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Story Publication logo September 30, 2014

India: “Benign Dictatorship” Constructs Dams, Erodes Democracy


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In the Indian border state of Sikkim, indigenous Himalayan communities charted for hydroelectric dam...

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Recently constructed industrial power lines supply electricity from remote hydroelectric dams to greater India. Image by Tom Clement. India, 2014.

Generating hydroelectricity from the rivers of India's northeastern state of Sikkim has been discussed for decades. But only since Chief Minister Pawan Chamling's 5,000-megawatt hydro-initiative has ambitious hydroelectric dam construction become state policy.

As a result, the creation of the anti-hydro movement and the subsequent victimization of the dissenters have politicized hydropower development in Sikkim.

The government of Sikkim (GOS) is by far the largest employer in the state. For Sikkim citizens, criticizing the GOS carries the risk of losing government aid and contract work. If not directly dependent on the GOS for something, almost everyone is related to someone who is. Despite the risks, anti-dam movements have risen across the state with varying degrees of success. Most notably, two sessions of hunger strikes by the Affected Citizens of Teesta (ACT) in 2007-2008 caused four dam projects in the contested region of Dzongu to be scrapped.

The anti-dam movement disrupted Sikkim's image as a politically stable and peaceful society that had been touted to attract private companies to the investor-friendly state. One hydropower opponent, Dawa Lepcha, describes the state atmosphere since hydro development: "It's not like there's a gun pointed at you or something from the Saddam [Hussein] reign…but a benign dictatorship is there."

However, the "benign dictatorship" was absent before the hydropower initiative. "First term he [Chamling] is ok, it's only after the middle of second term that he started changing. Whole lot of hydro projects, whole lot of money coming in… Now he cannot tolerate opposition," Dawa Lepcha said.

Chief Minister Chamling's ruling party, the Sikkim Democratic Front (SDF), has accused anti-dam activists of being anti-nationalist, anti-development, and anti-government. "It's a small place, you can identify anyone who is with the government or against the government. Once you are perceived to be against the government you are victimized," says Tseten Lepcha [no relation], working president of ACT. Because of the fear of victimization, many hydropower and SDF opponents choose silence to protect their family's livelihood.

The criticism of Chamling's evolving totalitarianism is not exclusive to anti-dam activists. In 2010 the Indian Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) sought to investigate allegations that Chamling and colleagues had accumulated assets beyond their known sources of income, presumably from under the table hydropower benefits from private developers. The GOS refused the CBI's investigation request and instead began an internal investigation led by Sikkim Justice R K Patra, dubbed the Patra Commission.

The Patra report was submitted to the GOS on March 5, 2014, but has yet to be shared with public. When asked for comment on the pending allegations by email, the director, the assistant director, and the deputy director of the Information and Public Relations Department for the GOS all declined to respond.

Chamling's refusal to allow the CBI into Sikkim plus the questionable objectivity of the Patra Commission have raised eyebrows across Sikkim, particularly for SDF co-founding member and elected Member of Legislative Assembly (MLA) for East Sikkim, P.S. Golay, who renounced his SDF affiliation in September 2013, citing Chamling's efforts to conceal his assets from the CBI.

"This was a political party dedicated to the people and formed with the support of the people against nepotism, communalism, and exploitation. But under your leadership, this party was used as a resource only for you and exploiters," Golay wrote in an email resignation. Golay would later become the president of the Sikkim Krantikari Morcha (SKM), the primary opposition to the SDF in the 2014 general election of Sikkim.

Leading up to the 2014 election, on January 15, 2013, The Himalayan Mirror quoted snippets from Chamling's speech confirming accusations of nepotism: "The so-called oppositionists are hell-bent to harm Sikkim and its people and are not merely targeting our government." Later in his speech at Jorethang in South Sikkim, Chamling encouraged Panchayats (village representatives) to withhold aid from oppositional parties: "Panchayats should not discriminate but also keep them [opposition] away from government benefits." Chamling retained his post as chief minister, but lost 10 of the 32 Sikkim legislature seats to the SKM.

On June 4, 2014, The Himalayan Mirror reported that the Sikkim Pradesh Congress Committee had found that Chamling deprived supporters of opposition parties by exclusively awarding construction contracts to SDF supporters. Now, unpaved roads, potholes, slow landslide removal, and lack of employment for construction workers are among the problems plaguing villages that elected opposition party Panchayats.

By channeling aid and employment to loyal government supporters and away from opponents of hydropower, the SDF manufactured support to swing the vote in favor of contested hydropower projects. For poor rural farmers in Sikkim, small government handouts and the promise of future aid through corporate social responsibility efforts are enough to buy their loyalty to the GOS.

But the ruling party's favoritism has not been able to push through hydropower projects in all parts of Sikkim. In the northern towns of Lachen and Lachung, community leaders have taken a firm stand against hydro development. The traditional self-governance method of "Dzumsa," used exclusively in Lachen and Lachung, has enabled them to oppose hydro development without intrusion from the SDF.

The Lachen and Lachung communities rely heavily on eco-tourism for sustenance and therefore are not dependent on the GOS as are other areas of Sikkim. As pastoralists and Buddhists, their religious connection to the land would be violated by industrial construction projects, and such development would also compromise the natural beauty that attracts tourists.

"[In] Lachen, Lachung, everybody will speak out [against hydroprojects]… Everybody has taken an oath in the temple that he or she will not advocate for bringing hydro projects to Lachen, Lachung," says Tseten Lepcha. Even offering tea to hydro employees is strictly prohibited.

A letter written from the Lachen Dzumsa to the GOS in 2007 warns, "To protect our land, forests, age-old traditions and places of worship where our gods and goddesses reside we will even sacrifice our lives. We may even adopt extreme measures if need be… We have not signed the MoU pertaining to the Project and as such we should not be held responsible for any incident resulting from the implementation of the project in question."

So far, the GOS has not dared to test if the people of Lachen will stand by their warnings.

The anti-dam movements outside of Lachen and Lachung have so far been unable to capture the majority support of their respective communities. But as the younger generation of more educated and politically astute voters gains influence, the SDF's tactics of patronage and victimization may backfire in the 2019 elections.



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