A conference about dams held in India’s Assam State last week featured a presentation by a Lepcha activist that described the successful campaign against hydropower projects in the Teesta Valley. The two day meeting in Guwahati, a major city in northeastern India, was sponsored by PANOS South Asia, part of the international network of PANOS institutes, and by the Kalpavriksh Environment Action Group, located in the city of Pune.
Tseten Lepcha told the conference how his group, Affected Citizens of Teesta (ACT), had campaigned against the hydropower projects for nearly a year and finally won a dramatic victory in June when the Sikkim government agreed to cancel four of the dams. ACT argued that the dams would violate the Kanchenjunga National Park and the Dzongu region of northern Sikkim, a mountainous area that is sacred to the Lepcha people.
Mr. Lepcha told the audience his reason for attending the conference: “At last out of six, four projects were scrapped and it is great achievement for us. I think so far the government did not scrap any of the hydel projects in other states of Northeast, except Sikkim. We hope to share our experience with activists from other states of the region.”
He described ACT’s strategies during their campaign. “We ensured large scale public participation in our sustained campaign against dams. It is because of the sustained campaign with participation of large number of people that forced the government to scrap four projects in North Sikkim district.” Specifically, he listed blogging, sit-ins, demonstrations, and internet campaigns as important aspects of their effort to make sure that dams were not built in the northern section of the state. ACT is committed to preserving the living areas of the indigenous Lepcha people and the ecology of their mountains, he said.
Numerous other speakers—technicians, activists, and academics—added to the dialog about dam-building in the northeastern region of India. Rohan D’Souza, from the Jawaharlal Nehru University, said that large dams are always win-lose projects, not win-win efforts. Dams require a “tremendous dismissal of traditional uses of water,” he emphasized.
Prof. Monirul Hussain from Gauhati University warned that rivers that formerly provided potable water became polluted when they were blocked by dams. Even the cattle can’t drink from one river he named since a dam was built. Also, the dams do not seem to help prevent flooding in the river valleys. Floods that used to extend for a few days have become, since the dams were built, virtually permanent occurrences, he indicated.
Nani Gopal Mahanta, from the same university, argued that building dams often denies human rights to indigenous peoples. The UN Declaration on the Right to Development, he said, points out that individuals should be active participants and beneficiaries of development projects. Other speakers said that the human rights of indigenous peoples in Northeast India should be a major concern for government agencies, which often did not seem to address those issues when they concocted their development schemes.