Wednesday, July 10, 2013

The case of Teesta Low Dam Projects-Stage III and IV in Sub-Himalayan North Bengal

The author of this article, Soumitra Ghosh, is an activist working among forest communities in the area. This brief paper, based mainly on personal experiences gained in past one decade of working among the project-affected communities,  attempts to trace a narrative of development, environment and people that has now become typical in the Himalayan region.           

The gorge of the glacial Teesta river in sub-Himalayan West Bengal has recently witnessed large-scale construction activities: National Hydroelectric Power Corporation (NHPC), in collaboration with West Bengal Government are building two ‘low’ dams(Teesta Low Dam Project, TLDP-III and IV). These are on the North Bengal part of the river. The Sikkim part already has several, and more coming up. The project, mired in controversies since its start, remained thoroughly undemocratic and illegal: gross violation of the laws of the land and the project authorities’ arrogant disregard for possible environmental fall-outs marked it. Dissent of communities living in the scattered forest villages inside the gorge, and villages in higher valleys were smothered first with promises of jobs and later repeatedly, with coercion, in active connivance with major political parties of the region. The work which started in 2003 is far from complete, but one unit of TLDP-III has reportedly been commissioned in December 2012. Which means that the river is no longer flowing in an approximately 12 Kilometre long stretch along National Highway 31A that goes to Sikkim. More than 400 families in three forest villages living in the gorge, mostly uncompensated and ignored, now await submergence of their homes, wayside shops that provided them livelihood and whatever little cultivated land they had.

Background: How it all began
National Hydroelectric Power Corporation(NHPC) started large-scale construction activity at two sites at Kalijhora and 27th Mile on NH 31A for building of dams in 2003-2004. A project which generated controversy since inception, TLDP means Teesta ‘Low Dam’—even when dam heights are 32.5 and 30 metres. The globally accepted definition framed by the International Commission on Large Dams (ICOLD), categories dams above 15 meters as large. One also misses the point of calling a project ‘run of the river’ that is going to create a reservoir, impound water and submerge several hundred hectares of forest land.

The plans for taming the Teesta River flowing through almost the entire length of Sikkim and then entering North Bengal, are not new. Since the 1970’s a proposal has been in place for harnessing the river in six stages the mountainous parts of Sikkim. Of this, only one proposal to construct a 510 MW, 96.5-m high dam in Sikkim has come through. When the project was granted environmental clearance, one of the conditions was that no more projects would be developed on river Teesta in Sikkim till a carrying capacity study of the Teesta River Basin is completed. In the case of the two TLDP dams it would have been logical to wait for the results of the carrying capacity study mentioned above, before going ahead with the project—since the study is looking at the same river basin on which these projects are proposed.

TLDP-III has already been accorded environmental clearance by the MoEF in July 2003, and TLDP-IV not long after. The MoEF had earlier refused site clearance for the TLDP-IV on the grounds that it would entail diversion of land within Mahananda Wild Life Sanctuary, which necessitated slightly relocating the site.

The proposal for the so-called ‘low’ dams(TLDP) on the river Teesta generated a lot of controversy before these were finally cleared by the Ministry of Environment and Forests, Government of India (MoEF, GoI). Environmental groups as well as hydrologists, geologists and biologists from North Bengal and all over the country opposed the proposal on the grounds that the Environmental Impact Assessment(EIA) process for the projects was incomplete, non-transparent, and non-participatory, that it did not involve the resident populations in and around the project sites, and most importantly, the EIA either contained inadequate data on possible environmental impacts or deliberately suppressed and falsified important scientific data on those impacts. There were also enough instances of violations of Environmental Protection Act.

The EIA Reports and related Environmental Management Plans(EMP) for TLDP-III and IV admitted that the hillsides around the project site were geologically fragile, and that any tampering with the slopes might result in severe landslides, increasing the danger of siltation in the reservoir, and affecting the NH 31. In fact, the Geological Survey of India(GSI) Report on the projects indicated that construction activity and damming the river might not only re-activate dormant slides in the area, but also open new slides. Both the GSI Report and the project EMPs prescribe elaborate slope protection measures along the reservoir rim that stretches for more than 7 Kms. from the project sites in both TLDP-III and IV. The said Report and Plans also prescribed special measures for the existing slide zones along the proposed reservoir rims. Surprisingly, the environmental clearances given to both TLDP-III and IV ignore the geological impact aspect, as if it was taken for granted that the project proponents would carry out the protection measures as prescribed.

A brief look at the chronology of events that marked the beginning of TLDP-III reveals how existing environmental statutes were violated at will.

