Mockery of ESAs in Sikkim: When Governments Collude to Violate Laws

In a clever move initiated by the MOEF and assisted by Arunachal Pradesh Government, aimed at bypassing the need of the compulsory clearance from the National Board of Wildlife (NBWL), the Environment Ministry has slashed the protective zone around the hill State’s national parks and sanctuaries from the existing 10 km radius to an insignificant 25-meters in most cases (200 mts is for a very small stretch of Khanchengdzonga National Park).

This shocking move underlines Union Minister Veerappa Moily’s penchant for hydropower projects as he has chosen to override the report of the National Board of Wildlife, a constituent of the MOEF, in a bid to let at least six hydropower projects operating in Sikkim in gross violation of the NBWL clearance and orders of the Hon’ble Supreme Court of India. In October 2013, SANDRP’s published a blog titled “Hydro Power Projects Violating SC order in the Greenest State of India” on the report by NBWL members and its significance.  Sikkim_nbw_blog_26 feb 14

The notification has drawn tremendous ire of environmentalists and social activists from Sikkim, opposing major dams. “We have been demanding earmarking of the ‘eco-sensitive zone’ up to 10 kilometers radius from the protected areas under Supreme Court order, if the government itself ridicules NBWL’s warning report, manipulates its own laws, what can a citizen of democratic India say?”, said Tseten Tashi Bhutia, convener Sikkim Bhutia Lepcha Apex Committee (SIBLAC), which is fighting a legal battle against the Tashiding project in Sikkim High Court.“We strongly protest this notification of the MOEF and would respond officially as per the protocol, they can’t bulldoze their vested interest, damaging our fragile environment. Already a lot of damage has been done, we might take appropriate legal recourse after consultations, if the notification is not altered or withdrawn”, added Bhutia, speaking exclusively to this correspondent.

Projects within 10 kms boundary of Protected Areas in Sikkim From NBWL SC Members Report
Projects within 10 kms boundary of Protected Areas in Sikkim From NBWL SC Members Report

SIBLAC along with another apolitical group Save Sikkim on September 28th, 2013 filed FIRs against Shiga Energy Private Ltd, developer of the 97 MW Tashiding hydro power project for alleged cheating, distortion of facts and violation of environmental norms and the SC order. This is in addition to an ongoing PIL at the Sikkim High Court. The proposed site is about 5 Km away from the buffer zone of the Khangchendzonga Biosphere Reserve, the project also falls within 10 Kms from the Fambongla Wildlife Sanctuary, as such; NBWL clearance needs to be obtained.

Several attempts by this correspondent, to contact the PCCF –cum-Secretary of the Forest and Wildlife Department of Sikkim Mr. Arvind Kumar to get the Sikkim government‘s official version on the controversy, remained unanswered. Under the orders of the Supreme Court(in the Goa foundation case of 2006), any project falling within 10 km radius of a national park or a wildlife sanctuary has to be endorsed by the standing committee of the NBWL unless a different site-specific protection ring is declared for each of these national parks and sanctuaries.

The members of the standing committee of the board had earlier submitted a report in August 2013, to the Ministry warning that at least six dams in the State were coming up without the mandatory clearance and Sikkim faced a Goa-like situation with rampant and illegal development of these dams likely to cause devastation just as unlawful mining had done in the coastal State.

 Construction of the Teesta III project at Chungthang on the edge of  Khangchendzonga National Park proceeding without SC-NBWL clearances. Note the  extensive forest cover and large landslides at the construction site.  From: SC NBWL Members Report
Construction of the Teesta III project at Chungthang on the edge of
Khangchendzonga National Park proceeding without SC-NBWL clearances. Note the
extensive forest cover and large landslides at the construction site. From: SC NBWL Members Report

The report had said that the proposed Teesta V, and the ongoing Teesta III, DikChu, Panan, and the Tashiding hydroelectric projects were coming up without the statutory NBWL clearance.

Other hydropower projects of Sikkim that are being considered by the MoEF for clearances, and are operating in abeyance of the NBWL clearance, and are also close to the protected areas include: 63 MW Rolep HEP on Rangpo river in East Sikkim (5-6 km from Pangolakha and Kyongnosla WLS), 126 MW Ralong HEP (4.05 km from Kangchendzonga Biosphere Reserve and 1.8 km from Maenam Wildlife Sanctuary), 96 MW Chakung Chu HEP in North Sikkim (1.8 km from Kangchendzonga Biosphere Reserve), 71 MW Sada Mangder, 40 MW Suntaley Tar HEP, within 10 kms from Pangolakha Sanctuary) and 60 MW Rangit III.

Shockingly, the Ministry has now come up with a way to bypass the wildlife board by sticking to the apex court orders merely technically but not in real terms. The court order has said the 10 km protective zone (technically called the Ecosensitive Zone) would be enforced unless the Centre and the State government notified a different perimeter based on scientific assessment. The MOEF has discreetly put out draft notification to reduce these protective zones around four sanctuaries and Sikkim’s lone national park from the existing 10 km to a negligible 25-200 metres, to be effective from April 2014.

Protests against dams in sacred Dzongu region, which is excluded from the ESA Notifications Photo:
Protests against dams in sacred Dzongu region, which is excluded from the ESA Notifications Photo:

The ministry of environment and forest sought public opinion on this move within 60 days so that the ministry can look into suggestions and complaints, if any, relating to extent of the eco-sensitive zone during the period. The proposed ban under the order will come into force after expiry of the 60-day deadline.

