Monday, August 27, 2007

Sikkim hydel projects to press ahead despite protests

Sikkim Chief Minister Pawan Kumar Chamling says there will be 'no compromise' on the 27 hydel projects on the Teesta river even as protestors are observing a relay hunger strike.

Gangtok, India, 2007-08-27 Sikkim Chief Minister Pawan Kumar Chamling says there will be 'no compromise' on the 27 hydel projects on the Teesta river even as protestors are observing a relay hunger strike.
'My development is in tune with the government of India's guidelines and the environment and ecology of Sikkim,' Chamling told a visiting IANS correspondent. 'There will be no compromise.'
Sunday was the 68th day of the hunger strike here by youths, mostly Lepchas from the Dzongue area, who fear displacement and damage to the fragile ecology by the projects, most of which have yet to take off.
Peace in this Himalayan state has been shattered by the development-versus-environment tussle that has broken out long before the state can begin to generate hydel power by harnessing the waters of the Teesta.
Chamling says the hydel projects in Sikkim are part of the national endeavour to produce power.
'Don't mislead people. The country will suffer,' he said, emphasising that he has flouted no rules governing hydel power production. This is the only source of development for the landlocked state, he said.
He said he was willing to personally meet the leaders of the Affected Citizens of Teesta (ACT), which is spearheading the protests, to examine their viewpoint.
Two of the protestors called off their fast on the 65th day after Chamling promised talks. But Chamling alleges that two others received Rs.5 million and Rs.4 million as compensation before joining the protest. One of them is now running the '' website.
Protestors say the government wants to generate power by constructing 'mega' hydel projects at the cost of the fragile biodiversity in Dzongue in northern Sikkim populated by 8,000 Lepchas, who are a minority community.
Hem Lal Bhandari, one of the ACT brains, says land for the projects was acquired illegally. Dzongue, he reminds, is 'a protected area' for Lepchas and does not allow ownership of land by 'outsiders'.
The protestors also say the government is bringing 'outsiders' to build these projects and this will change the demographic character of the place.
But Chamling rebuts these charges. He says only three of the 27 projects are above 500 MGW and can be called mega projects.
He also says the land is only being leased, which is very much legal, and contractors have no ownership rights. The outsiders, contracted by construction firms based in Mumbai and Hyderabad, will move on. There is no question of giving them voting rights and jobs.
While they are at work in Dzongue, the workers will be housed outside the 'protected' area of the Lepchas. They will be herded in and out of the project after work, as per the government of India's stipulation.
While protestors allege that the government is not talking to them, chief secretary N.D. Chjingapa claims he has held seven meetings with them. 'They agree to what we say, but return after consulting, god knows who, with fresh demands.'
The chief minister also accused national parties like the Congress, Bharatiya Janata Party and Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) of riding piggyback on the ACT, as the panchayat and civic elections are just a few weeks away.
His Sikkim Democratic Front (SDF) has massive all-but-one strength in the legislature. But the protests may help his predecessor - Nar Bahadur Bhandari of the Congress - bounce back.
Central Labour Minister Oscar Fernandes, who oversees the northeast region for the Congress, told IANS that his party could not sit back when Sikkim's environment was being endangered.
West Bengal's Urban Development Minister Ashok Bhattacharya, keen to consolidate the CPI-M's hold in neighbouring Darjeeling district, has reportedly assured support to protestors at a meeting in Gangtok.
CPI-M has already organised two blockades in Sikkim. Two projects on the Teesta's downstream are, however, located in north Bengal itself.
Support for the protestors is growing, judging by the many Indian and foreign NGOs and environmentalists taking up the cause, mainly through the Internet. They piloted a resolution at a recent conference in Bangkok.
- By Mahendra Ved