Latest Report Restores Hope for Indigenous Communities Fighting to Save River Teesta

Bharat Lal Seth

Earlier this year, in March, the National Board for Wildlife (NBWL) asked four members of its Standing Committee comprising wildlife and conservation experts to carry out a site inspection for a 520 MW hydroelectric project on the river Teesta in the Indian state of Sikkim. This was in pursuance of the Teesta-IV project seeking statutory clearance from the wildlife perspective, as it is located 4 km from the Fambong Lho wildlife sanctuary; the NBWL must assess a project when it is located within 10 km of a designated wildlife park or sanctuary. The site inspection report, finalised in August and uploaded last month on to the website of the Ministry of Environment and Forests, has urged the ministry to order the Sikkim state government to stop ongoing work of hydroelectric power projects that have not sought statutory clearances. The inspection team has also recommended that the Teesta-IV project be seen as part of a larger set of hydroelectric projects in the river basin. The report recommends a cumulative impact assessment be carried out in the river basin, rather than having the project cleared on its merits alone.  Teesta-IV project is one of the seven projects in a cascade on the river.

The latest report calls for cumulative assessment of cascade of projects in the Teesta valley
The latest report calls for cumulative impact assessment of the proposed cascade of projects in the Teesta valley
International Rivers

“This report has come at the right time, like a medicine, as we had lost all hope,” says Tseten Tashi Bhutia, former official in the Sikkim government and currently convenor of Sikkim Bhutia Lepcha Apex Committee fighting for the rights and interests of the indigenous communities. The Standing Committee of the NBWL has highlighted in past meetings that existing projects have “seriously deteriorated” the ecology of Teesta river and that the Teesta-IV project in question requires careful consideration. “The ministry must respond positively to this report by scrapping the project,” says Bhutia.

The four-member team first met officials of NHPC Limited, the project developer (and an enterprise of the Government of India to develop hydroelectric projects), to get a lowdown on the projects technicalities. The following day, the team drove to the commissioned Teesta-V project where they observed low flows in the stretch directly downstream of the dam. Diversion of river flows in to tunnels, as part of run-of-the-river power projects is a cause for concern. The team observed: “In particular, we noted that about 32 species of fish belonging to 6 families have been recorded from the project site, including the golden mahseer (Tor putitora) and the snow trout (Schizothoraicthys progastus). We particularly note that both the golden mahseer and the snow-trout are known to seasonally migrate upstream and downstream”.

The site inspectors found extremely low river flows downstream of the commissioned Teesta V dam
The site inspectors found extremely low river flows downstream of the commissioned Teesta V Dam
International Rivers

The team enquired about how the planned river flows downstream of the proposed dam were determined. The report mentions that that this was not optimized in the planning process, but determined on the basis of maximizing hydropower potential. “In other words, we learnt to our great dismay that absolutely no ecological considerations whatsoever was used in the process of determining the hydropower potential of river basins. As a result, an arbitrary figure of 5.2 cumecs has been applied as the ecological flow,” states the report.

It has been identified that 14 villages with a population of 14,291 will be affected in the land acquisition process. The team also met with the local Bhutia-Lepcha communities who made it known that the dzongu region, reserved for the indigenous community, is contiguous to the project site and is of cultural and religious significance for the indigenous people.

As per a 2007 official report, the project area is “including over 100 mammal species, over 230 bird species, 34 reptile species, 10 amphibian and 345 butterfly species, besides a fish, Nemacheilus devdevi, that is endemic to the Eastern Himalaya. Many of these species are endangered, threatened and legally protected. In addition, the project involves the felling of at least 7,500 trees.”

The latest report has recommended that since the project “involves large-scale diversion of river water into tunnels from an already- heavily-diverted course of River Teesta,” it is therefore “essential to assess the overall impact of these projects, both from the recent past and those in the pipeline, rather than deal with them in a piecemeal fashion.”

Monday, October 14, 2013