Colossal violation of the law: Chronology of TLDP-III
Power Projects in India need mandatory clearances from the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MOEF), Government of India. These clearances are subject to the implementing agency meeting all ‘statutory obligations’, which include, among other things, an elaborate, ‘participatory’ and ‘transparent’ Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) exercise. This process gets overseen by State Pollution Control Boards, and ‘neutral’, accredited organisations are entrusted with the study. Teesta Low Dam Project EIA was done by North Bengal University, and it commissioned the Geological Survey of India, Kolkata, with the geological impact component. We will come to that later.

On November 14, West Bengal Pollution Control Board issued the public hearing notification(public hearings are mandatory in all projects that require environmental and forest clearances, according to Environment Protection Act 1986) for TLDP-III. The notification did not mention the EIA, and says that only the Executive summary of the Detailed Project Report (DPR) will be available for public scrutiny. If we remember that the law demands all project related documents have to be placed in public domain well before the date of the hearing, the illegality starts from here: till the last week of November—10 days from the date of the notification—the Siliguri Regional Office of the WBPCB could not show the Executive Summary. The Executive Summary of the Project was not available in Nepali—the major local language—till December 6, 2002, which constituted another violation. After local groups such as NESPON (North-Eastern Society for Preservation of Nature and Wild Life, based in Siliguri)  challenged legality of the Public Hearing and the EIA process for TLDP stage–III, NHPC—and not the WBPCB—sent a copy of the EIA to the PCB Siliguri Regional Office on the evening of December 09, 2002, just 10 days before the hearing and 20 days after the publication of the Hearing notification. The EIA was available only in English. A fresh Public hearing notification was issued on 13.12.3003, and the programme was rescheduled for 3.1.2003. Point to remember: according to the EIA rules, a clear 30-day period should separate the dates of notification and hearing, and, on the date of the hearing, all relevant documents including the EIA and DPR should be available for Public Scrutiny, in major local languages.

EIA findings distorted, suppressed
Going by the date given on the EIA report cover, North Bengal University submitted the ‘complete’ report in August 2002. But important portions of the GSI report (the ‘Report on the geological and geotechnical investigations’ by Geological Survey of India, Kolkata, as part of the EIA.) were not included in the Report.

NBU submitted the ‘complete’ report in August 2002. The GSI report was based on data collected during one full field season (2001-2002). Because there was a period of just five months between the submission of this report and preparation of the EIA, a similar or parallel study could not have been conducted within this period. It becomes clear from the EIA that the GSI report was the sole source of geological data included in it. In this context, non-inclusion of a crucial section of the GSI report in the final EIA was inexplicable (subsection 3.5 of the GSI report that deals with the project impacts during the operational phase). The EIA not only excludes this section but goes on to say (subsection 8.5) that there will be ‘no land environment impact during the operational phase’ of the project. The Entire Section 8 of the EIA (section titled ‘summary of environmental impacts) contains no information on geological/geomorphologic impacts, as if such impacts do not exist).

Some of the significant dropped/suppressed portions from the   Report:
1.Executive Summary:

a. Structure and Tectonics
‘…. It may be mentioned here that a) neo-tectonic movements are very common for such a juvenile organic belt like Himalayas and b) the Main Boundary Thrust (M.B.T) passes through the reservoir of TLDHP-IV (-2.5-3 Km u/s of the proposed dam axis and has been reported to be non-tectonically active’.

Though the ‘dam axis’ mentioned here refers to the previously proposed site, the M.B.T location is perilously closer to the new site.

b. Landslides:
‘A number of active and dormant landslides are present within the project area due to partly to anthropogenic activities and partly to adverse geological condition/ slope morphology.  After impoundment, due to the effects of changing pore water pressure within the slope wash/debris material chances of mass movements in the form of new landslides, reactivation of fossil/dormant slides and further destabilisation of already vulnerable slopes cannot be ruled out. Proposed constructional activities may also cause landslides.’

Chapter II
Site specific geological and geo-technical parameters
Section 2.18.

‘Though NH 31 A will be at a much higher elevation of the FRL of Stage IV dam; but in those stretches where mudstone and clay stone will come into contact with the reservoir water, stability of the existing road bench may become vulnerable.’

‘two active slides on the road section are located between 7 km and 8.3 km. Both of these are rock-cum-debris slides and their toes have reached up to the existing Tista bed level. So to protect the toe of these slides from the erosion during high discharge, protection in the form of retaining walls will have to be constructed upto the FRL.’

