Two Protests that Bookend the Dam Journey in Sikkim


Just about every hydroelectric project in Sikkim has met with some protest or the other during its construction. Most of these protests have, however, been incidental, complaining about “collateral” damage caused by the monumental civil engineering undertaking that even small hydel projects are, or to negotiate and re-negotiate compensation. Most of these protests have been “resolved” at the district administration level itself, but there have been two protests that qualify to be recognized as movements because of their consistent nature, the fact that they attracted the passions and energies of those who were not materially affected by the projects, because they were not hankering for sops and because they succeeded in getting heard and were respected for the positions they took.

The two hydel protests also bookend Sikkim’s hydel journey; with one coming right at the beginning when Sikkim had only begun flirting with the idea of hydroelectric generation on-scale and the second arriving in the wake of a deluge of such projects being sanctioned. Interestingly, although the two movements were twelve years apart, years in which much had changed in Sikkim and the world around it, they followed similar trajectories in how they played out. This will be an attempt to look at the two protests with the benefit of hindsight and see if any new perspective shakes out.

The Concerned Citizens of Sikkim and Affected Citizens of Teesta might be separated by a decade, but share more than just their credentials as “citizens” or the fact that both were special purpose vehicles on which powerful anti-dam movements were mounted. Both were born from informal coming together of individuals who shared a deep concern for the land and were willing to invest much more than passing comments on the potential dangers posed by one-sided pursuits of “development”. Both were initially dismissed as transitory irritants, and they could very well have fizzled out had the main actors not found the resolve to put everything on the line to challenge the establishment even though there was no precedence for such resistance in Sikkim.

In a way, CCS, formed in 1995, also laid the foundation for the massif of non-violent but steadfastly confrontational opposition to dams that ACT, formed in 2004, has taken to a whole new level since the year 2007. Where the former challenged a 30 MW hydel project on the Rathong Chu, a minor stream in West Sikkim, ACT eventually positioned itself in protest against a string of hydel projects proposed in Dzongu, the Lepcha reserve in the North district of Sikkim. Both invoked unique attributes of Sikkim to not only catch attention and build support, but also convince the uninvolved to sit on the fence instead of jumping to the other side.


THE ORIGIN STORY

Speaking to SummitTimes, Sonam Paljor Denjonga, who along with Pema Namgyal and Chukie Tobden formed the CCS in May 1995, shared the story of how they were left holding the “ball” on the Rathong Chu protest.

Sometime in the year 1994, Mr Denjongpa found himself at Sikkim’s premiere monastery, Pemayangtse, in West Sikkim. The monastery was hosting a senior Rinpoche who was to give teachings and offer blessings. At the time, Mr Denjongpa, was based in USA and would return frequently to his home in Sikkim to continue his religious training since he had also taken the robes as a lay monk. Coming from an old Sikkimese family, as were his fellow founder-members of CCS, and because of his religious leaning, he was also close to the Sangha here.

He must have felt lucky to be at Pemayangtse for the special event. Little must he have realized that the visit would go on to affect him and Sikkim in a major way, setting them off on a course that none of the three could have anticipated at the time.

The evening after the wang (blessing) ceremony, the Dorje Lopen (Head Monk) of Pemayangtse Monastery sat him down and told him about a hydel project being proposed on the Rathong Chu river in West Sikkim.

Rathong Chu is born in the higher reaches of the Khangchendzonga National Park near Dzongri, the trekking destination which is also at the heart of sacred spaces in Sikkim, and emerging into settled habitations at Yuksam, a village as steeped in Sikkim’s history as it is popular among trekkers, after which it courses a short distance before joining the Rangeet below Tashiding.

The dam for this 30 MW hydel project was to come up close to the spot from where water for Sikkim’s most important religious ritual – the Bhum Chu ceremony at Tashiding Monastery – is drawn. The Dorje Lopen voiced fears that construction so close to the holy site and the army of men and machine that such an exercise requires would defile the sacred space.

Speaking to the trio, he shared that they (the monk body of Sikkim) had tried to dissuade the authorities from continuing with the project and had failed. He admitted that he did not know what to do next, just that the project was not good for Sikkim, and said that perhaps it was time for the younger generation to get involved and devise a new approach.

With that the discussion ended.

And, the Dorje Lopen passed away the next morning.

