Despite the denials, retractions and dismissals, it is not hard to see the influence of human activity in greatly exacerbating the impact of one of the worst natural disasters to hit Sikkim in decades. All along the landslide-dotted road from the district headquarters in Mangan to Toong, the heavily tunnelled mountains on the right bank of the Teesta show signs of utter devastation — bald patches of exposed rock, collapsed slopes and felled trees. Teesta Urja is undertaking a 1,200 MW project as a part of Teesta Stage 3, the single largest power generation scheme in the six-stage cascade plan to harness the hydro power potential of the swift-flowing river. Environmentalists believe that these run-ofthe- river schemes that divert rivers through mountain tunnels in Sikkim’s young Himalayas are damaging the fragile geology in an area that is classified as Seismic Zone-IV.
This is in sharp contrast to the attitude of the workers’ own employers and contractors of Teesta Urja who have not even bothered to keep a staff list to check whether all workers have made it to the lower reaches from dam sites in Chungthang and Lachen.
Sandeep is one of the workers who was working at the Teesta Urja project in Chungthang when the quake struck. “We went out and saw huge rocks had fallen down on the dam and on many of the houses near the dam site. The army was airlifting only injured people so I had to walk. Now I just want to go home to Siliguri. I swear I will never come back,” he says. Another worker from Lachen, who trekked all day to reach Mangan, recounts, “There were six others who left before us. We did not see them on the way and they are not here also. Around 15 bodies were cremated at the dam site itself.”
It is because of the fear of losing more people that Mangan District Collector SP Pradhan was heard telling the GREF area commander, “Just give me a footpath to Lachen somehow. I don’t even need a road for now.” That is how desperate the situation was getting even as the death toll mounted by the hour. Most of the casualities in north Sikkim too have occurred at mid-tunnel openings (called Adits) where work was being done by Teesta Urja. The worst affected are Adit 4 and Adit 5, where work was in full swing. Initially, Teesta Urja officials denied any damage to life or property even as the control room in Mangan counted the dead at the Adits near Saffu and at the dam site in Chungthang.
Bhandari, who has also levelled charges of massive corruption against Chamling in the past, said during a visit to Gangtok from Delhi, where he was hospitalised, “We will submit a memorandum to the prime minister to immediately stall all hydel power projects in Sikkim. There is no doubt that the earthquake has been aided by the massive hydro projects across the state.”
Tengdup Lepcha, 70, whose grandson Lengdup is now taking care of his paddy fields and cardamom trees, says he has never seen anything on the scale of the present earthquake that has flattened complete villages in Upper Dzongu just an hour’s walk from Lingza. Here the dominance of the Chamling-appointed panchayat is complete. All the relief that has reached this place is distributed through the panchayat with SDF cadre and members of power developers promoted self-help groups in attendance throughout.
Says Dawa Lepcha, who has been heading the anti-Teesta dam stir since 2007, “The power structures in Sikkim are meant to subdue people’s voices. The big politiSays Dawa Lepcha, who has been heading the anti-Teesta dam stir since 2007, “The power structures in Sikkim are meant to subdue people’s voices. The big politicians act through panchayats, who in turn clearly warn people that they would not receive benefits from the government if they oppose Chamling’s policies.”
Documents available with TEHELKA show that Chamling went on a contractawarding spree between December 2005 and March 2006, inking 12 MoUs. On 1 March 2006, he cleared five projects worth over Rs 4,500 crore envisaging power generation along the Teesta to the tune of almost 1,800 MW. Till date, Chamling has sanctioned power projects that would produce an astounding 5,352.7 MW even though Sikkim’s own requirement is just 80 MW. The 30 new projects, including the 24 active projects of private players cleared by Chamling, are worth Rs 17,100 crore — a huge investment in hydro power for a small state like Sikkim. None of the power projects given to private players have been done through the process of bidding.
When a group of people protested against his policies, they were put behind bars for a month on charges of damaging the property of private power companies. Documents with TEHELKA show that the Sikkim government might end up undercutting its stated objective of generating additional revenue because of some baffling clauses in the MoU the government has entered into with corporates. By keeping the option of buying 26 percent equity in the projects open in the MoUs, the government would have to take a loan at an interest rate of 15 percent to fulfill its equity commitment. This was also stated in a white paper on the modalities of the power project taken out by a private consultant in 2007 in which it was inferred that even if private companies give the government a return of 25 percent and a royalty of 12 percent for the first 15 years, the Sikkim government would only stand to lose revenues from such a move.
Speaking to TEHELKA, Power Minister Sonam Gyatso Lepcha says, “We need revenue to be less dependent on the Centre. In Sikkim there is no other option except hydro power for increasing revenues.”
This scale of corruption in every aspect of life in Sikkim — be it in times of prosperity or in times of a tragedy like the earthquake is evident everywhere. The bane of Sikkim is the government’s stifling hold over its own people through money, power and the culture of fear. “The land has enough for everybody. The hydel projects are not development. They are the rape of Sikkim,” says a young Revenue Inspector on condition of anonymity.
The earthquake has reminded the people of the consequences of disturbing the fine balance between man and nature in a blessed territory where survival is not difficult but death is. And when death comes falling from the trembling mountains above, it might well be time to realise that all is not well in a state whose people fear nature more than they would fear a man with an AK-47. Sai Manish is a Correspondent with Tehelka email@example.com