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Dam The Lepchas

April 2012: Photojournalist Shailendra Yashwant writes about threats to Dzongu, the legendary land of the Lepchas,in the Himalayan state of Sikkim in India.


There are about 28 mega hydel projects being built in the tiny state of Sikkim on the Teesta river and its tributaries. The river drops from an elevation of 5,280 m. to about 230 m. over a distance of 175 km., making it attractive to dam builders. But the area is geologically  fragile, and prone to earthquakes as we have seen. Credit:Shailendra Yashwant


As we wound our way up and down the steep roads of the Himalayan landscape and crossed the Teesta river to enter Dzongu, my host, Gyatso Lepcha, stopped his four-wheel drive in front of yet another boulder blocking our road, a result of the landslides that still shake the mountainside since the earthquake. Far away, towards the west, hidden behind the mist and clouds was Khangchendzonga, the third highest peak in the world and the guardian deity of the Lepcha people who believe they were created to protect and worship the peak. Dzongu extends across a mere 78 sq. km. geographical area. Its vertical terrain, rising from 700 m. to 6,000 m. above mean sea level, is a diverse, snowy, mountainous landscape with steep valleys, narrow gorges and flanking slopes clothed in dense forest. Three climatic zones prevail in this natural wonderland – tropical, temperate and alpine, each with its distinctive ecological touch. Bordering the Khangchendzonga National Park, Dzongu straddles the Himalayan and Indo-Myanmar biodiversity hotspots, that host many endemic vertebrate and invertebrate species, it is also home to about 4,000 Lepchas, the only residents of Dzongu. Outsiders, even from within Sikkim, need a permit to enter. Predictably, there were many ‘outsiders’ at the district administration office applying for a permit at Mangan, the last checkpoint before you enter north Sikkim. The majority were workers from the plains in their white hats, orange trucks, red bulldozers and yellow earth-movers, headed for the Panang-Panan Hydropower-project site. Outside the buzz was about the crores of rupees from the Central Indian Government and the millions of dollars from the World Bank earmarked for the state in the aftermath of the September 2011 earthquake.


People of the Earth


Samdup Taso, the last Khangchendzonga Bongthing – the high priest who presided over the worship of the peak – was killed by aftershocks in October 2011 and this left a pall of gloom over most Lepcha homes. Lepchas like to identify themselves as ‘Rong kup’ – the ‘sons of the snowy peak’ or ‘Mutanchi’ meaning ‘the beloved people of mother Earth’. Gyatso regaled me with stories, a favourite pastime of the Lepchas, for whom every river, mountain, tree, bird, animal, insect and stone is steeped in myth and legend. For them, environment and religion are intertwined and their own lives are firmly embedded in this special ecology. Like so many other indigenous peoples, the ancient tribes here are disappearing even faster than their natural world, which is being obliterated rock by rock by huge earthmoving machines.  The Lepchas believe that their souls go to Dzongu when they die. So it is not surprising, goes the local joke, that it was expat-Lepchas from Kalimpong, Darjeeling and Gangtok, who fear that their souls will not have a place to go to, who led the protest against the building of hydropower projects on their sacred Rongyoung Chu river, a tributary of Teesta that flows through Dzongu.  The Rongyoung Chu river is especially venerated as it is believed that after a Lepcha dies, his or her soul will only find salvation after completing certain rituals on this river. Looking at the Rongyoung Chu river flowing through the stunning landscape around me, I was totally convinced that indeed must be the case.


