Groundxero Report | 16th October, 2023
Phidang, Dzongu: On the morning of 15 October (Sunday) Affected Citizens of Teesta (ACT) organised a Solidarity March at Phidang, Dzongu, North Sikkim. The event was organised to hold prayers for all the lost lives accounted and unaccounted for in the dreadful Glacier Lake Outburst Flood (GLOF) on October 4. The disaster that occurred in the early hours of 4 October wreaked havoc along the entire stretch of river Teesta till its basin in the plains of Siliguri, West Bengal.
The South Lhonak glacial lake located about 17,000 feet above sea level in north-western Sikkim, breached its embankments and “burst”, inundating the Teesta river basin. The flash floods caused by the lake outburst, swept away 14 bridges and heavily destroyed the Chungthang dam of the 1,200-megawatt Teesta-III hydropower project, damaged 1,825 houses, claimed at least 94 human lives, forced 2,563 displaced people into relief camps and seventy-eight people are reported missing, according to government data.
The solidarity march was held in Phidang, as it is one of the most affected Gram Panchayat Units in Dzongu due to the October 4 Lake outbreak disaster. The Bongthings and Sangha Monks from Dzongu conducted the rituals and prayers in the presence of the gathered crowd. It was a display of solidarity of faith of people from all walks of life who were witnesses to the disaster and the long-haul struggle to avert it. Despite the current situation of roadblocks, caused by the washing away of bridges by the flood, many turned up to offer their last respects and prayers.
The rally, which saw the participation of members of ACT, concerned citizens, reverberated with slogans against dam projects and demanding scrapping of the Teesta Stage IV project. Posters and banners were displayed the participants expressed concern on the environmental degradation that currently plagues the state, and continues to be a looming threat at large. On completion of prayers, two minutes of silence was observed by those gathered to commemorate the loss of precious lives in the disaster.
Gyatso Lepcha, an anti-dam activist from Dzongu and the President of ACT, addressing the crowd said, “Today we are all gathered here offering prayers for all the people who lost their lives and homes. It was an unfortunate day, all that happened on the 4th of October.” Condemning the mudslinging going on between the current and previous ruling party regarding who is responsible for the October 4 disaster, Gyatso Lepcha said, “Neither side is questioning the elevation at which the dam was built. From the whole narrative, it’s clear that nobody is admitting that building Teesta Stage III (Chungthang) was a mistake, and we feel that both the present and previous government are defending the dams, which is the saddest thing.”
Highlighting on the Chungthang Teesta Stage III dam which is completely destroyed by the disaster, and seeking a safety review of all dams in Sikkim, Gyatso Lepcha said, “The way in which Teesta Stage III dam was built at that scale was a mistake, and the government has to acknowledge this. We knew that this was coming, and this has finally proved true. The same can happen with other dams also.”
Local groups, like the Affected Citizens of Teesta (ACT), have been protesting the building of large hydel dams on Teesta for over the last 15 years and urging people to join their demand to keep the Teesta river free-flowing. Yet their repeated warnings about potential disasters like the one that has happened on October 4 have gone unheeded.
The crowd which has gathered in solidarity dispersed by afternoon but the ravaged banks of the Teesta were a clear reminder to everyone present that nature’s wrath is one to be reckoned with.