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Striking a fine balance between development and ecological conservation

Nov 11, 2008

In India's Himalayan state Sikkim, Chief Minister Pawan Kumar Chamling walks a thin line as he calls off four hydel projects but goes ahead with two controversial ones. In an interview he justifies his balancing act and tells his plans to make Sikkim fully organic by 2015.

Sikkim’s once close-knit Lepcha community is being torn apart over the issue of hydel projects in the region. Following a year of protests and hunger strikes by Lepcha activists, the state government in June agreed to cancel four projects in Dzongu. But Chief Minister P K Chamling refused to call off two larger, more controversial projects, saying the “majority of the people want it”.

Apart from environmental concerns, the anti-dam lobby feels that projects in their sacred land, are a threat to the Lepcha identity. In an interview with Down to Earth, Chamling talks about promoting eco-friendly development.

Maureen Nandini Mitra: On balancing development with ecological conservation

P K Chamling: We want development. However, as a responsible Himalayan state, we have the sacred obligation to conserve and promote our ecosystem. We often forgo developmental interventions conceived at the national level to protect our environment.

We are called upon to strike a fine balance between ecological sustainability and developmental needs of our people. Consequently, we scrapped the Rathong Chu hydel power project in West Sikkim in 1996 even after we had invested over Rs 20 crore. Similarly, we scrapped four hydropower projects in Dzongu area recently. This was also because the Lepchas said Dzongu is their sacred land, though this is the first time such an issue has come up.

MNM: On Panan power project that Lepcha activists have been most vocal against

PKC: That will go on as planned. The people of Dzongu want it for their own development. Those opposing it are less than 10 per cent of the local population.

Sikkim is a landlocked state that doesn’t have any major industry, but it has a lot of natural resources. We need to make use of these resources in an eco-friendly way.

MNM: On promoting Sikkim’s green image

PKC: We are fully conscious of our competitive advantage of being a green state rich in biodiversity. That is why we declared the year I took over, 1995, as Harit Kranti Varsh to generate mass awareness. We have introduced many innovative green initiatives over the last one-and-a-half decades, including bans on use of non-biodegradable materials like plastics, killing wildlife and felling green trees.

Of late, we have also initiated a Green Mission Plan that envisages mass plantation. Our forest cover has increased from 43.9 per cent in 1993-94 to 45.97 per cent in 2005-06.

All our environment conservation measures, in essence, are an adoption of what environmental scientists call the low-carbon economy. We have instituted an Environment Commission. We have also undertaken the first ever initiative in the country to institute a Glacier and Climate Change Commission in January 2008.

MNM: On viable industries in hilly Sikkim

PKC: Low-volume, high-value industries, including agro-based industries, especially floriculture and apiculture, eco-friendly tourism and water based industries like hydel power form the bedrock of our developmental strategies.

MNM: On anti-big dam protests and micro-hydel projects

PKC: We have several micro-hydel projects being implemented, but we need a combination of both mini- and mega-hydel projects for our development.

Whenever development work is undertaken, there is bound to be reaction. But it is important to first determine who is complaining and why.

In our case, there were certain groups of vested interest trying to scuttle our development agenda. They do not represent the views of the majority. There is no logic to their protests. Ninety per cent of power projects are run-of-the-river type, which will run the water through underground tunnels. This will ensure minimum damage to our landscape.

Yes, ecologically, I admit that some aquatic life may be damaged, but it is for the greater good of the country. The focus has been on benefiting local people where projects are being commissioned. In 14 projects so far, only seven households have been displaced. We have adequately rehabilitated them. This could be a rare example in the country of causing minimal damage to our topography while undertaking such projects.

MNM: On making Sikkim completely organic

PKC: Through active public support 90 per cent of our goal has been fulfilled. We are confident of making Sikkim fully organic by 2015.

If the goal is missed, then it will be the agriculture department’s fault. It will be because of their lack of knowledge, effort and inefficiency. I’ve given them a mission and they are delaying. This is a problem not just in Sikkim but all over India. People concentrate on the negatives. Everytime I try to do something, my officials first say, “This can’t be done.” I haven’t come across one official who says at the first instance, Yes, this can be done.”

I admit I’m a politician and there are many things whose technical aspects I may be ignorant of, but when I’ve made a promise to the people it will be kept.

MNM: On vision for Sikkim in 2050

PKC: My vision is for development in a holistic sense, bringing qualitative change in the lives of the people. Development only in the materialistic sense has already undermined human aspects too many times for so long. I would like to see Sikkim’s cities become like Singapore and our villages like Switzerland—rural living with all the basic modern amenities.

Above all, I have a dream to see the people of Sikkim happy and contented and as the builders of their own collective destiny.

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