The Dzongu landscape is beautiful beyond belief. With an astounding species count of 600, it is home to more species of birds than any other forest of its size in the world. The higher reaches of the mountains also play host to endangered species such as the snow leopard and the chestnut-coloured red panda Ailurus fulgens, the state animal of Sikkim. Credit:Shailendra Yashwant  


A battle worth fighting


Come morning, I met with Athup Lepcha, former Forest and Environment Minister of Sikkim and President of ACT (Affected Citizens of Teesta), a loose coalition of concerned Lepchas that spearheaded the last push to stop further destruction in Dzongu by the hydropower projects. He more or less reiterated what A.R. Foning, stated in his book Lepcha, My Vanishing Tribe – “…the sun the moon, and the stars, trees and plants, animals, birds and insects, act as our infallible calendars,  timekeepers… and guide… our very existence is inextricably bound up and interwoven with these things that God has given us.” “Protecting Dzongu is our duty, everything about it is sacred to our people and we are its guardians,” Athup Lepcha asserted with great agitation. Walking down through the forest towards the river, avoiding bugs and leeches, I saw admirals, tortoise shells and siverstripes. It was easy to see why Sikkim is known as the Valley of Butterflies. Of the 1,400 species of butterflies recorded on the Indian sub-continent, 50 per cent are found in Sikkim. I wish I had brought the Butterflies of Sikkim with me so I could identify more.  Rhodendrons and orchids are the jewels in the crown of Sikkim’s biodiversity, but few people are aware that this tiny state also harbours more species of birds than any other area of comparable size in the world – a total of 600 species! The greatest diversity is undoubtedly found in the warm lower valleys, but in the distance, I could make out the silhouette of the Bearded Vulture sailing over high mountain slopes. Around me I recognised cuckoos, redstarts and sunbirds. Gyatso assured me that deep inside the forests on the high mountain slopes, some of the most elusive animals on the planet are still to be found, including the elusive snow leopard and the goral, Himalayan tahr and bharal or blue sheep upon which they prey. I, of course, saw none! My driver had regaled me with stories I took with a pinch of salt, of herds of yaks roaming in the desolate mountains above Lachen. But I had earlier seen the bright, chestnut-coloured red panda, the state animal of Sikkim on the outskirts of Darjeeling.  Drawn by the butterflies, I gingerly tiptoed down to the banks of the Rongyoung Chu river, aware that every stone I stepped on was sacred, every grove the resting place of a protective spirit and every plant, creeper and tree a source for prayer. How, I wondered, was it possible then that apparently intelligent people sitting in far-away New Delhi failed to recognise the impact of their ‘development’ plans on all this bounty?


The chase for power


Two dams are slated to be built on the Rongyung Chu river in the Dzongu region of the Khangchendzonga Conservation Area. With a warming climate causing glaciers that feed the rivers to melt, the very viability of investing huge amounts of money on dams is questionable. Credit:Shailendra Yashwant


While the dams in the Northeast of India have been exposed for the ecological damage they are going to wreak on us, the 28 mega hydel projects being built in the tiny state of Sikkim on the Teesta river and its tributaries (see Sanctuary Vol. XXXI, No. 3, June 2011), are barely known. The river drops from an elevation of 5,280 m. to about 230 m. over a distance of 175 km. making it ideal for the generation of hydropower say the engineers, who do not add that the area is geologically fragile and earthquake prone. Scientists have also pointed out that a warming climate is causing glaciers that feed the river to melt much faster than anticipated, so, in any case, they may run dry. This surely places a huge question mark on the viability of the entire idea of investing huge sums on dams but that hardly concerns those whose objective is to profit from the immediate contracts that will be issued. They are happy to leave the aftermath to younger people who will bear the brunt of such folly.   Meanwhile the blasting and tunneling work continues, exacerbating the frequency and impact of landslides. Gyatso, Kachyo, Dawa and practically every Lepcha I spoke with are aghast that despite Dzongu’s restricted status, ostensibly to protect its people’s culture, the government can even consider imposing an intrusion as gargantuan and as abusive as changing the very course of their holy river.  Gyatso, a peaceable man, was bitter. And well should he be. The tiny state of Sikkim was building so many dams when its own peaking power demand is not estimated to exceed 90 MW. If this is not colonisation, what is?  The next day, we trekked up to Lingden to take a look at the earthquake damage. As we gained height, I made frequent halts to take pictures of fields of rice, maize and millet tucked delicately into the steep slopes. On the way we stopped at Kachyos house and were received warmly by his sister-in-law. From her large kitchen came the delightful smell of brewing tongba (millet beer) and as tea was being readied, I was able to wander through her kitchen garden where sugarcane, pumpkin, cucumber, chillies, garlic, spinach and sweet potato grew amidst orange trees. They could live like this forever. We made the final ascent towards Lingthem Gompa, and were taken aback to see the earthquake damage at the monastery. The village Bongthing, or shaman, agreed to meet us. He sat outside, a brooding presence, sifting seeds on a large bamboo mat lost in thought. As we approached him, he squinted through his tiny eyes, gave us a magnanimous smile and then boomed in an ancient voice – “welcome but beware, the gods are unhappy” and then went silent. He was not very responsive to my questions. I understood his reluctance, respected his need to contemplate and slowly retreated from his space.


