Thursday, January 15, 2015

By the River Teesta, I sat down and wept

It was late afternoon as we left the plains behind and started our ascent up into the mountains. Beneath us, at the bottom of the valley, flowed the majestic River Teesta, in her pristine glory, her waters slaty grey after the heavy rains that had lashed the region for the last few days. The sides of the valley were covered with dense forests, right from the edge of the river to the misty mountaintops. Thick moss, orchids and ferns covered every possible surface, creepers and climbers clung on to every possible hold in the race to the top of the canopy.

I was in paradise. It was a beautiful, crisp day as I made my way into WWF’s Kangchendzonga Conservation Landscape, one of our work areas which I had wanted to visit ever since I’d joined WWF.

And then, it all came crashing down in a hurry. Passing a bend, we hit the first of a countless number of landslides that had ravaged the area. It went on, kilometer after kilometer, almost non-stop for the next few hours. Every now and then we would come across a still-intact piece of forest desperately clinging on to the mountainside, only to be followed by yet another patch of ravaged earth above us and a few hundred feet of what had earlier been pristine forest now smothered under the sickeningly dull grey mixture of sand, soil and minerals that make up the Himalayas, below the road, sliding into the river.

And so it went on. I have seen more than my fair share of landslides, including being trapped between two of them for a couple of days, but I have never seen devastation on a scale like this before. Just as I had reconciled myself to this reality, we went around a bend, and there it was - bang in the middle of what had been, and was still desperately trying to be, a free-flowing, beautiful, wild river - the ugly foundation of a massive dam. Was this the dam on the Teesta that we often talked about, I wondered? In a few moments, I had my answer. How naive of me, I realised, as I saw a board proudly marking the site of the Teesta Phase IV project. What chance did a river as majestic and wild as this have of reaching the plains unmolested, without a dam coming up every time the valley widened enough for a road to go in?

And so on it went. Landslide after landslide, without any real demarcation between where one ended and the next one began. At one point, the road suddenly broadened, and there stood 4 massive earth-movers - every civil engineer, infrastructure developer and over-worked, harassed road maintenance official’s dream machine. The earth-movers weren’t been used - they just stood there, as if a part of the landscape, at home amongst the misty mountaintops, trees, mud-puddling butterflies and the angry river at the base of the valley. Moving along, we saw yet another dam site, and then yet another. Massive construction work happening bang in the middle of some of the most beautiful and precious river stretches in the country, the land around it savaged beyond recognition, bludgeoned, scarred and destroyed.

Sikkim is a power-surplus state, one of 8 in the country which produces more power than it needs. It is pretty much covered with forests, from the remote North to the relatively populous South and East. I quote from the State’s Department of Environment and Forests website, “The recorded forest area of the State is 5,841 km², constituting 82.31% of the geographical area of the State.” Even allowing some room for exaggeration given that these are official numbers and that a lot of this ‘forest’ would be nothing close to anything reasonably described by the term, this is quite an astonishing figure. It is also almost completely mountainous a region. Facts which would make me want to leave the place mostly alone, given that it seems to be doing rather well for itself, especially since it does rather well on the development indices too, and possibly every other possible indicator that you might want to throw in. But then, being a part of a larger nation has to come with a price. A hefty one in Sikkim’s case.

There are about 35 existing or proposed dams in the Teesta basin (which is essentially most of the State), give or take a few - deciphering the exact figure from the map requires one to be armed with a marker to strike off the ones which you have already counted. Thirty-Five Dams. That’s more than 1 dam per 20,000 people, a staggering figure only probably beaten by Arunachal, which suffers a similar fate.


Dams Planned and Under Construction in the Teesta Basin
Source: South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People (SANDRP)

Who will consume all of this power? It’s the top-tier urban centres, industry, and of course agriculture. You and me, and our ACs and heaters. Not so much that poor villager’s home you really hope all this power is lighting up - most rural, or even non top-tier urban centres of the country have power cuts heading almost into double figures every day - a reality that stares you in the face when you travel to the field. And industry, which we hope would grow at double digits for the next few years and make our mutual fund investments rise and shine and not seem like the daft idea it did in the previous regime. And of course, the farmers - not your 1-acre-plot owning marginal farmer of course, but the rich, powerful ones who need the free power to pump out all that groundwater into their fields.