He had passed the baton to them, and for those who believe in such things, entrusted his faith in them with what was akin to a dying wish. There was no way that the responsibility could be shirked now.

But there was also a lot else happening in Sikkim that year, developments in the political space which shortly after the Pemayangtse episode saw political confrontations of a kind Sikkim was new to, a government in office got toppled, a lot of ugly communal posturing played out and an election at the end of the year elected a new dispensation into office. Bigger games were afoot than the worries and concerns of a handful who did not still know where to go with the responsibility now shouldered on them or how to approach the task bequeathed to them by a master they all respected and loved. It would still be nearly a year before Concerned Citizens of Sikkim was formalized as a group and its position against the Rathong Chu HEP publicly announced.

ACT (Affected Citizens of Teesta), in comparison, had a slightly longer gestation period and also benefitted from the CCS experience and modeled many of its strategies from what the CCS had already tried and tested. Although an ad hoc committee under the banner of Affected Citizens of Teesta was formalized only in July 2004, its core team had cut its teeth with anti-hydel protests as the Joint Action Committee formed in the year 2002 to protest the Teesta Stage V hydel project at Dikchu in East district of Sikkim. (more about this in a later section)

When ACT was formed in 2004, it was essentially about hydel projects already announced for the Teesta - the Stage III [at Chungthang in North Sikkim] and Stage IV [further downstream at Singhik, near the North district headquarters of Mangan] Teesta Hydro-Electric Projects (HEP). It would be a couple of years more before it found its real strength and coherence around making it about protesting hydel projects in the Lepcha reserve along the Teesta and its tributaries.

Like CCS, in the initial days, ACT was also seen as a club of elitist “do-gooders” who did not have the stomach for a protracted confrontation or a connection with the masses which would be required to sustain a movement. Their romanticised ideas of development and culture were projected as being out of sync with the more immediate aspirations of the people for “development”.

But like CCS, ACT proved otherwise. This, perhaps because while most of the core team in both groups had received education which took them away from their roots, they returned better equipped and with a deeper appreciation for what was at stake. CCS found its mooring in religion and its sacred spaces while ACT anchored itself to protecting the last bastion of the Lepchas – Dzongu which was already a Lepcha reserve and which ACT would go on to very effectively portray as a holy land as well.

A spur at the end of a village in Dzongu

ACT must have realised that it enjoyed the strongest support from inside Dzongu when it recorded its first major success as a pressure group while standing up against the 300 MW Panan HEP proposed for construction on the confluence of the Tholung Chu and Rongyong Chu inside Dzongu. A joint-inspection team of district officials proceeding to the Lepcha reserve on 04 Sept 2006 to survey lands marked for acquisition for the Panan HEP learned of the sentiments which had found voice through ACT the hard way. ACT had managed to mobilize a 100-strong group of dissenters to lay siege to the Sankalang Bridge over Teesta, the only access to Dzongu from North Sikkim, to block the inspection team. The district officials made it through only after 10 preventive detentions were made and police escort provided.


THE BACK STORIES OF RELATED PROTESTS

CCS was not the first to register opposition to the Rathong Chu HEP. In fact, several organizations had tried it before them.

As the Late Dorje Lopen of Pemayangtse Monastery had told the CCS founders, they had tried and failed.

Monks, assembled under an organization by the name of Association of Buddhist Monks of Sikkim, had approached the then Congress Government of Sanchaman Limboo in Sikkim with a memorandum petitioning that the project be stopped since it posed a threat to their sacred landscape.

They must have hoped for a positive response since the project had actually been initiated and awarded by the Sikkim Sangram Parishad Government which the now Congress legislators had dethroned after much attrition, and ill-will still hung heavy in the air.

But that was not to be. They received no commitments and soon work began on the project site. Clearly, the real agents pushing the project through were still in office and calling the shots, in all probability not from political positions.

The Association of Buddhist Monks of Sikkim tried again a month later, this time along with the Bhutia Lepcha Association and the Tribal Women’s Association, when it moved a writ petition in the High Court of Sikkim against the project. Even this approach did not deliver the desired results because work on site continued without a hitch.

The monks were worried. They had seen religious structure swamped out by a hydel project right at the base of Tashiding Monastery, the same monastery which hosts the Bhum Chu ceremony, the very continuance of which was now being imperiled by the Rathong Chu HEP.