‘Evidences indicate that the slide at Berrik has been caused due to planar and wedge failure of intensely jointed and sheared rock mass and perhaps initially triggered by toe erosion by Tista. ….Further there are possibilities of instability which may be caused by short duration high intensity rainfall in that area.’

‘The most visible active landslides within the limit of the project area affecting the NH21A are at 8.3 km slide (Fig 8) and 7.1 km slide. Both the slides are rock-cum-debris slides, which have been reactivated during the Monsoon period of 2001.

The slides have severely affected the road bench of NH31A making the width of the road bench shorter. Any further destabilisation / sliding at these locations will invariably cut off the vital road-link.

Sufficient protection measures, well-planned drainage networks etc. are essential at these slides location to check further deterioration, otherwise fresh sliding would definitely enhance supply of silt into the reservoir and cause blockage of the river channel. Toe protection wall up to FRL level will have to be planned.’

‘AS per BIS code is 1983-1975, design seismic co-efficient (ยตh) as per seismic coefficient method in zone IV comes around 0.1. The design of all the appurtenant structures at both the project sites should be considered as per the seismic consideration mentioned above. Hence it should also be kept in mind that a) neo-tectonic movements are very common for such a juvenile organic belt like Himalaya and b) the main boundary thrust (MBT) passes through the reservoir of TLDHP – IV (i.e., about 2.5-3 km (u/s of the proposed dam axis) and has been reported to be neo-tectonically active.’

‘After impoundment of the reservoir, the water level in the reservoir area (mostly restricted within the main Tista river valley) will rise considerably. Accordingly, the slope wash / debris at the toe will become surcharged with water and pore pressure within it may considerably increase. The condition may deteriorate when fluctuation in the reservoir level takes place. As a consequence the strength parameters of the slope mass will decrease and it may become susceptible to destabilisation. Thus triggering of new landslides, or reactivating old/dormant slides and further destabilisation of already active slides cannot be ruled out. The similar conditions also prevail for TLDHP-IV and necessary precaution may have to be taken.’

The EIA not only excluded these portions but the Entire Section 7 of the EIA (section titled ‘ Environmental Impacts’) contained no information on geological/geomorphologic impacts, as if such impacts did not exist!

The EIA report was full of incomplete/partial data. Some of these can be cited:

1.Section 2, subsection 2-4: Seismicity:  The EIA admitted that the site-specific seismic design parameters were being ‘studied’ and not yet available at the time of writing the report. Because the project area falls within the seismic zone IV, any major construction work in this zone need to have suitable seismic co-efficient incorporated in its design. If design parameters were unavailable, how could NHPC talk about construction datelines (Executive summary, DPR)? 

2.Section 2, subsection 2.5.2Reservoir Sedimentation: Though Subsection 2.7(watershed) mentioned that out of 19 watersheds/sub-watersheds in the project area 5 have high and 3 others very high priority status in sediment yield index, and none of the watersheds is safe from the danger of erosion and destabilization, the subsection on reservoir sedimentation gave no data on possible cumulative sedimentation in the reservoir. Moreover, it arbitrarily mentioned that ‘retrogressive silt flushing near the intakes is effective’, and ‘no separate silt exclusion arrangement has been provided’. No further explanation or clarifications for these were provided.
The EIA was based on data collected from a study area that extended to 7 Kilometers upstream from the project site. Thus it ignored all watersheds—and the slope stability factor in them—beyond that point. In a river like Teesta that flows through inherently unstable terrain and carries an average annual load of 3-4 Metric Tonnes of silt, a 7-kilometer radius can only provide incomplete sedimentation data.

The EIA said (2.5.2) that gross storage in the reservoir will be 18.36 Mcum at FRL 208 meters and live storage has been computed at 11.57 Mcum. Hydrological data given in the DPR and EIA did not take into account the possible increase of discharge and ensuing floods caused by glacial melting in the upstream. This omission posed serious questions to the credibility of all the hydrological computations used in the DPR and the EIA.

The EIA ignored the downstream impact factor on the pretext that because the project was run-of-the-river and supposedly would not impede the natural discharge of water, there would be no additional danger of floods downstream. The fact, however, remained that the project will cause impoundment of water on a large scale on a glacial river, in an area with perennially unstable valley slopes and with watersheds with high sediment yield index. Moreover, this was not really a run-of-the-river scheme as the project authorities stated, because it involved impoundment of water and creation of an artificial reservoir.

The GSI report mentioned that construction of the reservoir and continuous storage of water would increase pore pressure on the adjoining slopes, leading to toe erosion and slope destabilization, all these factors would finally affect the discharge and the sedimentation processes and might lead to the weakening of the barrage structure, thus causing serious impacts on the flow of the river downstream.