And the roads. Our nation seems to be obsessed with road-building. We love to build all sorts of them - from magnificent 8-laned mega-express-highways which almost promise teleportation, to narrow village ones under the Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana (PMGSY). We have the same road density (road length per sq. km) as the US, and far greater than China and Brazil. That is a pretty astonishing statistic, albeit tempered by the fact that this, in our case, also includes fair-weather, or ‘kuchha' roads. And yet, we never seem to have enough of them. And if we have enough of them, we want them to be broader, more laned, and smoother. Kind of seems strange to me, now that we’ve managed to connect 90% of hitherto unconnected villages by roads under the PMGSY (MoRD-2011). Apparently, the previous NDA regime, during its term, constructed nearly half the total length of national highways laid in 32 years. The UPA Government, not to be outdone, claimed in the 2014 interim budget that the road network had increased 7-fold during the 10 years of its rule (hurray to the PMGSY!). Basically, no matter who’s at the helm, we just love them roads.

Whom do these roads really benefit? Of course, the rural ones do offer connectivity to previously unconnected villages and consequent benefits. But the possible negative impacts of these roads are likely to be limited, given their breadth, in comparison to massive, multiple-laned National and State Highways, especially in ecologically fragile areas such as the North-East, Sikkim and other hilly regions of the country. The truth is that these roads benefit you and me, and the industrial sector (again, effectively, you and me), and the tourism sector (mostly again comprising of the privileged classes in touristy places, apart from the odd shop on the highway or the few communities which have landed a locational jackpot in a few places).

Who pays for all of this? The unfortunate ones who happen to own land where a new, shiny power plant will stand or which will be submerged under the backwaters of that magnificent hulk of concrete and steel, and who are handed out some bit of money and asked to basically buzz off. Or the ones downstream who depend on the waters of the river for their livelihoods. Or the ones who unfortunately happen to come in the way of the road necessitated by the plant. And of course, the lesser denizens of this planet, who simply end up being drowned as the waters rise, or hacked away to clear the way for a transmission line (just so that we can put those poor villages on the grid or the road network, of course).

Which brings me to the whole point of this piece. So many of our policy actions, cleverly disguised to make them seem critical and life-saving for those poor, deprived souls living out their lives in some remote village, are actually geared towards pleasing and catering to us urban folks, and mostly the urban elite, in order to satisfy our never-ending, ‘first-world’ needs, especially when it comes to issues like development and infrastructure. We are the ones who want continuous power supply and sexy roads, and we will be the ones to create a hue and cry when we have 2-hour load-shedding blackouts imposed on our cities. We are the ones to crib that it takes 4 hours to complete a 100 km journey from Bagdogra to Gangtok, and that there are a zillion landslides on the way. How dare those pesky tribals come in the way of linear projects or those mute trees refuse to stand up and hold the damned (!) soil in its place even if we’re building a 4-lane highway through the mountain? And how does it really matter if a few dams cause a few landslides, especially when the place has too much of forests anyway. Who needs so much forest?

What gives our policy-makers the authority to systematically plan towards wrecking a place like Sikkim or Arunachal, to satisfy the masses thousands of kilometers away? Indeed, what right do we have to claim and forcibly take what is not ours? The answer is fairly simple, and yet it surprises us when a little bit of soul-searching leads us to the realization - Because we CAN.

A misty haze hung over the spot where the Rangeet, a tributary of the Teesta, surrendered into the larger river. The road curved around another mountain, and followed the smaller river, moving westwards, towards our destination, the town of Geyzing in West Sikkim. The sun dipped below the mountains, and nightfall came quickly. A shiver passed through my body as the clouds closed in onto the road, enveloping us. I rolled up my window and withdrew from the world around me.