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ENVIRONMENT

Testing times for the Teesta

Plans to tame the Teesta in Sikkim are not new but the ones for `low dams' on the river are raising many concerns. MANJU MENON looks at the controversy.

PARTH SANYAL

White water rafting on the river ... how much longer?

THE Teesta "Low Dam" Projects (TLDP) III and IV have gained considerable attention since 2002. Various NGOs have sent many letters to the Ministry of Environment and Forests and the West Bengal Pollution Control Board, raising concerns about the projects proposed to come up within a distance of 20 km along the NH 31A in North Bengal. At an environmental public hearing for the Stage III project on January 3, 2003, locals articulated a number of these concerns. According to a press release by an independent study team that visited the area, this is a highly seismic area, frequented by landslides and landslips, eroding the riverbank continuously. NH 31A and the numerous villages along it are endangered due to these factors. But who's listening... ?

Ever since the TLDP came to public notice, there has been confusion and concerns about many basic aspects. The projects are called "Low Dams" even though the barrages are 32.5 and 45 metres high. By the globally accepted definition of the International Commission on Large Dams (ICOLD), dams above 15 m are in the category of large dams. TLDP III alone will impound water in a reservoir and submerge 156.49 hectares. The original project site of TLDP IV that came within the Kurseong Forest Division, Darjeeling district, West Bengal, would have submerged a part of NH-31A connecting Gangtok to Siliguri. The NHPC proposed to have an alternative road through the Mahananda Wildlife Sanctuary and Reserve Forests. This Sanctuary constitutes the forests of the lower catchment area of the Mahananda. Situated at the western end of the North Bengal elephant corridor, the sanctuary shelters more than 150 elephants during the monsoon and winter besides housing many other species of animals and plants.

The public hearing process of TLDP III clearly showed that despite the legislations and procedures for environmental protection, there is a need to "police" their implementation. If not for the vigilance of local NGOs and concerned individuals, the public hearing for the project would have taken place without any mandated sharing of project reports.

The plans to tame the Teesta, flowing through almost the entire length of Sikkim and then entering North Bengal, are not new. Since the 1970s, a proposal has been in place to harness the river in six stages in Sikkim. Of this, only one — to construct a 510 MW, 96.5 m high dam in Sikkim — has come through. Since this project was set in an ecologically sensitive area, the Wildlife Institute of India was commissioned to do a detailed ecological study. This was in addition to the usual Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA). An ethnographic study was commissioned to study the project's impacts on North Sikkim and on the Lepcha community, the original inhabitants of Sikkim with a distinct cultural and traditional community life. Finally, and most importantly, when the project was granted environmental clearance, one of the conditions was that no more projects would be developed on the Teesta in Sikkim till a carrying capacity study of the river basin was completed. Irrespective of whether these studies contributed to a better understanding the project's impacts or whether the check and balances are being monitored, there was at least an effort to address some concerns while clearing the Teesta stage V project. This seems to be lacking in the case of the Teesta low dams. The biggest concerns are the impact on the surrounding environment, the impact of the glacial behaviour on the river system and the occurrences of floods. These seem to have either been overlooked or their impacts underplayed in the EIA report (of TLDP III). The proposed sites are already unstable and according to the Geological Survey of India's report for the main project consultants, "A number of active and dormant landslides of different dimensions are present within the reservoir area of TLDP-III. After impoundment of the reservoir, the water level in the reservoir area (mostly restricted within the main Teesta valley) will rise considerably. As a consequence the strength parameters of the slope mass will decease and it may become susceptible to destabilisation. Thus triggering of new landslides and further destabilisation of already active slides cannot be ruled out."

The EIA report makes a cursory mention of this impending hazard but even today, little is known of how the project authorities propose to tackle this problem. This is no great news for a region already facing the cost of short-sighted mountain development.

Huge physical and financial damages were caused to the Nathpa Jhakri (Himachal Pradesh) and Rangit (Sikkim) projects by glacial lake outbursts in recent years. These outbursts caused sudden increases in the flows into the respective river systems. But there is no mention of such a phenomenon in the EIA reports of the projects on the Teesta, which is sustained by glacial melt, snowmelt run-off and monsoon rainfall. Information on glacial behaviour and its impacts is, therefore, necessary to analyse the impacts on downstream population and the environment, and to gauge the economic viability of projects in these regions. "The information on meltwater yield and its chemical and sediment characteristics is vital to the safety and maintenance of the hydroelectric installations and reservoirs in the Himalayas", says Dr. Syed Hasnain, Chairman of the Working Group on Himalayan Glaciers, International Commission on Snow and Ice.

Researchers and activists from Bangladesh and India have also raised concerns about the impacts of dam building activity on the Teesta on the water flows into Bangladesh. The problem is aggravated due to official secrecy. Data of international rivers is not accessible to the public and this limits water-related research and water resource planning. As Mohamed Khalequzzaman, a researcher from Bangladesh, said, lack of river flow data also causes conflicts and unjustified claims by different parties. Due to lack of any data about river flows in upstream parts of rivers (like the Teesta), it is impossible for downstream communities to ignore these claims or verify them. Unfortunately, some are real, while others are motivated by political reasons.

These are only a few of the many, concerns raised by people concerned about the lives of local people, downstream communities and the environment of the Teesta basin. If a project is planned by ignoring/concealing important parameters, then the primary objective itself may not be achieved. In such a situation, the secondary benefits that may accrue from the project say, a much-needed bridge over the river or the "community development schemes" that the NHPC seems to have promised the project-affected people, may not be commensurate with the investments made. And worse still, a poorly planned project comes with a baggage of ecological and social risks that future generations may have to unwillingly bear.

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