Stabbing the Mountains

by Bappaditya Paul

In May 2003, the Centre launched the 50,000 MW hydroelectric initiative as a step forward to tap the near 78 per cent unutilised hydropower potentials in the country. In all 162 new hydroelectric projects across 16 Indian states were proposed and the National Hydroelectric Power Corporation was identified as the nodal agency for execution.
The North-east topped the list with 76 hydroelectric projects proposed across Sikkim, Meghalaya, Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Manipur and Mizoram, which on completion would alone generate 31,885 MW power.

The under-construction Teesta Low Dam Project-V in Sikkim
The ten projects proposed in Sikkim, as estimated, would yield 1,469 MW energy. All these projects were envisaged in the river Teesta and its tributaries. The Teesta, with a 7,755 square km catchment area, traverses a 414 km distance cutting across Sikkim, parts of Darjeeling hills and the plains of Jalpaiguri before submerging into the mighty Brahmaputra in Bangladesh.
Four years down the line, now in 2007, of the ten proposed hydroelectric projects, the Teesta stage-V is near completion, Teesta stage-IV is under survey and investigation, while another five projects in north Sikkim have been stalled due to agitation by the ethnic Lepcha community.
Two other hydroelectric projects in the Teesta basin, located in Darjeeling district bordering Sikkim – the Teesta Low Dam Project-III & IV – are under construction. Both the TLDP III & IV are coming up alongside National Highway 31A that connects Sikkim with the rest of the country, via Siliguri.

As is the case with big hydropower projects elsewhere in the country, conservationists had vehemently opposed the river taming projects in the Teesta. They demanded scrapping of the TLDP III & IV at the very conceptual stage, arguing that the hydropower projects would result in large-scale damage to the natural environment and would put an adverse impact on the lives of surrounding habitants.
However, giving a damn to the environmental concerns and twisting the rules and norms, the NHPC ultimately managed to get the go-ahead signal from the Union ministry of environment and forests.
As was apprehended by conservationists, construction of the two hydropower projects, coupled with other factors, have now started taking their toll on the overall natural environment, both in Sikkim and the Darjeeling hills.
Landslips and landslides in the region, this time around, have shot up to a worrisome high. Residents and environmentalists say that after 1950 the situation has degraded to an all time worst both in terms of frequency and devastation caused by the landslides.
The magnitude of the landslides is such that in August-September alone, the Sikkim lifeline NH 31A was closed for over 15 days. The 92 km highway has degraded to such a miserable state at Kalijhora and Rambhi (TLDP project sites) that the arterial road might simply get eliminated in the near future.
Given the context, there is a need to take a re-look at the 50,000 MW hydroelectric initiative that facilitated an intensified river taming activity in the country.
Rectification of the 3:97 adverse hydro-thermal power ratio and taking it to the ideal 40:60 contribution was laid down as the prime motivator for the 50,000 MW initiative launched in 2003. The major thrust was put on exploitation of the abundant and commercially viable (sic) hydropower potentials in the eight north-eastern states.