3. Section 2, subsections 2.6, 2.21: slope instability and soil erosion: These subsections made it clear that road building and tampering with slopes in the project area had already caused much damage: ‘In many cases, roads are improperly aligned on weak and unstable rock formation increasing their susceptibility to damage by landslide. Blasting during road making is equivalent to mild seismic activity in the region causing landslides and slips.’(2.6). Further, it said ‘ Water disposal arrangements are not sufficient to cope with a rainfall of high intensity’ (2.21). In spite of these findings the EIA gave a clean chit to the proposed construction of a total 14.5 kilometers of new roads in the area, in 10 separate stretches (Section 8, subsection 8.5), just by saying that slope stabilization work and plantation activities would be taken up. The report was silent about mitigating the impacts of construction activity during road and barrage building in an area where ‘ a minor tremor can act as a trigger and reduce the shear strength and initiate sand and mudflows’ (2.6)?

4. The EIA report, mentioned the Environment Management Plan(EMP) several times. The plan was not available for study before the public hearing. This showed that the project authorities anticipated no awkward questions; perhaps they thought that the authenticity and effectiveness of the plans was beyond question? The EIA said that local communities were involved in all stages of the EMPs. Community/communities in the project area knew nothing of such EMPs, or the EIA for that matter.

At a public meeting in Siliguri in April 2002 organized jointly by NESPON and SANDRP(South Asian Network for Dams, River and People), the then Chief Engineer of the project openly admitted that the estimated life span of the dam is fifty years. This, along with the concerns about Seismicity, sedimentation, glacial lake outburst floods and landslide induced floods raised many until now unanswered questions about the economic viability of the project.
Manipulating Truth, and Deceiving people: TLDP-IV
In other words all portions and information in the EIA report that could go against the Project and act as potential hurdles in its obtaining environmental clearance had been deliberately dropped, making the entire EIA exercise manipulative, illegal, potentially deceptive and against public interest.

The same disregard for accountability and transparency accompanied the EIA process of TLDP-IV. The EIA in this case too was based on the same GSI report, and in the similar manner only an edited version was presented.

The GSI report made it abundantly clear that the project would have severe impacts on the project area; the all-important road link NH31/31A might be permanently damaged with dangers of soil erosion and landslides increasing, and faults including the main Boundary Fault touching and passing through the reservoir area, there would always be dangers of earthquakes. Because of such earthquakes, landslides and other factors like cloudburst, more rainfall and glacial lake bursts in the upstream the dam might leak, or burst, thus endangering the entire downstream population in the Teesta basin.

These were facts of which the people in the project area and in the larger Teesta basin area should have been made aware, so that they could take informed decision about the Dam, and these were facts which the public hearings should have discussed.
TLDP-IV EIA: Full of inaccuracies, half-truths, omissions

The TLDP-IV EIA was equally full of incomplete/partial data. Some of these are:

1.Section 3, subsection 3-8: Seismicity: 
The EIA admitted that the site-specific seismic design parameters were being ‘studied’ through IIT, Roorkee and not yet available. Because the Project area falls within the seismic zone IV, any major construction work in this zone need to have suitable seismic co-efficient incorporated in its design. If design parameters were unavailable, how could the NHPC authorities talk about construction datelines (Executive summary, DPR)? 

Surprisingly enough the EMP for TLDP-IV said that seismic design parameters were available, but did not incorporate information on that.

The project area falls within the seismic zone IV on BIS map. In his written objections to the TLDP-IV EIA, Debashis Chatterjee, a renowned geologist, and ex-Director, GSI, Eastern Region pointed out that in the case of the Teesta, extra caution had to be exercised, because the river has an extremely high net gradient, and occupies a tectonic feature transverse to the Himalayan structural grain. This transverse feature lies along the extension of the Jamuna shear fault (along the western edge of the Meghalaya plateau), which has been identified as a major fault zone in eastern India. Dam construction along the fault zone may give rise to Reservoir Induced Seismicity. His objection note further said that at least eight earthquake events of magnitude larger than Mb 6.0 were known to have occurred between 1897 and 1990 in the "in the vicinity of this area" as per GSI report, and also the EIA (Table 3.12).

