Residents and visitors alike will likely attest to the fact that north Sikkim boasts of some of the most spellbinding views of the Himalayas. The villages of Lachung and Lachen, in particular, are prominent fixtures in tourist itineraries, especially because they are the gateways to the high-altitude Gurudongmar Lake and the spectacular Valley of Flowers or Yumthang Valley.
It is fortunate, then, that another destination in North Sikkim—a slice of paradise in its own right—often goes untrammelled. Dzongu, which lies some 70 kilometres away from the state’s capital, Gangtok, is home to the Lepchas, a vulnerable, nature-worshipping indigenous community that constitutes around 15% of Sikkim’s population. Their deep reverence towards nature is reflected in the exceptional state of conservation that one sees in Dzongu. Part of the protected, UNESCO World Heritage Site of the Khangchendzonga National Park, Dzongu possesses exquisite, dense forests of bamboo, sungrookung, sulokkung, kundgongkung, sambrangkung, tungzikundong and sungleekung wherever one goes. The upper and lower regions of Dzongu are dotted with some 30-odd villages—Passingdam, Kusong, Lingdem, Sakyong and Pentong being some of them. The inhabitants of these villages mostly practise sustainable agriculture, and fields of rice, fragrant cardamom, millet, corn and wheat are therefore common sights in Dzongu. All of these make Dzongu a ‘mayal lyang’ (or, land blessed by the gods)—a perfect place for a natural, rustic experience that is best explored on foot, while bathing in the glorious views of numerous waterfalls (the most well-known of which is the Lingzya Waterfall in Upper Dzongu), Mount Khangchendzonga and the other four highest peaks in Sikkim.
But, trouble has been brewing in this piece of paradise ever since the early 2000s. As they say, all things good come at a cost.
Geographically, Dzongu is bound by the rapid-flowing Tholung Chu (or Rongyoung Chu) river on the north-east and the Teesta on the south-east. Both rivers offer much and are considered sacred by the Lepchas, but the riverbanks are now resonating with the voices of the Lepchas who are raising a mighty clamour against the rivers being dammed.
The Teesta is one of the most significant rivers in Sikkim, but it is severely dammed in the course of its 175-kilometre journey through the state—there are four projects on the river in different stages of completion within Sikkim alone. The Teesta-V dam in Dikchu, East Sikkim, completed in 2007, and the Rangit-III dam are some of the major hydroelectric projects on the river and its tributaries. Dzongu, too, has unfortunately not been able to escape the threat of being dammed.
The controversial issue has its roots two decades back in 2002 when the Sikkim Power Development Corporation drew its plans and agreements for the Teesta Stage IV and Teesta Stage VI dams. It was the Teesta Stage IV dam that stood to affect Dzongu and its people the most; the project was ultimately handed over to the National Hydroelectric Power Corporation (NHPC) in 2006.
The Affected Citizens of Teesta (ACT) is a community-based, apolitical body that was born in Dzongu in 2003–2004 out of the need to spread awareness on the negative effects of the Teesta Stage IV Dam and the importance of mounting an opposition to the same. “The initial decision [to build a dam in Dzongu] shook people to the core. Not only were people and livelihoods going to be adversely affected, the incredible biodiversity of the region, including 27 species of butterflies, could have been wiped out. I was a naive young man at that time, training to be a lawyer, but even I knew something had to be done,” recalls Gyatso Lepcha, general secretary of the ACT.
However, the convenors, organisers and activists on the ground didn’t find the going easy initially. “These were the days before the advent of social media,” says Gyastso. “To spread awareness and to mobilise the villagers, we had to travel by foot—village to village, home to home. Neither was it simple to plan the logistics of protest rallies and/or meetings. Those were some difficult times indeed,” Gyatso reminisces.
Things came to a head between 2007 and 2009, when the people of Dzongu participated in a 915-day-long peaceful hunger strike. It was, perhaps, one of the most incredible periods the movement has ever seen. “That sustained act of committed defiance from the people led to the cancellation of four other hydroelectric power projects in the state. In my knowledge, I don’t think any other similar movement can boast of such an achievement. This was a watershed moment for anti-dam movements all over the world,” Gyatso states, with a hint of pride.
The ACT reached a transition phase in 2012–2013 when a section of the older vanguard retired from the movement. The vacuum was taken over by a younger generation of activists who added a new dimension to the then-decade-long movement. “By this time, social media had come to our aid big time. It was easier to spread information as well as appeal, reach out to and coordinate with global audiences and organisations through conferences,” says Gyatso. This was also the time that the movement started building up its cultural aspect, with artists and musicians composing songs and performances that extolled nature worshipping and protested the raising of dams.
