CHOWO Rabjor is an angry man. His efforts to stop the mega Teesta hydel project in his village have not produced the desired results. As the chief of the Lachen Dzumsa (traditional assembly of the people), he enjoys the support of the majority of the Lachenpas on the issue. However, he realises how difficult things could be if the state government does not give much-needed support. Earlier this month, Rabjor and Goekay Lachenpa reiterated their objection to the implementation of the Teesta Stage-1 Hydro-electric power project in Lachen valley in north Sikkim. In a letter to the Himalayan Green Hydro Energy Pvt Ltd, which is handling Stage -1 of the project, the chief stated that the people of Lachen were ready to “sacrifice” their “lives” to “protect our land, forests, age-old tradition and places of worship.” The chief even threatened to resort to “extreme measures” to protect their cultural and natural heritage, which, the people allege, are now facing the danger of being wiped out. The elected heads of the Dzumsa took a dig at the state government, who it accuses of being “determined to proceed with the project, much against the will of the people”. Strong words indeed, but will the hardy highlanders of north Sikkim be able to stand up to the pressures of the powers-that-be when their resolution is under severe test? Twenty years ago, the tribals of Lachen and Lachung valleys of north Sikkim were held in high esteem by other members of their community. They marvelled at their unity, fraternity and the manner in which they preserved their rich and unique cultural heritage. However, over the years the brave and proud Lachenpas as well as the Lachungpas gradually lost their high ground even as they got influenced by petty politicians who were using them to further their political and financial interests. As a result, many people in Sikkim now do not want to be associated with them. “Of late, the Lachenpas have to some extent regained their past status but many tribals in our area are still mesmerised by money power,” said a politician from north Sikkim. Ten years back, the tribals of Sikkim unitedly opposed the 30-MW Rathongchu hydel project in west Sikkim on the same grounds and forced the Pawan Chamling government to abandon the controversial project midway. This was during Chamling’s first tenure when he had the full support of the tribals. Now that support base has dwindled. The Rathongchu issue, which rocked the state, was followed by the Gurudongmar controversy. Gurudongmar Lake, situated at 17,200 feet on the Indo-Tibet border in Lachen, is not only one of the hottest tourist destinations but is also considered to be a major Buddhist pilgrimage centre. In the eighth century, Guru Rinpoche (Lord Padmasambava), who established Buddhism in Tibet and in the Himalayan region, including Sikkim, visited this lake and blessed it. In the 1990s, some overzealous army officers turned the lake into a Sikh pilgrimage centre and built a gurdwara much against the sentiments of the local people, particularly the Lachenpas. The unfortunate incident forced the then Lachen chief, the late Anung Lachenpa, to issue an open statement threatening to take appropriate action against those who desecrated the sanctity” of the holy lake. The chief also urged the state government to restore the “original look and sanctity” of the lake. Green Circle, a local NGO, sided with the Lachenpas and took an open stand. While reacting against the Army’s “blatant undermining of local culture and total disregard for a fragile and threatened ecosystem”, the NGO said, “The Army, because of its proximity and influence over these areas, cannot go about misrepresenting facts. Such gradual and systematic distortion of history only sows the seeds of discontent and tension for the present and future generations.”Though the Chamling government initially dithered on the issue it finally forced the Army to retract. A high-level committee was set up to look into the matter and as a result the Army was asked to respect local sentiments and remove the gurdwara. Faced with a hostile populace in a sensitive border area, the Army beat a hasty retreat. Another row erupted in mid-2000, when a 10-member Austrian team, led by Wilhelm Bauer, came to Sikkim to scale Kanchenjunga from its northeastern face along the Zemu glacier in Lachen. The locals, particularly Buddhist Bhutia-Lepcha tribals, opposed the expedition on religious ground, stating that the mountain was the abode of their sacred guardian deity. Because of its sacredness, the Chogyals of Sikkim never allowed the summit to be scaled. In view of the sentiments expressed by the locals, the Chamling government ordered the Austrian team to leave the last 10 metres of the peak untouched. The team, unfortunately, had to abandon the expedition midway due to inclement weather when they reached an altitude of over 6,000 metres. The locals thanked the mountain gods for listening to their prayers! Kanchenjunga, according to reports, may now be recognised as a World Heritage Site by Unesco. Tribals in the North-east hills do not need a lesson on environment; they worship nature. Reports indicate that while Zemu glacier is receding by 28 metres every year, Kangsay glacier, the source of the Teesta, is retreating by eight metres every year. The Teesta, Sikkim’s biggest river, actually begins from Tso-Lhamu Lake, located north of Gurudongmar. Though the Lachenpas have won several battles on sensitive issues they are now faced with a greater danger to their ecology — global warming. These battles have to be fought on higher ground and on a global scale. Meanwhile, what is the Lachen chief’s reaction to the present situation. Chowo Rabjor, a staunch supporter of the ruling Sikkim Democratic Front, says, “We supported Chamling and the ruling party when they needed us; now it is their turn to support us.” Easy words but hard to digest, particularly when it involves big shots and lots of money.
(Jigme N Kazi ,The author is a freelance journalist based in Gangtok.)