2.Section 3, subsections 3.3.2 and 3.3.3:  Watershed and Sedimentation:
The Subsection 3.3.2 (watershed) mentioned that more than 60 % of the total watersheds/sub-watershed area in the have high and very high priority status in sediment yield index, and none of the watersheds is safe from the danger of erosion and destabilization. Despite saying that ‘the initial sediment deposition rate shall be very high depending upon the sediment load generated upstream’ (sedimentation 3.3.3) the EIA carried no further data on possible cumulative sedimentation in the reservoir. Moreover, it casually mentioned that ‘the spillway 157m.This would ensure that sediment accumulation near the dam would not exceed beyond the spillway crest..’: No further explanation or clarifications provided.
The EIA said (3.3.3) that gross storage in the reservoir would be 36.63 MCM at FRL 182.25meters and live storage had been computed at 7.91 MCM. Beyond these, the EIA gave no hydrological data, and did not explain how these figures were obtained. The storage figures given in the DPR and EIA apparently did not take into account the possible increase of discharge and ensuing floods caused by glacial melting in the upstream.

The heavy concentration of rainfall within a short period is common in Eastern Himalaya. The dam-managers would be compelled to release water at the peak of monsoon and that would inevitably cause flash floods in the lower reaches. Information on glacial behaviour and its impacts was therefore necessary to analyse the impacts on downstream populations and the environment.

4. Flora and Fauna:
The EIA mentioned at least 7 rare and threatened plant species (4.4.7) in the study area, but said that there would be no significant impact on the plant communities, because the area under submergence harbours no such species. Apparently the EIA ignored the fact, that the impact would not be limited to the actual submergence area, and plant communities all along the Catchment area and the river gorge would be further exposed to additional anthropogenic interventions, and increased ecological instability induced by soil erosion, soil degradation and dust accumulation during both the construction and operation phases.

The project submerged 338.05 hectares of forest land rich in biodiversity.

The EIA/EMP mentioned impacts on Fish migration (10.6/EMP), but beyond suggesting a fish ladder, did not clarify how this impact would be mitigated. Among the fish species likely to be affected by the dam, there would be endangered Himalayan species like Tor Tor and Tor PuiTar.

The hoax of environmental management
The EMP listed engineering and biological measures as part of the proposed Catchment Area Treatment (CAT) Plan. Judging by the magnitude and the intensity of the problem, the proposed measures were pitifully inadequate. The EMP budget on this head allotted just Rs. 1600 per hectare (Table 5.7/B in the EMP) distributed over several years for proposed engineering measures in 11740 hectares of areas ‘under very severe and severe erosion category in priority sub watersheds’ (5.4.1/Table 5.6 in the EMP ).

All these meant that sedimentation would not be halted, and the river as well as the reservoir would have a perpetually increasing silt load. In a river like Teesta the silt would be mixed with rocks, boulders, and trees. This load would likely be trapped upstream of the dams and the reservoir is likely to be choked in no distant period.

As part of Reservoir Rim Treatment, the EMP listed several engineering measures to tackle landslips/landslides. While the GSI report recommended ‘toe protection wall upto FRL level’ all along the affected stretches, the EMP suggested only 500 CuM of toe Protection wall in each Slide area, with another 500 CuM of retaining wall.

Even for a pre-dam situation, these measures were inadequate and could not be expected to ensure sustained slope stability. With dangers for toe-erosion and slope destabilization increased manifold in the post-reservoir situation, how can one reasonably expect that 500 CuMs of RCC walls would be effective in slides covering several hectares of severely degraded and unstable land? It should have been kept in mind that blasting and slope modification during the construction of dams would obviously invite further landslides, threatening life and livelihood of the people.

The project would generate 20,67,500 cuM of muck. The EMP, beyond saying that 6.75 hectares of downstream area (in two plots, 750m, and 250m downstream of the project site) would be used for muck storage, and these areas would be later restored through plantation, remains extremely vague on what measures would be taken to prevent spill over of muck into the riverbed, especially during the three-four months of monsoon.

This meant that lager parts of the muck would flow into the river, increasing the threat to the ambient water quality, and polluting the river beyond redemption.       
Participatory EIA?
The EIA said that local communities and NGOs were involved in all stages of the EIA process. However, such communities/NGOs were never found, neither the methodology adopted for such participatory exercises. NHPC and WBPCB failed to furnish a list of people/organizations/institutions involved in this exercise.     

The EIA/EMP showed only 11 families in Kalijhora Bazaar as project affected. But the reality is all the people in the Catchment area (25,000+ families, and especially 12700+ families residing in the Right Banks of Teesta—the EIA, 6.7.2, table 6.4) would be affected by the project that would cause severe damage to the sole road link of the area NH31/31A, and adversely impact on the overall geomorphology of the catchment area. Close proximity to the Dam site makes another 300+ families in 5 Downstream Villages along the NH31 also extremely vulnerable to flash floods and soil erosion.