Sustainable development –  a way out?


The sacred Rongyong Chu river, flows through Dzongu near Mangan before it meets the Teesta river. The Lepchas believe that after a member of their tribe dies, his or her soul will only find salvation after completing certain rituals on this river. Credit:Shailendra Yashwant


Later that night, sipping warm tongba with a bamboo straw from a big wooden tumbler, I looked up at the sky and understood why the people of Sikkim believe that stars are the laughter of the gods frozen for eternity on the face of heaven. Warm and comfortable at home and thanks to tongba, Gyatso was expansive. He spoke about his reason for joining the campaign to protect Dzongu, his participation in the relay hunger strike and how he travelled from village to village, from Gangtok to Delhi, in an effort to make policy makers see some sense. Finally in a moment of personal epiphany, he announced: “It is not enough to protest destructive development, we must demonstrate viability of alternative, sustainable development strategies.” He has since decided to convert his parent’s house into a homestay to promote eco-tourism, which he feels can help in the conservation of the Dzongu landscape. Mayal Layang, paradise at the bottom of the mountain, the other magical name of Dzongu, is what he calls his homestay, which has already hosted the crown prince and princess of Norway, who surprised him and the state by choosing his modest home for their family vacation.   Gyatso is well aware of the pitfalls of eco-tourism but he sees a new “consciousness among the young visitors who make it as far as Dzongu”. He hopes that the awareness he is creating might open the eyes of people. After all there are just so many places left worth protecting on this planet.  I spent a few more days in Dzongu and Sikkim documenting and researching the potential impact of the 28 destructive dams planned across the Teesta. Not a single person I met supported the dams. All felt that they reeked of financial scandal and political corruption and would aggravate the existing problems of the people by causing natural disasters such as landslides and floods. Far away from the scene of action, scientists ratify such fears. Natural forests, they say, are going to be vital to any hope we have of tempering the fearsome impact of climate change. But these are naïve fears in the eyes of those who have learned to reap short-term profit at the cost of people and the environment. As far as they are concerned, the Lepchas, their forests, their wildlife might as well be dammed.


An unconcerned government


In recent news, the Sikkim government, following the recommendations of a committee under the Chief Secretary, has scrapped two hydropower projects, the 96 MW Lethang and the 99 MW Ting Ting projects, on the Rathong Chu river and kept the 97 MW Tashiding Hydroproject in West district “under examination.” It must be noted, however, that the Lethang Hydroproject had not been granted a No Objection Certificate by the National Board of Wildlife and the Ting Ting Project had not seen much development anyway. The Tashiding Hydroproject has completed the land acquisition process and so the government is loathe to scrap it.


The decision represents no change of heart for the government. Little has been done to make the people safer following the September 2011 Sikkim earthquake. Climate change and its impact on the economic projections made to justify the dams is not even a blip on the radar of contractors, politicians and planners, all of whom stand to gain personally at public cost.


The list of hydel projects and their status is available on https://www.sikkimpower.org/power/files/Status_of_HEPS.pdf


Published in Sanctuary Asia, Vol XXXII No. 2, April 2012


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