At the base of the Tashiding hill sits the Legship hydel project under which now lie the ruins of eight stupas which had been erected for world peace and for Sikkim’s prosperity. Story goes that the monks and Rinpoches of Sikkim had registered a formal protest against this loss when it was still a fear and not a reality in 1988. Their reservations were ignored. There was also talk of shifting the stupas and/ or cordoning them off to avoid submergence. But that is what it remained – talk although a solitary stupa does stand above the reservoir, perhaps a replacement or may even be unrelated.

A solitary Chorten on the banks of the Legship HEP reservoir. [photo: Diki Palmu Bhutia]


The monks did not want the Rathong Chu HEP to also get bulldozed through, but they had emptied their arsenal and made no headway. That is, until that conversation the Dorje Lopen had with the group that would go on to become the Concerned Citizens of Sikkim.

ACT, as mentioned earlier, grew out of the Joint Action Committee formed in the year 2002 to protest Teesta Stage-V hydel project at Dikchu on the border of East and North districts shouldering Dzongu. Most in the core team were not directly affected by this project in that they did not have lands in project area which would be acquired for the project. But they had seen and read enough about big dams and their impact to not get involved. Also, most of them were from the vicinity, knew the project-affected people and carried some weight among them.

Since this was the first “big” hydel project in Sikkim at 510 MW when the record till then was held by the Legship project at 60MW, the scale was big as well as was the footprint. JAC managed to build an imposing alliance with the project-affected and put up a strong protest.

However, it quickly became apparent that the priorities of the project-affected and the JAC team did not match.

Although the founders might not admit it, but it must have worried them that the JAC’s protest against Teesta Stage-V did not go as planned, their wider concerns of environmental, socio-cultural and demographic impact getting sidelined by the more material negotiations of compensation, contracts and employment.

And that is how the protest against Stage-V unraveled, the larger concerns getting pre-programmed assurances and the compensation amounts getting negotiated afresh and no objection certificates secured with further assurances leavened with commitments to award small contracts and employment and resettlement for the people and the at-risk infrastructure.

Stage-V was eventually commissioned in 2008, but nearly a decade since its turbines started generating, many of the concerns flagged by JAC at the time get reinforced every time damages are reported from the still projected affected areas and the book is still not closed on the cost of this “development.”

Although JAC lost the Stage-V battle, it managed to secure many firsts. Stage-V, at least on paper, is the first hydel project in the country where the National Hydroelectric Power Corporation, a public sector undertaking of the Govt of India, signed a fresh Memorandum of Understanding with the affected people and the State Government making several commitments to assuage their fears and concerns. Provisions were made for an oversight committee with some real powers and commitment to involve the people in major project-related decisions. Unfortunately, because no follow-up was initiated either by the people or the administration, the MoU was never put into any real effect. But a small victory had been notched and JAC would have gained some confidence from having taken on the establishment and secured such a commitment.

The core team must have also returned to a huddle to go over the lessons learned from their first brush with anti-dam protests and it is obvious that one of their resolves was to take a position as an organization and not a constituent of loose collaborations in which arguments can get diffused and positions and priorities changed. This they had learned from how the Stage-V protest had played out. So, when ACT was eventually launched in 2004 and its protests put into play a few years later, it would remain at the centre of the movement; taking allies along the way, but never again too dependent on outside support and always retaining the decision-making powers with itself.


THE POSITIONS TAKEN

Shortly after its formation in July 2004, ACT started collecting documents and researching hydel prospects and threats. Its members remained active behind the scenes and made their presence felt publicly for the first time during the Public Hearing for Teesta Stage III held at Chungthang in North Sikkim on 08 June, 2006. ACT office bearers spoke at the public hearing, but their protest was a minority voice with 80% of those present speaking in favour of the project. ACT’s questioning of the findings and recommendations of the Environment Impact Assessment report and the Environment Management Plan received no traction in a public hearing dominated by the affected people’s demand, which was backed by the Panchayats, that the project be started only after a proper cadastral survey had established land ownership so that compensation could be handed out accordingly.

The project got cleared and later, the National Environmental Appellate Authority also dismissed ACT’s appeal against the public hearing. The ghosts of the Stage-V experience had still not been exorcised.

The Teesta Stage V HEP dam at Dikchu where the ACT founders, as part of JAC, attempted their first anti-dam protest.


