Protests by the Lepchas about the Sikkim government’s plans to build dams which would damage their sacred Dzongu reserve have continued over the past few months. While protesters demonstrate and politicians argue, the first huge dam on the Teesta River, a 510 MW project referred to as Teesta V, is set to be completed in December. Concerns about the planned dam construction prompted some Lepchas to begin an indefinite hunger strike in June.
However, the Affected Citizens of Teesta (ACT), the major Lepcha group in Sikkim that has been leading the protests, decided on Tuesday, August 21, to temporarily suspend the indefinite hunger strike by two of its leaders, Dawa Lepcha and Tenzing Gyatso Lepcha. Instead, they switched to what they call a “relay hunger strike.” The two men responded to a personal appeal from Pawan Chamling, the Chief Minister of the State of Sikkim, to end the protests in favor of dialog.
Meanwhile, protests keep springing up in other areas inhabited by Lepchas. A group in Kalimpong, in West Bengal, calling themselves the Indigenous Lepcha Tribal Association, began their own indefinite relay hunger strike on August 23, in solidarity with the ACT movement. The leader of the newer group explained that everything the Lepchas believe in originates in the Dzongu, which is threatened by the proposed dams. “For us, there is no heaven and hell. When we die, our soul[s] returns to Dzongu,” he explained. Still another group, the Lepcha Youth Association, also began a hunger strike the same day in Kalimpong.
Despite his promises of dialog with the Lepchas, Chief Minister Chamling continues to maintain his hard line stance about the need to build dams. “My development is in tune with the government of India’s guidelines and the environment and ecology of Sikkim. There will be no compromise,” he told one reporter. He expressed his willingness to meet with the protesters and he indicated that his government is following all rules in developing the dam projects.
A few weeks later, the secretary for Public Relations of Sikkim, M.G. Kiran, supported the viewpoint of the Chief Minister. Referring to ACT, he said, “We do not yet know what their problem is. These are benign projects and we can handle them well.” The assurances of the politicians are questionable, however.
A few months ago, an official affidavit revealed that the contractor for the nearly completed Teesta V project had “grossly violated the terms, conditions and guidelines” established by the national government agency that is responsible for overall monitoring of dam construction in India. According to the report, the contractor had dumped excavated material “into the river Teesta obstructing its free flow causing thereby huge damage to the forest and environment.”
Over the past couple months the Indian news media have carried numerous stories about the posturing and protesting, but not much real negotiation appears to be developing. Additional groups of Lepchas have begun relay hunger strikes, opposition politicians have championed the underdog Lepchas, large crowds have participated in mass rallies, and various groups have traveled to New Delhi to meet national government leaders. The major issue is that the government of Sikkim intends to gain an estimated 20 billion rupees annually (US $493 million) in revenues once all the projected dams have been completed.
The most recent news about the situation may be slightly encouraging, however. According to a news report on October 24, Chief Minister Chamling met with some Lepcha leaders and indicated his sympathy for their cause. The Lepchas stated in the memorandum they gave him that the Dzongu is a sacred place for them that should be protected forever. He responded that he was “committed to protecting the sanctity of Dzongu and that no development work will be done at the cost of the culture, tradition, and identity of the Lepchas.”
The vagueness of Mr. Chamling’s comments is not too surprising, though the Lepcha delegates indicated they were pleased to have had a personal meeting with the Chief Minister. Perhaps the issue can be resolved without the sacred lands of the Lepcha being destroyed after all.