The biggest change, however, came about in the scope of the movement. “Earlier, we were too concerned with protecting the Dzongu valley. We were very limited in what we were trying to achieve. With the transition, our focus expanded to the entirety of Sikkim and all its rivers,” says Gyatso. It is little wonder then that hashtags such as #SaveTeesta, #SayNoToDams, #NoMoreDams and #RiversForLife have risen in popularity since around 2015.
Still, the challenges keep coming. In 2014, the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) granted Environment Clearance (EC) for the 520 MW Teesta Stage IV dam in Dzongu. However, despite repeated follow-ups over the years, the NHPC has not been able to advance with its construction because of the pending Forest Clearance (FC)-II. The several gram panchayats have refused to yield, despite reassurances of adequate compensation,
rehabilitation and electricity.
“It is the same story with each government that comes to power, be it at the central or the state level. Tall promises are made about protecting people’s heritage, lands and livelihoods, but ultimately, these are all neglected. It is the reason why we have been constantly wary and vigilant, even during the pandemic,” says Gyatso. In 2020, for instance, the issue reached a critical point again when the Sikkim government constituted an expert evaluation group to prepare a Social Impact Assessment report and submit its recommendations within two months. This came against the backdrop of pending litigations and petitions in the state’s High Court and the Supreme Court, challenging the legitimacy of the report. The state government has also drawn criticism from the National Board for Wildlife (NBWL) for its utter disregard for and undermining of environmental norms.
Gyatso mentions that, in retrospect, the pandemic has been a blessing of sorts, due to the low number of cases and the relatively light restrictions in Dzongu valley. In October 2021, hundreds descended upon Namprikdang, the confluence of Teesta and Rongyoung Chu (a river the Lepcha community believes will lead them to salvation), to again oppose the plans for two dams—the aforementioned Teesta Stage IV Dam and the 280 MW Panam Hydro Project (on the Rongyoung Chu, located 10 kilometres away from the Khangchendzonga National Park). The event saw the participation of priests who prayed for the rivers to be saved. The locals fear that, in addition to the seismically active nature of the region and the threat of submergence of villages and forests, climate-crisis-triggered flash floods, rainfall and natural disasters have made the region even more ecologically sensitive and vulnerable than ever before—in which case building dams is simply not sustainable and potentially perilous. The fears aren’t unfounded—a massive landslide in 2020 severely damaged the Teesta Stage V dam, located in East Sikkim in a Seismic Zone IV-classified area. It is also the reason why building up conversations, awareness and activism among the locals on matters concerning climate change, and the impacts of unnecessary human interventions in nature, forms such a vital part of ACT’s agenda and activities in the present.
Even in the face of unpredictable odds, Gyatso is not one to give up the fight to preserve the last free-flowing stretch of the Teesta in the state. He even sounds optimistic—and there are good reasons for his optimism. As he admits, officials in the state’s Forest Ministry are concerned that hydroelectric power projects in Dzongu may have a detrimental impact on its biodiversity and fragile ecological balance. They are, therefore, unwilling to issue the forest clearance—a major stumbling block to be overcome if the project is to become a reality.
For his exceptional social service and outstanding work in protecting river ecologies, Gyatso, who also runs the eco-friendly Mayal Lyang Homestay in Passingdang village, was awarded the North East Young Heroes Award (in the sustainable development category) in 2020. This year, he was honoured with the Kamala Rising Star Award by the Anikbhai Ghamandiram Gowani Trust in Mumbai, Maharashtra.
The awards are well-deserved—and both aspects of his activism have been visible throughout his career. “Of course, as members of ACT, we gather for meetings at least once a month, travel for conferences, spread awareness in colleges, and submit memorandums and reports to the government authorities whenever needed,” he says. “However, there is an altogether different aspect to ACT’s visions and efforts as well. For a long time, there have been these narratives that the authorities have tried to force down the public’s throats—that dams are beneficial, that they are needed and indispensable, that they generate electricity which in turn leads to development, that they generate employment and that, ultimately, they should be embraced by the people despite the sacrifices they have to make and the harm done to nature and biodiversity. We are trying our utmost to debunk all these narratives, and trying to reinforce the fact that it is possible to be sustainable and self-sustaining without the intervention of dams. Just look at the eco-friendly homestays that are being operated in the villages, or the organic farming practised devotedly by the farmers—isn’t that proof enough that dams are not required in Dzongu at all?” questions Gyatso passionately.
Perhaps, the fact that the paradise called Dzongu has remained relatively unscathed is testament to the sheer tenacity and dedication (to their cause) of ACT, Gyatso and the villages. One hopes that Dzongu remains the ‘mayal lyang’ it has always been—without the disruptive presence of any dam whatsoever.