And then, ACT received the morale boosting show of strength and support for its position against a hydel project proposed inside Dzongu. The reference here is the incident on Sankalang Bridge mentioned in an earlier section. Then played out a round of shadow-boxing, with ACT going public with its reservations about the project, and while it kept busy with getting the word out, the district administration completed its survey and collected No Objection Certificates from 74 of the 99 families whose lands would be acquired for the project. The “quorum” had been achieved in favour of the project.

The public hearing for this project held in September 2006 too arrived at the expected conclusion – a go ahead for the project from the majority provided their demand for adequate compensation was addressed. The hearing was heated though, and what ACT lacked in numbers, it made for with passion, so much so that some of its younger members had to be taken away from the venue and kept under police watch on the sidelines for the duration of the hearing.

Although the Panan hydel project managed to pass the public hearing muster, ACT had made its strongest presence yet. Although its involvement in protesting other hydel projects along the Teesta continued for some more time, the group, now made up almost entirely of Lepchas with most of them from Dzongu itself, started focussing more on challenging the hydel projects proposed in the Lepcha reserve and on its borders.

The hydel protest was now coalescing into a Dzongu-specific, Lepcha-driven stand and that is when it started gaining momentum and appeal. It also helped that Dzongu had a ringside view of how ugly and devastating a hydel construction site can get thanks to the Stage-V construction on its southeast border at Dikchu. Further, a temperamental Teesta and engineering oversights had seen some villages on the Dzongu bank of the Teesta suffer because of the work on Stage V.

Dawa Lepcha of ACT also admits that it was proving very difficult to convince people of the environmental and socio-cultural impact of big projects since they could only speculate on what could happen if the five hydel projects proposed for inside Dzongu and two more on its borders were allowed to proceed. An appeal to their exclusive identity and the purity of the land somehow became more accessible arguments for the people. Eventually, that was the line that ACT would take.

The decision to focus on religion, meanwhile, was much quicker for CCS to arrive at. Apart from the fact that it was faith and monks who had initiated the protest against Rathong Chu HEP, it was also at the root of the reasons why the CCS founders had taken up the issue in the first place. All other arguments like the shoddiness of the environment impact assessment or doubts about the efficacy of the Power Department and the rush with which the project was being pushed along were in fact incidental to building the arguments against the project, more like supporting evidence especially when they moved the Courts. In the public domain, the focus was primarily on faith, and like ACT ended up with Lepchas on the fore, CCS would become a movement powered almost exclusively by monks and monasteries of Sikkim.

The CCS was formed in May 1995, nearly a year after previous attempts by other organizations had tried and failed to convince the government to even hit the pause button on the project. Between the two years that passed since the project was initiated to when CCS was formed, Sikkim was now in its third government. A new dispensation was in office in the State, at the helm of affairs for the first time.

CCS started off with re-establishing connections with the monks and monasteries of Sikkim. It must not have been difficult to convince the Sangha to oppose the project given the providence of how CCS had come about and given the fact that senior monks and Rinpoches had already registered their opposition to the project.

So, within a month of having been formed, CCS members were calling on the Governor and the Chief Minister with a memorandum petitioning that the 30MW Rathong Chu HEP be stopped immediately. The letter also served an ultimatum, conveying that if the authorities failed to act within three days, CCS would shift gears to a different course of action.

At least in the public domain, the CCS protest had still not presented itself completely as one of religion or the monk body of the State. The petition was signed by the three founding-members of CCS and Bollywood star Danny Denzongpa, who incidentally hails from Yuksam where the project was to come up. The involvement of ordained monks and monasteries was not yet explicit.

The barely six-month old government, perhaps sensing an Opposition hand (it was still a government with a very slim majority in pre-Anti Defection law times) and clearly on the advice of still-powerful bureaucrats, responded with surprising aggression, rejecting the protest group as agent provocateurs misguiding the people in pursuit of their anti-development agenda.

Sonam P Denjongpa recalls that when they started the protest, all they knew was that the project had to be stopped. They had no idea of how they would do it or what would be required of them. For inspiration they had no examples around them and drew strength instead from the anti-dam protest launched by Kayapo natives in distant Brazil, a documentary film on which they watched and later also screened for the monks.

