Three Lepcha gram panchayats of North Sikkim have accused the district administration of forgery and suppression of facts in furnishing consent under the Forest Rights Act for the 520 MW Teesta stage IV hydel power project. Lepchas are recognised as one of the Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Groups, whose rights are to be protected by state governments while diverting forest land. In a submission to the Union Ministries of Environment and Tribal Affairs, and the Governor and Chief Minister of the state, the gram panchayats Friday claimed that three out of four gram sabhas held between November 2016 and May 2017 rejected the Rs 3,703-crore hydel project. The panchayats alleged that the district administration did not forward two rejections to the Union Environment Ministry and forged signatures of the members of the third gram sabha to furnish a false resolution in favour of the project.
According to the submission, the district administration had accepted the request to postpone the gram sabha meeting on Teesta IV as most members of Lum Gor Sangtok gram panchayat were unavailable for the proposed May 13 event. But the administration allegedly went ahead and held a gram sabha on “FRA awareness” and subsequently sent a forged resolution to the Environment Ministry.
“That May 13 gram sabha and its resolutions were anyway illegal. Moreover, at least 10 of those who signed the attendance register were either not on the voter’s list of the village or not present at the meeting. We will hold a press conference in Gangtok tomorrow with specifics of those outsiders and the forged signatures,” said Topgay Lepcha, secretary of Lum Gor Sangtok gram panchayat, adding that a “legal gram sabha” held on May 30 unanimously rejected the project. “Forging a gram sabha resolution is a very serious offence. Government officials should not be biased or work on behalf of project developers. It gives the entire administration a bad name. We will have to look into the issue,” Sonam Gyatso Lepcha, deputy speaker of the state Assembly and the local MLA from the ruling local Sikkim Democratic Front told The Indian Express.
“The people of Dzongu — the Lepchas — have made enough sacrifices in the national interest and multiple projects with a capacity of more than 2,000 MW are already being developed. Their concerns about yet another project on the last free-flowing stretch of the river are genuine. I have taken up this issue with the chief minister and the central government in the past. Hopefully, we’ll be able to find a solution,” he added. North Sikkim district collector Karma S Bonpo did not respond to phone calls and text messages seeking his comment on allegations of forgery by the district administration.
In their submission, the three panchayats referred to the landmark 2013 judgment of the Supreme Court in Odisha’s Niyamgiri case that “re-emphasised the powers of the gram sabha — under Section (5)(c) of the FRA — to consider religious and cultural rights over and above all other rights that have been claimed, while deciding on diversion of forest land” to point out that four out of eight gram panchayats of Dzongu’s Lepcha community, whose spiritual and cultural rights would be affected by the project, were not asked for their consent.
Conceived in 2006, Teesta Stage IV has sharply divided public opinion, with villages on the left bank backing the project while the Lepcha villages on the right bank opposing it. The Lepchas consider the Dzongu Cultural Landscape sacred and seek to protect the Teesta’s last free-flowing stretch of 6 km between the Stage-III powerhouse at Singhik and Stage-V dam at Dikchu.
Teesta Stage IV was allotted to NHPC in 2006 on build-own-operate basis, with Sikkim getting 12 per cent of power generated free for the life of the project. In 2014, the project received environmental clearance, which was challenged by Affected Citizens of Teesta (ACT), a local group, in the National Green Tribunal. The next hearing is on Monday.