“Moves like this makes one wonder as to what would become the fate of the law abiding citizens of this country; when the government elected by the people are resorting to such blatant violations of the existing laws of the land, and are circumventing them to serve vested interests, it is a shame at the least”, reacted Affected Citizens of Teesta(ACT) president Tseten Lepcha, while speaking to this correspondent exclusively. The ACT had created a stir by sitting on a relay-hunger strike during 2005-6, for over a year protesting against the onslaught of numerous hydropower projects operating in Sikkim in blatant violation of all laws. We will take up the issue officially, reiterated Lepcha.

“In a letter dated April 13th 2011, the then Sikkim additional principal chief conservator of forests- cum the chief wild life warden, Mr. N T Bhutia had written to the DG Forests MOEF, reiterating the states’s commitment to announce the 6 ESZ around sanctuaries and the lone NP in Sikkim. That it would comply with the MOEF dictated revision of the perimeter of the ESZ, as is now evident was not mentioned. An RTI query to this effect is pending with the forest department.”

Soumik Dutta (

Inputs from SANDRP:
This shameful attempt at regularisation is a complete mockery of Wildlife Clearance as well as  ESA zonation process. The Draft notifications do not elucidate upon any justifications behind the extent of ESA or the process through which this was arrived at. This is clearly unacceptable and will not stand legal scrutiny

This shameful regularisation indicates that the MoEF is shielding the guilty projects which have violated EPA (1986) and WPA (1972), colluding with these projects, furthering environmental and cultural destruction in Sikkim.

This is entirely shocking and unacceptable. We urge the MoEF to:
• Take back these draft notifications and take strict action against Government of Sikkim and projects which have violated SC orders
• Disclose the process through which ESA for Sikkim was arrived at.
• Disclose the justification used behind specific buffer zones around specific protected areas
• Ensure that violators of the past will in any case be penalised.

Following the SC Orders and considering that:
• Sikkim is the most species-rich state in India.
• Sikkim falls in geologically fragile and seismically active zone
• Communities of Sikkim have strong cultural and religious bonds with forests and region like Dzongu which is surrounding Khangchengdzonga BR,

MoEF should recommend that Sikkim undertakes a participatory process to identify ESA regions around PAs.
Not only should the local population have a say in area of the ESA, but also activities allowed in the PA. Unless such a participatory process is devised, Sikkim should respect SC Orders of 10 kms buffer zone of ESA around PAs.

Excerpts from NBWL member Report, August 2013:

“…based on an examination of available information on legal compliances required for the above projects in the Teesta basin, we conclude that, with the notable exception of the Teesta IV project (which has currently approached the Standing Committee of the NBWL for clearance), none of the other projects listed above appear to have sought/obtained this compulsory SC-NBWL clearance, as mandated by the Honourable Supreme Court in the Goa Foundation vs. Union of India case of December 2006.

While we are fully aware that there are many more proposed/ongoing hydroelectric projects situated within the Supreme Court mandated 10-km eco-sensitive zone of wildlife sanctuaries and national parks in Sikkim, we have not been able to ascertain whether Supreme Court stipulations in their regard are being followed, or being violated, and if latter be the case, the MoEF should take due cognizance of the same urgently.

We further recommend that the Standing Committee direct the MoEF to write to the Government of Sikkim asking them to immediately investigate and submit a detailed report listing hydroelectric projects in Sikkim that are being constructed prima facie in violation of Honourable Supreme Court’s order of 12/2006. Based on the list provided by the Government of Sikkim, if it is indeed ascertained that the projects are proceeding in violation of the said Supreme Court ruling, we further recommend that the MoEF initiate action by asking the State Government to suspend ongoing work on those projects immediately and to direct user agencies to formally seek clearance for these projects from the Standing Committee of the National Board for Wildlife.” (Emphasis added)

“Independently, we recommend that the MoEF and the Government of Sikkim thoroughly investigate the circumstances under which the seemingly widespread bypassing of Supreme Court orders in the construction of dams within the 10-km eco-sensitive zone of Sikkim has taken place, fix responsibility for the transgressions and violations, and punish the guilty.” (Emphasis added)

“Finally, we base our recommendations by drawing a parallel between hydroelectric dams in the eco-sensitive zones of Sikkim and iron ore mines in the eco-sensitive zones of Goa. The coastal state, which is just half the size of Sikkim, had heavily pivoted its economy on iron ore mines, just as Sikkim has done with hydroelectric power. The landmark Justice Shah Commission Report observed in the case of iron ore mining in Goa that, “approvals have been granted in many cases… in the eco-sensitive zones without placing the project proposals before the Standing Committee of the National Board for Wildlife (p 190)”. The report went on to say that, “all mining activities should be stopped with immediate effect including transportation of ore for all mining leases where there is no approval or clearance of the Standing Committee of the NBWL and are falling with 10 km of eco-sensitive buffer zone (p 191)” We believe that much of the Summary and Recommendations section of Justice Shah’s report (pp. 189-200) is extremely relevant to the case of the hydroelectric dams in Sikkim, and request that any committee constituted to examine hydroelectric dams in the eco-sensitive areas of Sikkim, pay close attention to this report.” (Emphasis added)