? It's like we are trying to finish the food just because we have lots of it in the godown. Almost from it source to where it ends in Bengal, the Teesta has been dammed and tunneled. It’s the same for Rangeet. I think very soon people will not see Rongni Chu either once they put it inside the hill towards Rangpo at 32 Mile. In case they finish Teesta Stage VI HEP, there will be no Teesta either, because that too runs inside a tunnel.

SONAM: That's what they say, but I would counter that blocking every river is greed. That's not development. You show me how people in Dzongu or anybody is benefitting. How many people from Sikkim are employed in these projects? I've visited several of them, I don’t see it. It's cordoned off, it’s a world in itself, it's really isolated and it doesn’t seem like it's part of us but it's using all of our resources.

CHATRADHARA: It’s a kind of strategy applied to suppress the voices of activists by the pro-dam lobby. Many times it works too but we need to challenge it. I think, those who favour large dams are dangerous. I don’t want to position myself as an anti-dam activist but as pro-people, pro-environment, to safeguard our mother earth in the long run.

What role would you ascribe to the media in environmental activism?

DAWA: Well, media has always been a backbone of any activism around the world. Without it, it would be like shouting messages from one side of the valley to the other. In our case, we got good support from the media.

SONAM: I think just educating people, making them conscious, saying this is our land, this will affect you. We think we are so advanced but we are so far behind. When you take the native idea of all living beings and this modern idea…Now they are saying we are all citizens of earth because we are all facing same problems like climate change, etc. Native philosophy has always said that - we are all one.

One example, we do the mandala offering like this [brings both hands together intertwining fingers into the mandala mudra]. This [the ring fingers standing upright together] is the centre of the solar system and these [other fingers] are the four major planets. Now this is done by a village lady, uneducated, so called village lady. This signifies our solar system which means it's gone beyond our village, family, things like that…and this is the kind of education that has been going on for thousands of years…saying there are other beings, other planets, places beyond earth. That has been ingrained in our culture. It's only now we are saying - oh, one earth, one sky.

CHATRADHARA: Exploration and exposition are the key factors for success. Print, digital, social whatever medium plays a big role in encouraging people. It is the most powerful route to generate and disseminate information among the people. I have to say, media must take a pro-environment position, always.

What are the challenges in sustaining a movement?

DAWA: There are many but the most important is the support of the people. Without it, you get tired. During the hunger strike, there was a time when even sympathy was enough for us to soldier on. There were many passers-by who would not say very nice things to us. Of course, some people would shout "Ke tamasha ho yo!" but then there would also be those who would say "bechaara haru" as they passed by. That sympathy would also make us feel better, at that point of time.

SONAM: Sustaining a movement is really tough. We were only four of us so it wasn’t that bad. Actually I didn’t want to go to court but they said we have to. But it's difficult. That's why you have to have belief. You don’t have to be religious but you have to have incredible commitment to your beliefs. It was really hard to go on. Afterwards, somebody suggested to me that I should get into politics. I said we didn’t do it for politics. It sort of dilutes what we are and were for.

CHATRADHARA: Lack of unity among the people even when they are fighting for a common cause is one challenge. Also, strategies like bribing people used by pro-dam groups is a challenge in sustaining a movement.

SummitTimes presents a month-long series focusing on hydel projects and climate change in Sikkim and West Bengal. The series has been made possible with support from Wageningen University, NWO and UK Department for International Development [DFID] under Conflict and Cooperation in the Management of Climate Change research project ‘Enhancing mediascapes for sustainability and justice in the Eastern Himalaya’ coordinated by DLRP, a Darjeeling-based NGO. We will be featuring two articles every week.

More from the Spotlight series:

Journey from Teestamukh till Tso Lhamo

Sikkim's Hydel Story

People from Sikkim - The repository of climate change