Teesta Low Dams

Development Means Disaster

Soumitra Ghosh

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 is 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 is already saturated with low dams. The project exercise, 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. In reality 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 uncompen-sated and ignored, now await submergence of their homes, wayside shops that provided them livelihood and whatever little cultivated land they had.

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). categorises dams above 15 metres 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 in the mountainous parts of Sikkim. Of this, only one proposal to construct a 510 MW 96.5 mt 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 the 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 (GSl) 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 km 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.

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.

On November 14, 2002, 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 said that only the Executive summary of the Detailed Project Report (DPR) would be available for public scrutiny. 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 social 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 13.12.2003, 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.

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.

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.

At a public meeting in Siliguri in April 2002 organised 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.

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 of, so that they could take informed decision about the Dam and these were facts which the public hearings should have discussed.

The TLDP-IV EIA was equally full of incomplete/partial data.
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 vicinity of this area’ as per GSI report.

The ElA 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 tile 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 Pui Tar.

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 river bed, especially during the three-four months of monsoon.

This meant that larger parts of the muck would flow into the river, increasing the threat to the ambient water quality, and polluting the river beyond redemption.

The ElA 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 /organisations/institutions involved in this exercise.

Despite protests by NGOs, community organisations and concerned individuals, public hearings for both TLDP-III and IV were held more or less according to official 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.

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 ruling political party on the dias while opposing the project in his submission, and the chairperson of the panel kept on blatantly supporting the project.

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 Jalpaiguri Town.

People from 24 forest villages in the Teesta Valley are 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 reportedly trying hectic damage control exercise which usually translates into lobbying with the ruling party, and offering meagre and random compensation to a handful of people.

Justice continues to elude the people of the Teesta valley.

Vol. 46, No. 7, Aug 25-31, 2013

Your Comment if any