A war of words continues in Sikkim over a proposed hydroelectric power project that endangers the natural ecology and spiritual values of the Dzongu Reserve, the homeland of the Lepcha people.
Early last week, news stories in India reported that a White Paper presented by the Sikkim State Government, “Development of Hydropower Resources of Sikkim,” examines problems relating to the proposed project. One issue the document focuses on is the opposition of the Lepcha people, which, it suggests, may present a national security concern. Sikkim, after all, is located on India’s sensitive northern border with China, and the continued good will of the indigenous people in the border region is very important to the nation.
The White Paper states, “a section of Lepchas of Dzongu in North district (under ACT) have raised vital issues related to the likely adverse impacts of hydro power projects on the conservation of their land, livelihood and environment. Their concerns need to be … examined from a very local perspective.” The group Affected Citizens of Teesta (ACT) has been leading nonviolent protests for several years against the dam projects.
Prepared by a research agency in New Delhi, Entecsol International, the White Paper emphasized the value of maintaining the good will of the Lepcha. “Since North district is surrounded by international borders, such kind of protest [by ACT] with strong undercurrent[s] of ethnicity and socio-political deprivation may not go well with the primary parameters of national security. This definitely needs the attention of the government.” A comparable situation exists in Ladakh. A recent journal article pointed out the importance for national security of the Indian Army building goodwill with the rural people in that region.
A few days after the White Paper was released, ACT issued its own statement, focusing on what it contends are illegalities in the ways the government is handling the hydropower project development. ACT General Secretary Dawa Lepcha charged that the state government has violated the Land Acquisition Act of 1894, a law dating from the colonial era which gave the national government and the states the right to acquire private lands for various public purposes.
Mr. Lepcha argues that the government is acquiring private lands for the benefit of the private company which is developing the project, the Himagiri Hydro Energy Pvt., Ltd. He cites various sections of the act and argues that the actions of the government and the company violate them. ACT has submitted its claims to the Chief Secretary of Sikkim, and it indicates that if the government does not address them by September 21, it will take the matter into court.
Based on information in the White Paper, Mr. Lepcha also questions the ways the government is handling the financing of the project. ACT suggests that unpredictable volumes of water in the rivers, the recession of glaciers, and other landscape issues might affect the repayment of loans.