A disaster in waiting in the Darjeeling Hills

July 16, 2013

Respected Sirs and Madam,

Sub: A disaster in waiting in the Darjeeling Hills

As the country is yet to come to terms with the scale of disaster in Uttarakhand and the damage to lives and property, many more disasters are in waiting to be triggered off by projects that have been taken up without considering the vulnerability, risks, impacts or even their viability and desirability.

A similar disaster of an enormous scale can strike any of the ecologically fragile mountainous regions of Jammu and Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh, Sikkim, Darjeeling Hills of W Bengal, Arunachal Pradesh and other North East states, where unbridled projects violating all laws and regulations of the country is being allowed by successive local administration, governments and the ministry of environment and forests succumbing to the coercion of the corporate dam building lobby, tourist and hotel operators and the road and transport agencies.

While Himachal Pradesh, Jammu and Kashmir, Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh still appear in the radar due to controversial hydro power projects, assertive peoples struggles and devastating floods and earthquakes, the condition of Darjeeling Hills washed by the mighty Teesta and scarred by two hydro power projects constructed by the NHPC within a distance of only 30 kms has gone un-noticed and un-reported. 1st stage (TOR) clearance for the 144 MW Teesta Intermediate Project of W Bengal State Electricity Distribution Company with 19 m high dam just downstream of confluence of Rangit and Teesta River at Teesta Bazar was given by the MoEF in July 2009. A fourth hydro project TLDP V is proposed (by W Bengal State Electricity Distribution Company Ltd, the project was recommended approval for Terms of Reference by the Expert Appraisal Com of MoEF in May 2013, disregarding the letter from SANDRP on Apr 27, 2013 that required information for the project as per CIC order is not available in public domain) just downstream from TLDP IV. Just downstream from TLDP V is the Teesta Barrage. All these projects are just downstream of the massive hydropower development ongoing in upstream Sikkim.

People in Teesta area under threat: (from an Action Alert from NESPON in July 2013) National Highway 31 A--and adjoining areas in the Teesta basin in Sikkim and North Bengal--is under threat, due to recent heavy rainfall in the Darjeeling hills. TLDP III and IV fall within a 20 km stretch in the river Teesta up to Teesta Bazar, starting from Sevok Bazaar, Kalijhora and 27th Mile, both the TLDP sites fall in this area. Thousands of people reside in the roadside villages of this area, many of which are forest villages. 29th mile is such a forest village near 27th mile dam site. NHPC had earlier constructed a so-called ‘guard wall’ to protect the village, which broke at several places within last 1 week, letting the rising dam water come directly to unguarded and fragile slopes which have a tendency to cave in as soon as there is a moderately heavy rainfall.  People living here are scared and spending sleepless nights. Frequent landslides in this area are adding to the problem. This monsoon of July 2013, the villages Gayelkhola, 29th mile, 27th mile, Rombhi and Riyang are under threat. NHPC personnel asked the villagers to evacuate and they promised to pay rupees two thousand (Rs 2000 only) to each of the 15 families living near the river only for 4 months as house rent. It needs to be mentioned that at 29th Mile alone there are 70+ families, all of whom live in danger: continuous and heavy rains can swallow the whole area within a few moments.  The administrative is unresponsive, the political parties are apathetic; nobody is talking about rehabilitation and any permanent solution.

At present, the villagers are too scared of politicians and NHPC musclemen to talk about their problem publicly. Very recently an officer from the SDO Office of Kalimpong came to the village and threatened them with eviction because they are occupying GREF (defense) land. 29th Mile is a forest village and people there had already filed claims under forest Rights Act. The idea evidently is to clear the area before it goes to the river, and without paying any compensation.

We have seen photographs of 29th Mile, Teesta Reservoir and the breach in the guard wall. A couple of photographs also show new landslides at Kalijhora, TLDP-IV site. The photographs were taken on 2 July by a fact-finding team of NESPON.

The Run-of-the-River projects with huge impoundments! The so called low dam projects TLDP III and IV (the name of low dams given is clearly misleading, since both are large dams as per international definition, with height of TLDP III dam being 32.5 m high and that of TLDP IV dam being 45 m) are constructed within 18 kms of each other with reservoirs extending to 8 kms and 7 kms respectively. Teesta is no longer flowing in an approximately 15 km long stretch along NH 31A. 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.