This meant that the project might affect the livelihood and homes of all these people, and what use an Environment Management Plan and Relief and Rehabilitation plan that did not address these concerns are incomplete and inadequate.

The Farce of Public Hearing
Despite protests by NGOs, community organizations and concerned individuals, public hearings for both TLDP-III and IV were held more or less according to schedule: the first
in a village called Deorali, way above the dam site, and the second one in Kalijhora Bazaar.

Nothing could have been more farcical than the so-called ‘Hearings’. A large number of people from the project affected villages and adjoining areas attended the TLDP-III hearing, but they had neither any information about the project nor any idea about the EIA. In spite of a mass petition (signed by 84 community representatives present at the Hearing venue) demanding postponement of the process till the EIA report was available in local language, and objections by NESPON citing illegality of the exercise, the Hearing was conducted.

The hearing opened with a lengthy speech from the NHPC representative in praise of the project. After that, two panel members called upon the participants to not to oppose the project! In course of the Hearing the Chief Engineer of WBPCB admitted that that they could not make the necessary documents available during the first notification (14.11.2002) and apologized for it! He evaded the complaint that complete project documents were not available even at the time of the subsequent notification (13.12.2002), and moreover, the second notification did not give a fresh 30-day period for filing objections. Neither the WBPCB nor NHPC representatives could clarify why the EIA report excluded the findings of the GSI (refer to our letter dated 12.12.2002).

Demands raised by the local people included inclusion of all villages in the project area in the RR plan as 'project affected villages', and that the rehabilitation process was completed much before the actual commencement of the project work. More interestingly, people demanded that NHPC should enter into a legal agreement with the villagers, guaranteeing the bridge over Teesta and other amenities they were talking about (some villagers in fact brought and submitted an typed out and well-drafted agreement on court paper).

In the public hearing for TLDP-IV held in September 2004, project authorities and political parties supporting the dam ensured that truckloads of outsiders, many of them known ruffians, were visible in the venue: this author was not allowed to complete his submission, a representative of a Siliguri NGO was assaulted by the local Panchayat member belonging to a political party on the dias while opposing the project in his submission, and the chairperson of the panel kept on blatantly supporting the project. Because of adverse submissions by many, the hearing went on till late evening; and this author found himself surrounded by a group of hoodlums towards conclusion: it was a miracle that he escaped unhurt. 

NHPC reportedly its ‘community development funds’ to kill possible protests: in fact, in Kalijhora, an anti-dam protest by local youth was engineered in 2002, immediately after the NESPON-SANDRP meeting was held, and 4 years before actual project work would start. The leaders of this ‘movement’, in which some of the local NGOs participated, were all generously compensated. NHPC allegedly made similar ‘arrangements’ with other NGOs who later raised objections during the hearing.

In TLDP-III, visible public anger and dissent failed to ventilate, the then local councillor of Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council, and the most influential politician of the area kept on threatening people with ‘dire consequences’ each time a protest meeting took place. The same coercive practice continues to this day.  

Environment, livelihood in danger: construction of dams and the aftermath

Construction work  at TLDP-III site below 27th Mile started in 2004, and at TLDP-IV at Kalijhora, in 2006. A Monitoring Committee(the stipulation was in the environmental clearance) was constituted for TLDP-III on 31.05.2005. In both sites, the natural flow of the river was blocked, and the river was forced to pass through narrow diversion channels. Dynamite was used rampantly  at TLDP-III sites, and the slopes on both banks of the river—along NH 31A near 27th Mile, and Nazeok forest village—were entirely denuded of existing vegetation cover. At TLDP-IV site at Kalijhora, slopes on the left bank (downstream) were similarly affected. No slope protection activity at the dam sites, (and along the reservoir rims, and potential slide zones) was undertaken, at least not until  
half the roadside caved in August 2006 in a new slide just above the TLDP-III site at 27th Mile. Even then, only temporary guard walls have been erected to halt the slide only at that particular site, and all other areas have been left unprotected.

The six-monthly Progress Reports on environmental compliance (for TLDP-III) NHPC has been submitting to the MoEF according to one of the clearance conditions show that important environmental issues have been left unaddressed while the construction work proceeded in full swing. The EIA/EMPs for both the projects mentioned that because many of the watersheds and sub-watersheds in the project area were erosion-prone and had high sediment-yield index, catchment-protection work in form of improved drainage, new plantations and guard walls was an environmental priority. However, as the last available six-monthly Progress Report shows, nothing has been done so far for catchment-protection.                
The Progress Reports do not include any information on reservoir rim protection work.

