Written specially for Vikalp Sangam
“My faith is all I have left,” Ren Likden Rongkup, the middle-aged Buddhist monk said with an ironic smile as he briskly gathered the peels of wild bananas he had served us a while ago. The bananas came from his backyard which looked up on all three sides at the thickly forested hills of Dzongu, the Lepcha reserve in north Sikkim. Rongkup’s land, like that of many others in the little village of Passingdang, stands threatened by submergence in the wake of the Panam hydroelectric power project.
Preparing for his evening prayers, he drapes a maroon cloth over his bright yellow vest and makes his way to a monastery perched high up on a hillside that overlooks his village. Between deep breaths up steep steps the monk adds, “We are resigned to our fate, but I believe that our faith will save us from the dam.” As the sun faded and the football field at the foot of the hill opposite the monastery emptied out, the dusk air began to resound with the intense chanting of young monks.
Rongkup’s words are reflective of the general mood in Passingdang – watchful, weary, but not defeated. Seven years ago, the middle-aged monk was at the frontlines of a conflict that purportedly pitted nature and culture against technology and modernity. But the narrative wasn’t as simple as that. Dzongu was to see seven dams come up within its boundaries, to generate a sum total of nearly 1000 megawatts of power. And this was merely one-fourth of the total number of dams envisioned back in 2004 when the Sikkim government announced a slew of hydroelectric projects to tap into the network of rivers and tributaries flowing through the state.
With the Teesta river dropping along its course from a height of about 5280 metres in the north to 230 metres in the south, it is no wonder that hydropower seemed lucrative. But the Himalayas, known to be some of the youngest mountains on the planet, are characterised by an ever-changing topography, making them unstable ground for large infrastructure projects. Warnings of the fragile nature of the area have come repeatedly from environmentalists and the land. It is not clear whether the earthquake that devastated the state in 2011, and the more recent catastrophe in Nepal, have led to a rethink amongst advocates of big dams within official circles. Multi-crore public-private partnerships such as the one for the Panam and Teesta IV dams have raised the stakes for all involved.
But faith moved the Lepchas before the earth did. In 2007 the youth and monks of Dzongu challenged the massive state and corporate forces up against them when they came together under the banner of the Affected Citizens of Teesta (ACT) and camped out on the streets of the state capital, Gangtok. The Teesta, they claimed, is their path to salvation and that their souls travelled to the sacred mountain Kanchenjunga along the river in the afterlife. The tunnelling and damming of the Rangyong Chu and Teesta, as is planned in most of Dzongu, would block the passage of departing souls to their resting place, the Lepchas protested. For the living, it would mean a complete alteration of their ecosystem – loss of fishing habitats, lack of water for irrigation and the depletion of a host of plant, insect and bird species that thrive close to the riverbed.
At a time when even the Dalai Lama’s reincarnation lies in the hands of the Chinese politburo, concerns for the afterlife presumably make a weak case against the juggernaut of development and national interest. But in a period of global churning and unprecedented migration towards cities, when many around the world are questioning the relevance of a sense of place or community, the Lepcha experience gives new meaning to these ideas. And in their preservation, holds out a hope for the ecosystem the community inhabits.
In those heady days of protest the little monastery in Passingdang saw Lepcha devotees from surrounding villages and other faraway places making emotional pleas for the life and health of their youth who were agitating on the streets of Gangtok. Dawa Lepcha and Tenzing Gyatso needed those prayers in particular as they staged sit-ins and hunger strikes lasting up to 90 days at a stretch. Their trajectories since are telling of the state of affairs in Sikkim today.
“The ACT was branded by the state government as a communal and ethnic group, which it clearly wasn’t,” affirms Dawa Lepcha, the iconic hunger striker of 2007 who is today a member of the political party Sikkim Krantikari Morcha (SKM), a recent cropping of opposition to Chief Minister Pawan Chamling’s uninterrupted 26 year reign. “That Chamling has struck a balance between all communities is a self-propagated myth. There are attempts under way to populate certain pockets of the state with outsiders and create a vote-bank,” he claims, contradicting what the state’s tourist brochures and publicity material consistently depict – the three major communities of the state, the Lepchas, Bhutias and the Nepalis, standing side by side, painting a picture of harmony. “There is every possibility of linguistic politics being practiced here in future. The Lepchas of Kalimpong are justified in fighting for their identity, and the migrant Nepalis need to respect that,” the young politician warns.
Head 3 hours south of Gangtok into West Bengal, and in villages on the outskirts of Kalimpong town, one sees that the “fight” Dawa refers to is being pitched rather peacefully in classrooms. Night schools have been springing up in the Lepcha villages of north Bengal for over a decade to teach the native tongue Rong-Ring, to the young ones of the community. Pachoak, a small village shrouded in mist during the monsoon, has one such school running since 1994, thriving solely on contributions from Lepchas residing in and around the village. The inside walls of the classrooms here are replete with illustrations of trees that grow in the region, and besides the alphabet, children learn traditional songs and dances, mythology and the history of their community.