TLDP-III and IV were accorded environmental clearance by the MoEF in 2003 and 2005 amidst protest by the local population, environmental groups as well as hydrologists, geologists and biologists from North Bengal and all over the country citing shoddy, inadequate and meager compensation and fraudulent EIAs that were incomplete, non-transparent, and non-participatory. The EIAs either contained inadequate data on possible environmental impacts or deliberately suppressed and falsified important scientific data on those impacts. The MoEF seems to be going down the same path in case of 144 MW Teesta Intermediate Project and 80 MW TLDP V now.

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. The report also mentioned that neo-tectonic movements are very common for such a juvenile organic belt like Himalayas and the Main Boundary Thrust (M.B.T) passes very close to the TLDHP-IV dam axis which is non-tectonically active’. As a public warning, the GSI, Kolkata office had also erected a display board near the TLDP IV site showing the tectonic slides around the site which was taken down by the NHPC later on.
The EIA was based on data collected from a study area that extended to only 7 Kilometers upstream from the project site. 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. These omissions posed serious questions to the credibility of all the hydrological computations used in the DPR and the EIA.

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, not until NH 31A caved in August 2006 just above the TLDP-III site at 27th Mile.

During the flood of 2007, 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 had to be rescued at Kalijhora.
At least 14 new landslides, big and small, opened up between Kalijhora and 29th Mile, on both banks of Teesta with new sinking zones opening up on the NH 31A. The new road that NHPC built to TLDP-III site is caving in repeatedly. Lateral cracks could be seen in the sandy soil of the entire slope. No slope protection work is 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. The Darjeeling hills is also in Seismic Zone IV.

While 29th Mile and Geilkhola roadside forest villages are shown as project affected villages, 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 villages face certain displacement.  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.

Violation of Forest Rights Act: In early 2012The 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.”

What can be done? While NHPC has used coercion, dolling out contracts and money to keep the local population under control, it has also continued with the construction of the dams without any hindrance from any authority. It seems that the MoEF has washed its hands off, with no review of its compliance conditions and periodic monitoring. A review of the MoEF website shows that the site carries no Compliance Report (CR) for TLDP III and the latest CR of TLDP IV is for January 2012. It may be noted that as per EIA notification of Sept 2006, submission of CR every six months and putting the same in public domain are mandatory, but these norms are clearly getting violated. Similarly there are no monitoring reports for either of the projects.

There is also no cumulative impact assessment report for the W Bengal portion of the Teesta basin, which should include the cumulative impacts of TLDP III, TLDP IV, Teesta barrage (all existing or under construction) and Teesta Intermediate and TLDP V (both proposed, TOR clearance given or recommended).

The fate of the local population, the ecology of the area and the all important NH 31A now solely rests on the local administration embedded in the Gorkhaland Territorial Authority. The condition is fast deteriorating and needs immediate attention.

We demand:

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

B. No further construction work in any 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.

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.

D. Disaster risk assessment of the area in view of various vulnerabilities of the area including landslides, flashfloods, earthquakes, dam break in Sikkim and others.

E. Cumulative Impact Assessment of impacts of all the existing projects, including carrying capacity. It should be kept in mind that the Mahananda wildlife sanctuary is less than 10 km from the area and area is also elephant corridor.

F. In any case, Teesta Intermediate and TLDP V should not even be considered at this stage.

G. Ask NHPC to stop work on the projects since they have not submitted the CR as required under law.

H. Enquire into the violations and coercive measures used by various authorities.
We will look forward to your response on the above letter.

Yours Sincerely,

On behalf of India Climate Justice

Following Constituent Organizations and Inviduals:

Soumitra Ghosh, NESPON, Siliguri, W Bengal:

Endorsed by:

Souparna Lahiri, ALL India Forum of Forest Movemens, New Delhi:

Himanshu Thakkar, SANDRP, Delhi:



This memorandum to be submitted to the following authorities:

1. R D Meena, Principal Secretary,Gorkha Territorial Administration, Daejeeling
2. Saumitra Mohan, IAS, District Magisrate, Darjeeling
3. Rachna Bhagat, IAS, SDO, Siliguri
4. Lakpa Narbu Sherpa, WBCS (Exe), SDO, Kalimpong
5. Jayanti Natarajan, Union Minister of State of Environment and Forests (IC)
6. Shri Jyotiraditya Scindia,Union Minister of Power
7. M Shashidhar Reddy, Vice Chairperson, National Disaster Management Authority 

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