The Reports mention that a committee has been formed to expedite Relief and Rehabilitation(R&R) work, and that the committee has had several discussions with community members and affected people. The reality, however, is that as off now, nobody in two roadside forest hamlets of 29th Mile and Geilkhola has agreed to the compensation terms, and many raise questions about why the guard walls promised by NHPC are not coming up.

The Flood on 27th July,2007
Torrential rains continuing for days resulted in the so-called flood on 27th July, when a swollen and angry Teesta tore through the paltry embankments, and came back to its original channels at both TLDP-III and IV sites, submerging the entire worksites at both places. Heavy dredgers and makeshift construction workers’ shanties were swept away alike, and workers have to be rescued at Kalijhora. Unconfirmed Reports suggest some casualties at 27th Mile, but that could not be verified.

A similar incident,but on a smaller scale, occurred on 17th July, when the river first breached the Kalijhora embankments.

At least 14 new landslides, big and small, opened up between Kalijhora and 29th Mile, on both banks of Teesta. The 27th Mile slide is still active, and the guard walls look inadequate. The Slide starts from NH31A, and goes straight to the TLDP-III site. A new and huge slide has opened within 2 kms of the TLDP-III site, affecting the road. Between TLDP-III and IV, a new slide has opened on the right bank(downstream), and yet another on the left, near the old Berrick Slide. The new road that NHPC built to TLDP-III site was caving in. Lateral cracks could be seen in the sandy soil of the entire slope. No slope protection work was visible along the road.  All old slides have worsened and more slides have opened up on NH 31A since the disastrous earthquake in Sikkim and sub-Himalayan North Bengal on September 18, 2011.

Villages face displacement from landslide: Karmatt, 29th Mile and Geilkhola
While 29th Mile and Geilkhola are roadside forest villages shown as project affected villages in the DPR(Detailed Project Report) EIA, Karmatt is a forest village now facing destruction by impending landslides aggravated by TLDP-IV construction work just below the village. The 29th Mile, Geilkhola and the Ryiang(located just below the TLDP-III dam) villages face certain displacement, judging by the high water mark on the Tessta gorge walls placed by NHPC, and now, the steadily rising level of the reservoir in TLDP-III.  The NH 31A, the arterial road connecting India with China through Sikkim has started caving in several places all along the stretch from Sevoke Coronation Bridge to Teesta Bazaar, even before the dams were commissioned. In a surprising development, the GREF under the Ministry of Defence has begun constructing a re-aligned road from the TLDP-III site at 27th Mile to Teesta Bazaar.

The Gramsabha of 29th mile Forest Village has passed resolutions to the effect that the dam-building activities by NHPC in the 27th Mile TLDP Stage-III are in direct violation of the Forest Rights Act: “it impinges upon our constitutional rights to live, cultivate and otherwise use the forest land in which we have been living for nearly a century now’, the Resolution says, ‘NHPC activities pose a direct threat to our village in total violation of the project holder’s commitments as expressed in the EIA and the EMP for the project: while both documents mentioned that only the low-lying river bed areas of our village would be affected, the project in fact affects the entire village at present. We find that the water level in the TLDP-III reservoir will reach the present level of NH 31A and beyond, hence putting our village in great danger of submergence, soil erosion and fresh landslides.

... the re-alignment of the NH 31A has been affecting our village both ecologically and economically—the road construction has been affecting forests under our Gram Sabha—forest trees had been illegally felled without first seeking and obtaining any permission by the Gram Sabha, and thus the forest clearance for this has apparently been obtained under false premises. The re-alignment will also destroy our livelihoods as the present NH 31A is our economic lifeline.

‘By virtue of... powers the Section 5 of the FRA’, the Gram Sabha decided that ‘as both the TLDP-III and the re-alignment of NH 31A directly affect our cultural and natural heritage and obstruct us in discharging our duties as prescribed in the FRA 2006, such activities must stop until the issue is amicably settled. To our utter dismay we find that work in both areas have been going on, in total disregard and utter violation of the laws of the land”. 

For the first time in recent years, Teesta has started eroding its left bank forests and agricultural fields near Mongpong this year, in addition to the right bank, where erosion continues. The Irrigation Department Spur on the right bank was gone, affecting Chumukdangi Village in a bad way.

All villages between Sevoke and Gazaldoba Barrage further downstream are in danger from Teesta erosion, and flooding. Teesta keeps on changing its course even beyond Gazaldoba, and the river has come back near Jalpiguri Town.

