Voting is often the only chance that many of India's marginalised groups get to express themselves. As national elections approach, Scroll's reporters fanned out across the country to talk to groups with little socio-political power as part of a series called the View from the Margins. The aim: try to understand how the powerless and the voiceless have fared under a decade of the Modi government.

Mayalmit Lepcha had just a few hours in Delhi after landing from Sikkim and before heading out to Himachal Pradesh for a meeting. In that time she wanted to squeeze in three important things – meeting a senior lawyer, an interview with this writer and enjoy sev batata puri.

“I eat it every time I come to Delhi,” she gushed. As she indulged in chaat at Delhi’s India Habitat Centre, she painted a picture of her home in North Sikkim’s Dzongu – the Teesta flowing below, the snowfall on higher mountains, and the hugging Kanchenjunga national Park.

Mayalmit is a general secretary of the Affected Citizens of Teesta, an organisation formed by the indigenous Lepcha community of Sikkim that is fighting against the indiscriminate building of hydropower projects on River Teesta. Lepchas, a Scheduled Tribe, form 7% of the state’s population.

Just a few months ago, in October 2023, about 40 km upstream from Mayalmit’s home, a flash flood ravaged Sikkim’s largest hydropower project, the 1200 MW Teesta III. A glacial lake burst, sending cascading waters downstream along the Teesta and killing around 40 people.

Two months later, Mayalmit visited the disaster-hit villages and found that none of the people who lost their homes or family members had received compensation. “For more than 18 years our community had been saying these dams are not feasible and yet the governments went ahead and built them,” Mayalmit said, the frustration in her voice hard to miss.

As Lok Sabha elections approach, she does not seem to believe any national political party really has her state’s interests at heart. “No matter which party is at the Centre, we have seen that they are not bothered about Sikkim’s geography and its fragility, else they would not have given approval for such a series of dams,” Mayalmit said. “But our local representatives are also equally to blame.”

Flash of hope

Between 1994 and 2019, the state was ruled by the Sikkim Democratic Front with Pawan Kumar Chamling as its longest-serving chief minister. It was during this time that seven of Sikkim’s dams were commissioned and 14 more were under construction.

This was not acceptable to the Lepchas. They consider Teesta a holy river and a path to salvation in the afterlife. To them, damming and diverting its flow is an outrage.

Through their continued resistance, they have pointed out this cultural significance and the loss of livelihoods that the string of dams cause. In 2007, they even challenged the environmental clearance given to the Teesta stage III project on the grounds that the public was not properly consulted and that it engenders climate risks.

A man walks past construction vehicles half buried in the ground in Rangpo, Sikkim, after flash floods caused by a lake burst. Credit: Francis Mascarenhas/Reuters.

The community felt a glimmer of hope in 2014 when, along with the Bharatiya Janata Party coming to power in Delhi, Sikkim went through political shifts too. A senior member of the Sikkim Democratic Front, PS Golay, left to form Sikkim Krantikari Morcha, and although it did not win a majority, his party did get enough seats to lead the opposition in the assembly. Then, in 2019, Sikkim Democratic Front’s streak finally broke. Sikkim Krantikari Morcha won power in alliance with the BJP, promising to strongly back “sustainable development”. Golay was appointed Sikkim’s sixth chief minister.

“We had supported this new government then because they had promised that the Teesta stage 4 project which is in Dzongu would be scrapped in six months if they came to power,” Mayalmit said.

But soon, the ground realities of hydropower push took a different direction. The same year that Sikkim Krantikari Morcha came to power, the BJP at the Centre approved measures to “promote hydropower”, which included declaring large hydropower projects over 25MW as “renewable energy” and giving developers several incentives. These included increasing the period of debt repayment for hydropower, and providing budget support for infrastructure of dams, such as roads and bridges.

This only further accelerated the drive for hydropower in Sikkim. “It’s been more than five years since SKM’s [Sikkim Krantikari Morcha] promise, and the hydro project work is continuing,” Mayalmit said. “In fact, during the Covid pandemic, the state government created a panel to evaluate the social impact assessment report of the project, which hinted that they are going ahead with the project.”

Since the BJP rose to power in 2014, construction has started on four large hydropower projects in Sikkim. “We are not even getting free electricity despite these [existing] dams,” said Mayalmit. “They are taking everything from us but not giving us anything.”

Community-led development

Mayalmit has an adjacent complaint. She runs a homestay in Dzongu, a village that “has such excellent potential for tourism,” she said. “We have been asking the administration to make good roads to Dzongu, so more of us can make use of the opportunity. See, we want development. But we want to focus on community-led development.”

In the last 10 years, community-led development is not what Sikkim has received. There has been large-scale development that Mayalmit does not see contributing to the benefit of the state’s indigenous communities. This is most visible in Gangtok, Sikkim’s capital.

In 2018, Gangtok joined the list of “smart cities” across India under Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Smart City Mission. As part of this project, several multi-level car parking lots were built in the city. One of them, a 14-level parking-cum-shopping hub, was stayed by the National Green Tribunal on the grounds that it was a threat to the ecology and constructed in a quake-prone zone. Four months later, the tribunal dismissed the case calling it premature, after which the petitioner took the matter to the Supreme Court. This February, Chief Minister Golay inaugurated it.

“Such developments are putting the lives of tourists at threat apart from the locals,” Mayalmit added.

Another such development in the last 10 years is Sikkim’s first railway line – a 45-km route from Sevoke in West Bengal to Rangpo. “It’s passing through 14 tunnels in the young mountains,” Mayalmit said. “You can imagine what kind of impact the vibrations [from trains] would have on the young mountains that are already damaged by the hydropower dams.” Concerns have been raised about the earthquake proneness of the project, the displacement it has caused, and the impact it had on land and forest rights.

But the very next day after Mayalmit and I met, Modi virtually laid the foundation stone for the project.

Process of deracination

Amid all this development is the worry that the Lepchas might be becoming detached from their roots and identities. Mayalmit explains that the Lepcha community has many clans, each with a different story of how it originated from Mount Kanchenjunga and the springs and rivers of the region. The Lepchas also believe that upon their death, the soul does not die but relocates to hills, valleys and mountains.

“Development activities are destroying these resources,” Mayalmit said. “We are fighting because it is connected to where we believe we originated from.” But due to this cultural more, other Sikkamese groups have not offered much support to the cause, much to Mayalmit’s dismay. “They think that the dams are a Lepcha issue and they will only impact Lepchas,” Mayalmit said. “But when the flash flood happened, all communities along the Teesta were impacted.”

Mayalmit worries about another threat to their identity that has surfaced in the last few years. “We hear about how BJP wants to erase tribal identity,” she said. “They keep saying all tribals are Hindu, but we do not accept that.”

“In the name of development in Sikkim, we are burdened with so many things,” she concluded.