Within days of the State Government’s rejection of their demand, Mr Denjongpa of CCS arrived at a tent put up outside what was then known as Sukhani House above Gangtok’s heart, MG Marg, and where a private car park now stands. He began a hunger strike to protest the Rathong Chu hydel project and demanding that the project be stopped.

Remember, there were no local dailies in Sikkim at the time and national newspapers, which anyways arrived at least a day late here, did not usually make space for news from Sikkim. Further, CCS did not build up to the hunger strike, it just began it, kind of like how ACT would begin its own hunger strike in Gangtok twelve years later – suddenly.

The venue of the hunger strike was difficult to ignore and people – from politicians to lay citizens to government officers and a lot of monks – started calling on Mr Denjongpa and learning about the reasons for the protest. Few would have disagreed with their arguments but it must have quickly become apparent that in a small place like Sikkim, the only section for CCS to easily tap into and bring to the streets would be monks because not only would they be easier to reach out to through the monasteries, they were also free from the fear of victimization which could deter the lay folk.

Mr Denjongpa is frank about his reliance on monks and faith.

“Instead of focusing on other arguments and approaching other agencies, my personal faith rested in the spirits and deities of Sikkim. As for the monks, they were the most forthcoming. Just one letter and they all showed up for a rally in Gangtok,” he shares.

And CCS would flaunt this strength in impressive numbers a month later when it rallied through Gangtok in a procession joined by around 500 monks, followed by an army of elderly women chanting prayers and led by senior lamas representing the monasteries of the State demanding that the project be stopped. They ended the rally by calling on the Chief Minister and reiterating their demand.

The equation with the State Government had improved slightly by then and now the movement was presented publicly as one powered by monks and their fears for their faith. It would however be around two more years before the project would eventually get scrapped and in the interim was also a case moved by CCS against the project in the High Court which ended in the State Government’s favour.


THE HUNGER STRIKES AND THE SNIDE REMARKS

Sonam Paljor Denjongpa and Dawa Lepcha are a generation apart, the former probably in his sixties and the latter having only just entered his forties, but they are very similar in their self-effacing nature and polite demeanour, qualities which can distract from the stubborn commitment with which they campaigned against different hydel projects at different times to only slightly different outcomes.

Looking at Dawa today, he almost appears healthy, showing no signs of the battering his body must have taken during the two staggering hunger strikes he undertook as part of ACT along with Tenzing Lepcha – the first for 63 days and the second for 83 days – to protest hydel projects in Dzongu.

It is possible that Mr Denjongpa’s training as a monk helped him in his 28-day hunger strike against the Rathong Chu hydel project, but then again, no amount of training can prepare one for the resolve required to stay the course for that long especially when marching on uncharted territory and often in the face of uncharitable remarks.

Dawa can laugh about some of these instances now and Mr Denjongpa makes light of the comments that made their way back to him, but at that time these must have been difficult to hear and it is to their credit that they hold no grudges and can brush them off as part of the challenge they had taken on.

Mr Denjongpa shares that he frequently heard “crazy” in reference to himself, as much to describe the indefinite hunger strike he had undertaken in a Sikkim where challenging the establishment for anything beyond party politics was unheard of, as to explain his rejection of the many “offers” that had reached him to “compromise” and call of the hunger strike and the CCS protest.

“And that description followed me for a long time even after the hunger strike was over,” he winks. That would be until they won and convinced the State Government to scrap the project eventually despite the many crores that had already been invested into it.

Dawa too has many stories to share of his time through the two extended hunger strikes he undertook. The most frequent “irritant” at the time was when groups would walk past the BL House at Tibet Road where the hunger strike was underway and intentionally wonder aloud, loud enough for them to hear, what the fuss was all about. “Tamasha,” is what these passers-by would call their Satyagraha.

With the protest heading nowhere and their bodies feeding on the internal organs (something that would have kicked in by the second week for Dawa and Tenzing), they would settle for even a “poor guys” comment that they would overhear some lay passers-by make and draw solace from that.

But what would have definitely hurt most was what Dawa overheard a youth ask someone near the venue: “What is happening here?” And this is was close to 300 days since the ACT relay hunger strike and the two extended fasts by Dawa and Tenzing had been underway there!


THE AGGRESSIVE POSTURING

While they might have been able to ignore the snide remarks by passers-by as being inconsequential to their protests, it must have nerve-wracking when t