Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Plumbing the Teesta

By Source: The Statesman on November 28,2007

Neeraj Vagholikar

The late Nari Rustomji who served as Assam’s chief secretary and Dewan of Sikkim had, through his writings, warned that development inputs into Sikkim needed to be within the absorptive capacity of the region. In 1998, the Expert Appraisal Committee on river valley and hydroelectric projects, appointed by the ministry of environment and forests, noted Rustomji’s observations while examining a proposal for environmental clearance for the 510-MW Teesta V hydroelectric project in Sikkim. Since this was one of the multiple large hydroelectric works in the ecologically and culturally sensitive Teesta river basin, it recommended a detailed study on the “carrying capacity” of the river basin before taking a decision. But the MoEF cleared the project in May 1999 without giving environmental clearance and conducting the carrying capacity study. However, one of the conditions for clearance was that “no other project in Sikkim will be considered for environmental clearance till the carrying capacity study is completed.”

Things have changed substantially since then. In the last three years the Sikkim government has signed agreements for at least 26 large hydroelectric projects. Since 2004, the MoEF has granted environmental clearance to at least seven new hydroelectric projects, in violation of its own mandatory condition. Sikkimese civil society groups such as the Affected Citizens of Teesta are disappointed that a golden opportunity has been lost. There was hope that the carrying capacity study process would enable a comprehensive assessment of cumulative impacts of the many proposed hydroelectric projects and a serious options assessment for ecologically and culturally sensitive economic development in the Teesta river basin. But the MoEF has continued granting clearance to one project after another without seriously examining the issue in a holistic manner as per its own mandated condition.

The so called “run-of-the-river” hydroelectric projects being developed involve the construction of large dams which divert the river waters through long tunnels, before the water is dropped back into the river at a downstream location after passing through a powerhouse. These projects are promoted as being “environmentally benign” as they involve smaller submergences and lesser regulation of water as compared to conventional storage dams. This perception conveniently ignores the impact of several features intrinsic to this design. For example, long stretches of the river will be bypassed between the dam and powerhouse, with up to 85-90 per cent of the river flow in the winter diverted through the tunnels. Not only will this destroy riverine ecology, but a cascade of projects will mean that the river is in full flow only in brief stretches between two successive hydel projects.

Since 20 June, the ACT and its supporters have been on a satyagraha in Gangtok against the juggernaut of dams planned in the state. The Buddhist monks have also joined the protests. Amongst the many concerns are the socio-cultural impacts on the small populations of indigenous communities due to an influx of large populations of outside labour and the ecological impacts on the Teesta river and the sacred Kanchenjunga landscape.
The former Chogyals had accorded special legal protection to some parts of Sikkim with respect to ancestral lands of indigenous communities and restricted entry of outsiders. This was further reinforced after the state’s merger with India in 1975 through Article 371 (F) of the Constitution which protects the old laws and traditions. Protesters feel that the current development plans contradict the legal and constitutional protection given to the indigenous people, reflecting Rustomji’s concerns about absorptive capacity of the region.

Meanwhile, the Teesta V project, which saw the MoEF committee refer to Rustomji’s thoughts during the decision-making phase, is in an advanced stage of construction and also embroiled in an enviro-legal battle. In an affidavit submitted to the Supreme Court-appointed Central Empowered Committee, the Sikkim chief secretary has admitted that the power company has “grossly violated the terms, conditions and guidelines” imposed by the MoEF and has deliberately dumped excavated material generated from extensive tunneling work “into the river Teesta obstructing its free flow, causing thereby huge damage to the forest and environment.”

The region is clearly facing an environmental governance crisis.

(The writer is CNES-Setu National Media Fellow 2007 and member, Kalpavriksh Environmental Action Group.)