Under-construction TLDP-III at Rambhi, Kalimpong
And here comes to fore the typical colonial approach to development, wherein the powers-that-be try to impose everything from above. On most of the occasions developmental needs are identified within a prejudiced and biased framework.
In a larger context, it is the inherent malady of the development philosophy across Third World nations. Instead of taking a customised approach, as the diverse natural and social settings demand, developmental plans are often adopted as a uniform replica.
Thus, we plan Delhi-like high-rise shopping malls in the Darjeeling hills and want to drive Mercedes to the Everest! Irrespective of the actual need and suitability, big dams, flyovers and expressways et al have emerged as the key indicators of “development” in our times.
The decision to tap the huge hydropower potentials of the North-east, was based on the consideration of commercial viability, and bypassed the vital aspect of environmental and social affordability of such exploitation.
Like, while envisaging the Teesta basin hydroelectric projects, it was plain overlooked that the soil in Sikkim and the Darjeeling hills primarily consisting of gneissose and half-schistose rocks, is coarse and shallow in nature and simply cannot withstand big hydropower projects.
A large portion of the Sikkim territory is covered by the precambian rock and is much younger in age than the hills. The rock consists of phyllites and schists and therefore turns the slopes vulnerable to weathering and is very prone to erosion. Excessive rainfall, which is a common feature in the region, further intensifies the erosion and causes heavy loss of soil nutrients through leaching. This makes the hills very fragile and vulnerable to even a little disturbance.
Again, the Teesta river basin falls under zone IV of the Indo-Myanmar seismic map and often experiences tremors of low to moderate intensity. Between 1897 and 1990, a total of eight earthquakes measuring 6 to 7.6 on the Richter Scale was recorded near the TLDP project sites in the Teesta.
From its origination point in lake Chho Lhamu, at an altitude of 5,488 metres in the Himalayas, the Teesta emerges as a snout from the Zemu glacier located above the Lachen Gompha. It is a rain and snow-fed river. About 158.40 square km area of the river basin remains permanently covered with snow.
During a 1999 study, the International Commission for Snow and Ice found the glaciers in the Himalayas receding faster than in any other part of the world and at present rates, are likely to disappear by 2035.
High-altitude lakes formed by the glacial avalanching are potentially dangerous. Moraine dams (created by debris accumulated by glacial action on mountain slopes and valley floors), which hold back these waters are comparatively unstable and a sudden breach can lead to the discharge of huge volumes of water and debris, which would eventually result in devastation in the downstream.
A 2002 report by the Geological Survey of India, Kolkata branch, made the case against the Teesta hydroelectric projects further strong. It specifically warned that
“A number of active and dormant landslides are present within the project area due partly to anthropogenic activities and partly to adverse geological condition/slope morphology… further destabilisation of already vulnerable slopes cannot be ruled out. Proposed constructional activities may also cause landslides.
“Though NH 31A will be at a much higher elevation of the FRL of Stage IV dam, but in those stretches where
mud-stone and clay-stone will come into contact with the reservoir water, stability of the existing road bench may become vulnerable.”

Landslide on NH31A at Kalijhora in the vicinity of TLDP-III in 2007
The expert warnings could not deter the decision makers who put commercial considerations first. Nor did they think that with its dense forest cover and rich biodiversity, the Teesta river basin hosts one of the 25 biodiversity hotspots in the world and any hindrance in the natural flow of the turbulent river would eventually invite disaster on the surrounding habitants.
Thus, keeping in tune with the national hydropower policy of India, the Union ministry of environment and forests gave its nod to the TLDP projects in 2003-04. West Bengal, in whose territory the TLDP III & IV are coming up, was happy to ink a deal that facilitates 12 per cent power share for the state free of cost and other related benefits.
The cumulative result: the over 5.40 lakh population in Sikkim and the near half a lakh in Kalimpong sub-division (as per the 2001 census) in Darjeeling district, every now and then suffer the risk of getting cut off from the rest of the country. Carrying forward the devastating march, the NHPC is now all set to build another five hydroelectric projects in the Teesta at Dzongu in north Sikkim. The government of Sikkim is trying to “convince” the Lepcha community which has stalled the proposed projects by virtue of its indefinite fast. It is being touted that “the hydropower projects would usher in social and economic prosperity in Sikkim”.
The fact is, just like the failed battle against the TLDP III & IV projects in West Bengal, concerns against the hydropower projects proposed at Dzongu have got more than enough scientific and logical footings.
In 2001-2006, the Centre for Inter-disciplinary Studies of Mountain & Hill Environment, University of Delhi, conducted a study on the carrying capacity of the Teesta basin in Sikkim. The key findings of the study (pages 161-220) read: “Physiographic studies show that the valleys in the northern parts of Teesta basin are asymmetrical which indicate instability and proneness of slopes to sliding… Glacial moraines, mostly confined to north Sikkim, along with numerous active landslides in the region, indicate that this locale represents a fragile ecosystem… During the formation of Darjeeling-Kalimpong or the Sikkim Himalayan ranges, intense folding, faulting and thrust movements have taken place. These tectonic features act as trigger points for catastrophic manifestations of the natural dynamic forces resulting in earthquakes and landslides. These events represent serious geological hazards and make the region highly fragile – and sensitive to any disturbance.”
The report specifically cautions: “The thick moraine deposits at several sites in north Sikkim provide weak substrates on which it seems very unsafe to establish any mega developmental project.”

A view of the Teesta River

For the time being, the Lepchas of Sikkim have become successful in stalling the hydroelectric projects at Dzongu. However, only time will tell whether they ultimately succeed in getting the projects scrapped or succumb like the activists who had risen against the TLDP projects in West Bengal.
For, fighting an all-powerful state is not an easy task, more so is to battle its mindset.

(The author is on the staff of The Statesman, Siliguri, India / the article was published in The Statesman dt. 26 September 2007)


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