In a petition submitted to the WBFFCE(West Bengal Fact Finding Commission on Environment--non-official, chaired by Justice Bhabbati Prasad Bannerjee) in Siliguri on October 12, 2012, community representatives from TLDP area raised following questions:  

1. Why did NHPC start construction without taking adequate safeguards? How could the work at TLDP-III continue without first assuring that all existing slides and vulnerable slopes are protected, especially after last years slide at 27th Mile?  

2. Why did NHPC not start the ‘rim protection’ measures as prescribed in the EMPs? Is it for the reason that the Project does not have sufficient funds to cover the costs? Already, the ‘catchment area treatment’ has been delayed for TLDP-III because the project does not have the budget to cover the costs quoted by West Bengal and Silkkim Forest Departments.

3. The TLDP-III progress Report say that compensation amount for the affected families have been arrived at through discussions. However, several families have not accepted compensation so far, and more than the compensation they want from NHPC the guarantee that nothing wouldl happen to their village, and the road on which their livelihood depends.

The petitioners demanded ‘urgent and time-bound redress’ in the following:

A. Complete land-for-land rehabilitation in suitable locations and adequate cash compensation for all the bonafide residents of Geilkhola, 29th Mile and Karmatt from NHPC and the Government of West Bengal. 

B. No further construction work in both project sites till NHPC adequately complies with the EMP for TLDP-III and IV, particularly at TLDP-III, in accordance with the Forest Rights Act, 2006 and the 29th Mile Gram Sabha Resolution.

C.  Adequate and proper restoration of the NH 31A by NHPC. NHPC must ensure rim-protection measures, and watershed conservation work as detailed in the EMPs.

In lieu of conclusion: excerpts from proceedings of hearing of WBFFCE, October 12,2012

;…Smt Meena Sherpa on behalf of 29th Mile Forest Village Gram Sabha moved the petition mentioning thereto about the disastrous condition of the village area surrounding Teesta Low Dam Project. Main Contention of the petition that all villages between Sevak and Gazoldoba barrage further downstream are in great danger from Teesta erosion and other calamities arising from the Teesta Dam construction. It is also mentioned that Teesta river is changing its course even beyond Gazoldoba and there is a chance for affecting Jalpaiguri town also. It is categorically mentioned in the petition that NHPC is continuing their work violating the condition of the EIA clearance for their project. Petitioner also mentioned that compensation process of NHPC is faulty and large number of people are not getting any compensation though there property had been badly affected due to the construction of the dam and also affect their existence in their homeland.

Considering the entire situation, we are in view that the entire copy of the petition should be forwarded immediately to the NHPC for their attention and for obtaining remedial measures. State Disaster Management Dept. should also be kept informed about this situation by which the petitioners may get justice immediately...…After going through the papers and taking to the consideration of the submission we are in view that during preparation of the EIA report precautionary measures are not considered. We are inviting attention of the government that sustainable development is now the key issue of the development process wherein “precautionary principles” need to be followed otherwise during the course of development, mostly poor people or downtrodden people face the music of disaster. In this instant case downtrodden people of the locality have been badly affected(italics added)…’

According to the residents of 29th Mile and Geilkhola, who now live in constant fear of drowning ever since the dam started to feel, the local administration(here the BDO of Kalimpong) told them that NHPC is ‘considering’ some relief for the affected. However, because the villages do not have tenural entitlements as yet--despite clear provision in Forest Rights Act—the administration and the forest department treat these settlements as ‘encroachments’.

People from 24 forest villages in the Teesta Valley likely to be affected by TLDP projects and a proposed  railway line to Sikkim recently formed a new Testa Sangharsh Samittee(TSS) to press their demands. Not much could be achieved, though: NHPC remains non-responsive as ever, and the ruling political party in the Darjeeling hills apparently shares the administration’s view that these are encroached villages and hence cannot demand compensation legally. It was heard that party bosses told community representatives to wait till the water rises to their homes; later, another leader ‘promised’ a ‘shifting within one month’. Movements are bad, people were told, unless the party permits it. Because the party resents ‘outside’ and ‘plainspeople’s’ interference in hill matters(this became manifest, with ugly communal overtones after WBFCCE members visited TLDP sites on October 13,2012), this author and his colleagues in NESPON could no longer go and talk to the people freely and without fear. Meanwhile, sensing that its violations crossed all acceptable limits, and might result in a litigation soon, NHPC authorities are reported trying hectic damage control: which usually translates into lobbying with the ruling party, and offering meager and random compensation to a handful of people.

Justice continues to elude the people of the Teesta valley.