Sikkim Bhutia Lepcha Apex Committee (SIBLAC), Sikkim's apex tribal body, is demanding a comprehensive Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) inquiry into the controversial Teesta Dam project. This call for an investigation follows the recent catastrophic Glacial Lake Outburst Flood (GLOF) that ravaged parts of North Sikkim, East Sikkim, and South Sikkim, leaving a trail of devastation, anguish, and uncertainty in its wake.
The plea by SIBLAC's Convener underlines that the demands are being expressed in a personal capacity, without affiliation to any political party.
The recent disaster, which was a tragic combination of natural and man-made factors, has raised questions that demand urgent answers. The natural causes of the catastrophe include the mounting impact of global warming and other climatic changes that have accelerated the degradation of the region's fragile environment. Furthermore, the disaster was precipitated by Glacial Lake Outburst Flood (GLOF), which, in itself, is a consequence of the melting of glaciers, a direct result of the changing climate.
Equally troubling are the man-made causes, which include the construction of dams in areas with inherently fragile ecosystems. The sheer scale of these projects and their potential environmental harm should have raised alarms within government circles, environmentalists, and the local communities.
SIBLAC claims that the troubling aspect of this catastrophe lies in the complete negligence of the present and previous governments in preventing and mitigating this impending disaster. Both administrations exhibited a lack of interest in averting the impending crisis. The previous government's decision to move forward with the Teesta Dam project disregarded the dire warnings issued by scientific studies that illuminated the dangers inherent to such a project. Despite vehement protests from local communities, the government pressed forward, initiating a project with a questionable foundation.
In this light, it is essential to state that multiple government agencies and scientific expeditions had red-flagged the vulnerability of Lhonak Lake in North Sikkim to a GLOF for at least a decade prior to this catastrophic event. A report compiled by the Sikkim State Disaster Management Authority (SSDMA) in 2019 highlighted that scientists from the National Remote Sensing Centre in Hyderabad, as early as 2013, had reported that the Lhonak Lake, situated at a staggering height of 5,245 meters above sea level, was "highly vulnerable" to a GLOF event. This event had the potential to inflict extensive damage to life and property in downstream areas, along with the ominous possibility of "flash floods" endangering critical infrastructure such as dams and powerhouses.
Various field expeditions were also conducted to assess the problem. The first expedition took place in August 2014, led by a team from the Snow and Avalanche Study Establishment (SASE) and the Sikkim Department of Science and Technology and Climate Change, as well as other stakeholders. This expedition reiterated the threat of "devastation" and underscored the need for a mitigation management plan. It also suggested "siphoning" as a short-term measure. A second expedition to South Lhonak Lake occurred in September 2016, led by a team from the Sikkim State Disaster Management Authority, the Indo-Tibetan Police Force, and the Students Education and Cultural Movement of Ladakh, with Sonam Wangchuk at the helm. This team concluded that "engineering intervention was not feasible" due to the threat of dead ice melting. Wangchuk, renowned for his work in Ladakh, was appointed as a consultant to implement the siphoning process, which included the installation of high-density polyethylene (HDPE) pipes in three pipelines, ranging from 130 to 140 meters in length, with the capacity to pump out water at 150 liters per second. A monitoring system for water levels was also installed.
A senior official from Sikkim's science and technology department noted, "It was the first of its kind attempt – siphoning a glacial lake in India. A lake water monitoring system was also installed. The expedition came to an end in 2016."
The context surrounding this tragedy is characterized by a series of warnings and expert recommendations, which went unheeded. The current government exhibited no interest in averting the disaster, despite several visits from officials who were supposed to assess and act on the situation. In September of the current year, officials from the Department of Science and Technology (DST), SSDMA, and the Land and Revenue Department conducted yet another inspection at the lake to install an early warning system and an automatic weather station. Early warning sensors had been installed in 2013 and 2016 but none survived long enough to alert residents downstream.
According to SIBLAC. the Government of Sikkim's callous disregard for the warnings and the SOPs (Standard Operating Procedures) recommended by various agencies became painfully evident as this tragic incident unfolded. Even as government officials made sporadic visits to assess the situation, no concrete action was taken to address the impending catastrophe.
A striking example of such negligence was the failure to adhere to the Dam Safety Act of 2021. The act mandated the formation of a State Committee to oversee the safety of dams, with a notable extension to Sikkim. Earlier, the Dam Safety Act of 2010 had listed two dams in Sikkim under its purview, which were to be monitored for safety measures.
The Dam Safety Act of 2021 places several specific obligations on dam owners. A chapter within the act specifically deals with Emergency Action Plans (EAP) and disaster management, requiring owners to anticipate flood inflows and outflows, identify the areas likely to be affected, issue timely alerts, and have a plan in place to ensure the orderly evacuation of such areas. The act also underscores the importance of actions to prevent a situation from developing into a dam failure.
Owners of the specified dams, which fall under the purview of the Dam Safety Act, are legally obligated to maintain specific scientific systems that enable the anticipation and forecasting of water inflow and outflow, the prediction of floods, and the issuance of early warnings to communities downstream and upstream. This information is not only required to be shared with public authorities within the district but must also be actively and promptly disseminated to the general public who might be affected by potential floods. Dam owners are further mandated to compile all technical documentation related to the dam's hydrology, foundation, structural engineering, the watershed upstream, and the nature or use of land downstream. This documentation should also encompass information on any resources, facilities, or infrastructure of economic, logistic, or environmental significance that could be impacted by a dam failure.
