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Ecological Disasters in Sikkim: A Skewed Security-Development Balance in the Himalayas? 

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The Pulse | Environment | South Asia

Ecological Disasters in Sikkim: A Skewed Security-Development Balance in the Himalayas? 

Developmental and security projects, such as the construction of dams and roads, are contributing to the uptick in deadly natural disasters.

Ecological Disasters in Sikkim: A Skewed Security-Development Balance in the Himalayas? 

A bulldozer remover mud and sand to recover vehicles and missing people along the Teesta river in Singtam, , east Sikkim, India, Oct. 8. 2023.

Credit: AP Photo/Anupam Nath

On June 9, the state of Sikkim in Northeast India was hit by a major landslide caused by heavy rainfall, wreaking havoc among the population. The incessant rainfall and subsequent landslides continued in various parts of the region over the next few days, causing severe damage to roads, bridges, and homes. About 1,500 tourists, including international visitors, were stranded in northern Sikkim and later rescued

Just a year ago, in October 2023, the region experienced a Glacial Lake Outburst Flood (GLOF) – one of the worst natural calamities in Asia – that affected about 88,400 people. The GLOF occurred in South Lhonak Lake in northern Sikkim, rupturing one of the region’s highest dams on the Teesta River, the Chungthang or Teesta III dam, enabling the floodwater to gain unprecedented velocity and engulf everything in its downstream areas, including 23 Indian Army soldiers. The Sikkim state government requested financial assistance of 200 billion Indian rupees from New Delhi to restore the damage caused by the GLOF.

Being part of high seismic zones IV and V in the earthquake-prone Himalayas, receiving one of the highest rainfall amounts in India, and with a steep altitude variation – from 231 meters above sea level in the south to 8,500 meters in the northwest, over a span of just 114 kilometers – the region has always remained vulnerable to landslides, floods, and earthquakes. In 2011, the region experienced one of the most fatal earthquakes in its history. However, there has been a noticeable increase in the frequency of landslides since 1995, with another significant increase starting in 2007

Alongside factors such as climate change, local human-induced activities, including excavations of a slope at its toe, drawdown, and road cutting, have contributed to this increase. These activities are related to developmental and security projects in the region, such as the construction of concrete buildings, large-scale dams for hydroelectric power, and connectivity infrastructures such as roads, bridges, and railway tracks.  

Geopolitical Factor for Security-Development Projects

As one of the northeastern states of India sharing international borders with three countries – China, Nepal, and Bhutan – Sikkim lies in a geopolitically strategic location. The Siliguri Corridor or Chicken’s Neck, a narrow stretch of land that connects the entire Northeast region of India with the rest of the country, is just an hour’s drive from Sikkim. Additionally, the border with Bangladesh is about 75 kilometers away from southern Sikkim. Historical clashes between India and China at the Sikkim frontiers, including the 1967 war, the 2017 Doklam standoff, and the 2021 border skirmish, underscore the strategic importance of the region. 

India’s push for urbanization and development began right after Sikkim’s merger with India in 1975. From just one urban town in 1981, the number of towns increased to eight by 2001, and the percentage of the population living in urban areas rose from 2 percent in 1951 to 11 percent in 2011. Further, the introduction of the North East Industrial and Investment Promotion Policy in 2007 saw a push for rapid urbanization and industrialization in Sikkim, triggering an influx of population from other parts of the country and exerting pressure on natural resources around urban areas.

Incidentally, the second phase in the rise of landslides began in 2007.

Rampant Construction of Dams and Tunnels 

Large-scale developmental activity in Sikkim began with the West Bengal government’s damming of the Teesta River in 1975. As of 2019, there were more than 40 hydropower projects in different stages of development in Sikkim. 

Additionally, significant construction activity has been undertaken to build a railway line connecting Sevoke in West Bengal to Rangpo in Sikkim, with the ultimate aim of extending it to the Nathu La Pass bordering China. 

Such projects are justified using global and national discourses. Hydropower is seen as a clean energy source, and infrastructure projects like the railway line aim to “nationalize” border spaces by promising connectivity and economic progress. However, these developments have caused unforeseen devastation, as demonstrated by the 2023 GLOF. 

The 2023 GLOF alert signal failed on the day of the disaster, but the problem had been developing for years. As early as 2013, Nirmal Manger, a prominent Sikkimese journalist, warned about the expansion of Lhonak Lake, which eventually breached and caused the GLOF in October 2023. 

Communities along the river suffered irreversible damage, and roads connecting Sikkim and north Bengal to the plains of India were cut off for a long time. Rescue and rehabilitation efforts were largely dependent on local communities, with government assistance slow to arrive. However, the army, especially the Indo-Tibetan Border Police, played a crucial role. 

The GLOF was exacerbated by the consistent hollowing of mountains to direct water to dams, particularly the Teesta Stage III Hydro Electric Project. The railway line construction, meanwhile, involved blasting 14 tunnels in an already precarious landscape. These developmental projects, at least in their current form, pose an existential threat to the people and landscape of the eastern Himalayas. 

These issues reflect a wider trend of ignoring scientific warnings that such “development” activities can be extremely dangerous in a fragile landscape like the constantly growing eastern Himalayas. The administration’s failure to heed scientific warnings has worsened the impacts of natural disasters, raising important questions about the accountability of state and central governments and the costs of pursuing development despite warnings of its adverse effects.

Future Directions 

Amid the strained relationship between India and China since 2020, the recent political shift of Nepal toward China has made Sikkim more strategically significant to India than ever. While development and national security are important, they are bound to fail if implemented only in top-down ways in already marginalized zones. Such approaches end up reproducing and increasing marginalization in areas they aim to “improve.” Chungthang, where the breach of the Teesta III dam occurred during the 2023 GLOF and which hosts a major Indian army forward base, is a case in point. 

Sikkim has a long history of environmental activism, with groups like the Affected Citizens of Teesta, largely made up of the Lepcha populace, that as led the struggle against indiscriminate dam-building. Environmental issues are becoming prominent in local political discussions, as awareness of disasters in the Western Himalayas grows. A thorough rethinking of the ecological and cultural impacts of such activities is essential, especially as they induce more ecological disasters in the eastern Himalayan region. 

With the discovery of more hazardous glacial lakes in North Sikkim and the rising threat of climate change in the Himalayas, there is a need to reevaluate the region’s technological preparedness. Incorporating indigenous knowledge from communities like the Bhutia and Lepcha should be part of a decentralized disaster management strategy.

Guest Author

Stanzin Lhaskyabs

Stanzin Lhaskyabs holds a Ph.D. in International and Area Studies from the Division of Diplomacy and Disarmament, Centre for International Politics, Organization, Diplomacy and Disarmament (CIPOD), School of International Studies (SIS), Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi, India. His research focuses on international security studies, counterterrorism and diplomacy, as well as the geopolitics and security of the Himalayas, including Tibet, Ladakh, Bhutan, and Nepal.

Guest Author

Rahul Ganguly

Rahul Ganguly is a Ph.D. scholar at the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, IIT Delhi. His dissertation looks at the relationship between urbanism, development, and ethnic politics in Darjeeling and Kalimpong. Research interests include Eastern Himalayas, political sociology, urban sociology, and the Darjeeling Hills in particular.