If Chungthang dam is ‘substandard’, why did govt not take action, asks former Sikkim CM Chamling 

Gangtok: Former Sikkim chief minister Pawan Kumar Chamling has said that the Glacial Lake Outburst Flood (GLOF) that originated in South Lhonak lake, causing massive destruction during the intervening night of 3 and 4 October, was “preventable” and lives could have been saved had the state government acted on warnings from scientific studies.

In an interview with ThePrint Friday, Chamling said, “GLOF is a studied phenomenon in South Lhonak lake and warnings had been issued via various scientific studies, as recent as in 2021. But the incumbent Sikkim Krantikari Morcha (SKM) government led by CM P.S. Golay (Prem Singh Tamang) did not take the issue seriously.” 

Chamling — one of the longest-serving CMs of Sikkim — said that had the government taken the issue seriously, steps could have been taken to prevent such a phenomenon, or early warning systems could have been put in place to give the public enough time to evacuate. 

“The infrastructure perhaps could not have been saved, but at least the lives of the people could have been saved,” he said. So far, more than 80 lives have been lost and 100 people are missing.  

On 7 October, CM Golay had said to the media that a proper investigation would be conducted to find out if the construction of Chungthang dam — built during Chamling’s term in office — was substandard. The dam had disintegrated during the flood, unable to bear the water pressure. 

Asked about this, Chamling said that any hydropower project, especially at the scale of Teesta Stage 3, is a huge undertaking and cannot be constructed without the technical due diligence of concerned apex bodies.

The construction, Chamling said, was based on the technical parameters vetted and approved by Government of India agencies, such as the Central Electricity Authority, Central Water Commission, Geological Survey of India and Central Soil and Materials Research Station.

Various third-party agencies were involved during the construction phase, such as Lahmeyer, WAPCOS (Water and Power Consultancy Services (India) Limited), NHPC (National Hydroelectric Power Corporation) and Lavlin, among others, he said.

“If the dam was substandard, it should’ve shown some technical issues with the structure, but in the last six years of operation, there were no signs of distress or faults,” he added.  

The former CM further said asked what prevented the state government — if the dam was indeed substandard — from acting under the Dam Safety Act 2021, which empowers the state not only to take action but also to establish preventive measures in case of hazardous dams. 

“Why did the government not take any steps then? The Act empowers the state to establish a State Dam Safety Organisation and State Committee on Dam Safety to ensure dam safety and prevent disasters,” he asked.

The executive chairman and directors are bound to constitute a dam safety unit as warranted by section 30 of the Dam Safety Act 2021 to review and examine the dam for alterations to avoid any disasters, he said. 

“If the dam was substandard, it was the responsibility of the state government, which is bound by the Dam Safety Act 2021, to ensure that the dams are up to standard,” he added.

Also Read: What’s a ‘moraine’, how its fall caused Sikkim’s South Lhonak Lake flood and why threat remains

‘Political propaganda’

Calling the CM’s statement “political propaganda”, Chamling said the Golay government had been ready to dedicate the same allegedly “substandard” dam to the nation through the hands of the Dalai Lama on 11 October. 

The former CM added that it was the CM’s statement to the media made it apparent that he knew about the impending disaster at 10.40 pm, but the public downstream was not informed even as late as 2-3 am. 

“Despite the early information, the Teesta Stage 3 dam was not opened on time. Glaring lapses in terms of information management and chain of command are coming out,” he said.  

Adding that he was not playing a political blame game, Chamling said that during his time in power, when the government learned of the potential GLOF hazard in 2013, study teams were sent to Lhonak Lake in 2014, 2016, 2017, and 2018.

“During the expedition in 2016, HDPE (High-Density Polyethylene) pipes were installed to siphon off the water from the lake at a rate of 150 litres per second. This was done with the help of Sonam Wangchuk and the Students’ Educational and Cultural Movement of Ladakh. We also held many awareness programmes and drills, which I hear were discontinued later,” he said. 

It was during Chamling’s 25-year term in office that some of the big hydropower projects, including Teesta-III and Teesta-V, were constructed and commissioned. 

Asked if he thought damming a glacial river like the Teesta was a good idea in light of what has happened, Chamling said the dam was built according to the Electricity Act, 2003.

“Accordingly, all the environmental clearances, taking into consideration the vulnerabilities of the region, have been given by central government agencies. Our government allotted the project to the developer and the environmental and technical clearances have been given by central government agencies,” he said. 

He added that such hydropower projects have been constructed not only in Sikkim but in various states across the country to ensure a green source of energy to meet the energy consumption needs of the nation.

“As early as 1998, the National Hydro Power Policy looked at the Northeastern region of India as a source of hydropower,” he added.

Also Read: How an alert ITBP jawan on duty 8 km away from South Lhonak lake raised 1st flood alarm in Sikkim

‘There is a govt but no governance’

According to Chamling, the biggest problem in the state now is that, although there is a government, there is no governance. 

“People are afraid because of the political terrorism unleashed by this government. Now, narcotics have become a big issue,” he said, adding that such problems occurring in a border state is the most dangerous thing. 

“It’s not a good sign. The central government should look into it, it’s a sensitive border state. When I was in government for 25 years, there was peace and security here,” he said. 

Asked how he would rate the Golay government, Chamling said, “I don’t want to say anything… public knows everything, they are seeing everything.” 

The former CM also said that his party, the Sikkim Democratic Front (SDF), is all geared up to take on the SKM in next year’s assembly elections.

“SDF is going strong… we are the principal opposition party,” he said. 

On Sikkim’s 100 percent organic status, Chamling, who pioneered the organic movement in the state, said that although the state has achieved this status, there has to be continuity of the mission. 

“Only then will the organic status also continue. The state government has to supervise and pursue the mission continuously but unfortunately, the government has been unable to give it continuity,” he said.

(Edited by Richa Mishra)

Also Read: What turned Teesta into a killer? Here’s proof Sikkim flash floods are a man-made disaster