The frequency at which this information is required to be updated is currently unclear. This is an issue of paramount importance, given the significant variations in resources, facilities, and infrastructure that can occur over time, given the rapidly changing development landscape.
The safety norms mandated by the Dam Safety Act, however, were either neglected or not followed in accordance with standard guidelines. Part of the devastation can be attributed to dam authorities who did not comply with the DSA and NDMA's October 2015 guidelines for water release from the dam and the absence of early warning systems. It is imperative that a comprehensive investigation ascertain whether relevant provisions under the Dam Safety Act, including the establishment of early warning systems, adherence to water release guidelines, the setup of control rooms, reservoir maintenance, emergency action plans, and better communication between dam sites and powerhouses, were effectively implemented on the ground.
Notably, the Dam Safety Act defines an offense as either obstruction of any official or employee authorized by the Central Government, State Government, the National Committee, or the Authority, or the State Committee or the State Dam Safety Organization in the discharge of their duties, or refusal to comply with their directions. These offenses are punishable with imprisonment for a term extending up to one year or with a fine, or both. In cases where such offenses result in the loss of lives or imminent danger thereof, the punishment may extend to imprisonment for a term of up to two years. Dam owners are mandated to adhere to these orders in both word and spirit.
The Dam Safety Act also envisages a scenario where an offense is committed by a government department, or is committed in connivance or with the consent of, or can be attributed to the neglect of the government department. In such cases, either the head of the department or a person held specifically responsible for the offense can be held accountable.
Crucially, no court can take cognizance of any offense punishable under this Act except on a complaint made by the Central Government, State Government, or a person authorized by the National Committee, the Authority, or the State Committee, or the State Dam Safety Organization.
Despite these stringent provisions, the system's shortcomings in fixing accountability are evident. While dam owners can certainly be held accountable, the onus lies on the government departments, and, in the case of Sikkim, the State Dam Safety Organization. However, the likelihood of these bodies taking strict action against themselves is questionable.
While the legal framework exists, the government's actions, or rather inactions, have demonstrated a lack of will to enforce the rules. This is made all the more evident by the lack of adherence to protocols and guidelines, both under the Dam Safety Act and the National Disaster Management Authority's Management of Glacial Lake Outburst Floods (GLOF). One must question whether the committee formed in 2021, under the Dam Safety Act, ever inspected the Teesta Dam, whether the government followed the protocol for the preparation of GLOF risk management plans, and whether the state has an Emergency Action Plan, as mandated by the act to deal with dam failure.
The chain of events leading to the Teesta Dam disaster provides a glaring indictment of the government's failure and indifference in preventing the loss of lives and property. As has been reported, an ITBP jawan stationed near the lake alerted the Commandant in Gangtok about the rapidly rising water level at 10:30 PM. Simultaneously, this information was relayed to the local government by 10:40 PM. The Chief Minister, who was in Mangan that day, received this message during a press conference. However, instead of issuing immediate directives to district officials to take swift action to protect the populace from the impending disaster, he left for Gangtok at 11 PM without giving any orders. It is an unfortunate reality that had timely directions been given, many lives could potentially have been spared. The absence of an established action plan to counter such disasters compounded the tragedy. There was no coordinated response to assist flood victims, long after the floods had struck the river belt areas. The State Disaster Management apparatus did not respond immediately, given their lack of preparedness and inadequate resources. Timely and efficient response teams were conspicuously absent on the ground due to poor manpower management by the government's disaster management team. The state subsequently waited for the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) team from the center to arrive, which, regrettably, occurred quite late. There was no concrete rescue plan in place for the workers trapped in the tunnel, resulting in a tragic loss of lives. Relief efforts for victims were largely spearheaded by the police, non-governmental organizations, various associations, and selfless volunteers from the public. The government, regrettably, did not possess a comprehensive long-term plan for the relief and relocation of displaced victims and the subsequent development of the ravaged areas.
This cascade of failures points to a larger issue of negligence and a lack of a sense of duty on the part of the government. There has been an unequivocal collapse of government administration in addressing the problems that led to the flood and its aftermath. The government, without a doubt, should be held accountable for its criminal negligence, which resulted in the loss of numerous lives.
Notably, the Teesta Urja Ltd. has sought to deflect blame by alleging that the work on the dam was substandard. However, it is widely known that the previous government had initiated the project while ignoring multiple rules and regulations pertaining to construction norms. The Teesta-III project has been regarded as a failed endeavor on numerous fronts, with critical issues including the absence of infrastructure for transmission lines, massive cost overruns, and the failure of states to purchase power in accordance with agreed Power Purchasing Agreements. In fact, the All India Power Engineers Federation (AIPEF) has classified the Teesta-III power project as a failed public-private partnership. It is noteworthy that the project is selling electricity at a discounted rate in the open market, as opposed to the contracted rate. There have also been numerous financial irregularities associated with the project.
SIBLAC stated that in their election manifesto, the current government of Sikkim had pledged to investigate these irregularities. Yet, once in power, they seemed to forget their promises, instead embarking on questionable financial dealings related to the project. The allegations of substandard work and financial irregularities could have been probed when they assumed office, but the promise of a CBI investigation appears to have been discarded once it was realized that the project could yield substantial financial gain.
The looming question remains concerning the repayment of the loan taken for the project, particularly since the government has chosen to invest substantial public funds, acquired through loans, in the purchase of shares in this hydropower project. The government is obligated to clarify whether the project is insured, and if so, for what amount and under what circumstances.
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