The school has an innovative way of finding its teachers. The eldest students graduate to teach the youngest. As they gain in age and experience, they move to higher grades, eventually ending up teaching the oldest before someone younger takes their place. But things don’t move as smoothly in government schools in the area. The right to instruct Lepcha students in their native tongue was hard won and short lived. Lepcha teachers in Pachoak’s government school have been on strike for months against the attempts of the Gorkha Territorial Administration (GTA) to control their salaries.
The Lepchas of Kalimpong travelled a very different arc to the realization that they ought to conserve their culture. The Gorkhas, a sizeable community of Nepali ethnicity had been agitating for nearly three decades for statehood, breaking away from West Bengal. In 2012, after numerous strikes and often violent showdowns, they wangled semi autonomy from the state government, effectively bringing the hills in and around Darjeeling under their control. The Lepchas, living in remote parts of the region and thus far left out of the development process, felt a sense of impending doom. Identity being the only cause to rally around, they began a peaceful agitation for a state funded developmental body for their community. “As a gesture of respect for the dominant language of the state we translated Tagore’s Gitanjali into Rong-Ring and presented it to Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee. In return we requested that she help us conserve our own mother-tongue,” remembers Major LyansongTamsang.
Tamsang now heads the Mayel Lyang Lepcha Development Board, which Banerjee helped set up as a pacifying gesture in 2013. On the day that I met him, the Major was jubilant after receiving a call from the Information and Broadcasting Ministry in Delhi, informing him that their two-year-old request for a licence for a community radio station had been granted. “We have quite a bit of programming prepared and ready for broadcast. It was just a matter of getting the green signal,” he beams. The Board also maintains a wonderful little museum cluttered with artefacts and manuscripts open to the general public to view on request. But their most visible attempts at preserving cultural authenticity are manifest in the form of the 42 odd traditional wooden houses in Lepcha villages spread across Kalimpong. Built entirely of interlocking wooden beams, with thatch roofs, propped on log stilts, they may be labour and cost intensive but make for cosy, environmentally sound homes. The Board is now encouraging owners to offer homestay facilities as a way of generating revenue, and already a few have opened their doors to visitors.
The setting up of the Lepcha Development Board inflamed Bimal Gurung, chief of the GTA, who said that it was a “divide and rule” tactic on the part of the West Bengal government. The fact that he has also been railing against the Gorkhas being termed “outsiders” in Sikkim show some of the ethnic complexities common to the two neighbouring states. The Lepchas of Kalimpong, for their part, found common cause with their community in Dzongu, albeit shortly, when in 2009 they headed north in huge numbers to lend solidarity in the anti-dam agitations. That moment held out a possibility for the community to come together as a whole, across state borders, and stake their claim in the environment and politics of their region. But as is often the case with mass movements, divisions and cynicism crept in.
For the time being, all is quiet at the Panan dam site, thanks probably to the fact that it lies on the buffer zone of the Khangchendzonga National Park, which was recently included in a list of 100 Green destinations in the world, by an international group promoting sustainable tourism. The Sikkim Government might also be treading cautiously because of its plans to nominate the park for UNESCO’s World Heritage Site status under the ‘Natural and Cultural landscape’ category. The moratorium has also silenced Dzongu’s agitation for the time being. But work is steadily being done at the grassroots to pose alternative models to current paradigms of development.
Climbing downhill from Passingdang, following the sound of the river, one spots a solitary figure working on a small cardamom plantation far below. The river gushes by behind him as he checks on his crops and weeds the soil. This is Tenzing Gyatso, the second of the hunger strikers of 2007. These days he’s spending most of his time in a little bamboo shack, tending to his land with only his wife for company. Sitting on a sofa made with the backseat of a car, he brims with vitality as he speaks. “We are going back to the land. The dams truly opened our eyes to the fact that Sikkim was selling off its hills and rivers.”The fact that 80 per cent of the compensation has already been paid to those about to be displaced does not deter Gyatso from his efforts to raise consciousness amongst youth in the area to hold on to their land and become self-sustaining.
“It is ironic that the model of sustainable tourism that the state now follows in a big way started right here in Dzongu, amongst us protestors,” Gyatso says with pride as we walk through a garden of orange trees into the new house he is building. Constructed along the sides of a massive rock that leans in and forms its back wall, the structure opens out in the front to Gyatso’s farm and the river. Here, he plans to accommodate more guests for his already flourishing homestay.“Some of my fellow protestors and I began running homestays when the anti-dam agitations began, both as a way to sustain ourselves and the movement. Besides it is a good way to raise awareness amongst visitors about our struggle. This land, after all, is our identity,” he explains.
Considering the costs of tourism to any place, the idea of homestays seems to make more sense in Dzongu, in their homegrown form, than anywhere else. Evolved from a resistance movement for sustainable development, the Sikkim government would be better advised to nurture it than to destroy its chances of becoming a viable economy.
Looking around Gyatso’s land, it is easy to see where the zeal to preserve it springs from. With its stunning diversity of landscape, flora and fauna, and its status as an oasis for one of the few communities that hasn’t lost its links with nature, the case for conservation isn’t hard to make. But it takes a believer to hold on as tenaciously as he does, to an older way of life. “On the night of August 16, 2007, after the first instalment of compensation money was paid, a flash flood came and washed away the construction company’s machinery and even a few of its engineers. Nature is with us.” he confides.
Contact Nikhil Roshan, the author