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Small hydel projects a big issue

HimVani

There is a long history of protests and violence at mega project sites in the country and lately in Himachal Pradesh as well, owing to obvious reasons like displacement, compensation, rights of indigenous people and overall ecological imbalance. But now localised resistance against small hydro-power projects too is snowballing into a major conflict in Himachal Pradesh. Though low-level resistance against many small hydro projects in Himachal had been going on for the last few years, last week’s brutal attack on members of Saalghati Sangharsh Morcha in Chamba, whereby one person died, has proved a trigger for statewide protest against such projects.

Of the 21,000 MW total hydro-power potential in the state, around 750 MW is catagorised fit for small hydro produce having a capacity of less than 5 MW each, and not requiring dams and reservoirs. Though the large projects affect a large geographic area, resistance against such projects is limited to project sites, but in case of small projects, since they are in greater numbers and scattered across almost every second stream in the state, the village-level struggle for local rights has attained a larger dimension.

The Hull Nala projects are typical examples of commercialisation and exploitation of Himalayan streams in the last two decades, disturbing the unique relationship between the land, forests and people who inhabit the areas. The basic conflict point is that power created by these small-scale projects is not kept for nearby villages, but is sold by the independent producers to the state or is supplied to purchasers outside the state. To add to the problem, the state government has been offering private power producers incentives. Last year, 56 small hydel projects, with a cumulative capacity of 155 MW, were entrusted to private producers. Villagers have been arguing that the mall streams on which these small-scale projects are being built sustain their isolated communities as well as the fragile macro ecosystems.

As Himachal has 100% electrification of villagers, the local communities are more enraged that over involvement of private entrepreneurs from outside the state ‘plundering’ their natural wealth without any concern. “Local populations do not stand to gain much from the massive amounts of money

being spent on the small hydro plants. Barring a few small hamlets, nearly all of Himachal is already electrified, mostly through large state-government projects. The new projects will be catering to the growing power requirements of other North Indian states,” says Manasi Ashar, an activist associated with Saalghati Sangharsh Morcha. It is also surprising that from time to time the government has tried to amend rules for allotment of such projects to encourage local people, especially youth, to take up such projects, but in the last two decades there are not even isolated cases of genuine Himachalis having taken the initiative, the reasons for which are manifold.

Interestingly, subsidies to set up such small projects have played a major role in attracting small players into these projects. While the ministry of non-conventional energy is subsidising up to 40 percent of the costs of these projects, now the Kyoto Protocol’s Clean Development Mechanism is also encouraging government to clear more projects to earn carbon credits.

The protests here arise from three basic local aspects – fishing, traditional watermills and the area’s forests. The diversion of the river water will mean a loss of access to the Hull Nala for fishing, besides rendering the 65 traditional watermills on the streams useless, which are otherwise an important part of the local economy and culture. Forest department officials have estimated that 243 trees would need to be cut down in order to clear the way for Hull I project, while locals maintain that almost 2,000 trees will have to be sacrificed. Even the review committee constituted to prove villagers’ claims admitted that digging and dumping will lead to more destruction and landslides in the area. Similarly, residents of 24 villages that make up the Saal Valley’s Baraur panchayat, known for vegetable production, fear that their irrigation channels will run dry once water is diverted to the power project.

Government officials appear sensitive towards the demands raised by villagers concerning their ecosystem and livelihood, but always end up defending a greater cause of national development. “From January 2010 onwards there is a continuous struggle by the people demanding cancellation of these two projects. The Saal Ghati Sangarsh Samiti comprises 15 panchayats in which seven hydel projects are coming up, which gives an idea of the magnitude of the problem. Today people across the state are against these projects as they will not only snatch away their right over water, but will also destroy the ecology of the area,” claimed Tikender Singh Panwar, member, state secretariat, CPIM.

Clearance to these small hydel projects has also raised doubts about the importance given to local self-governance in the state. In this particular case, while panchayat representatives were consulted regarding the project, they were not part of the review committee, while the final decision rests with the state government. The work on Hull I was initiated despite the continual refusal by the gram sabhas (village assemblies) of the panchayats of Jadera, Silla Gharat and Baraur to give a no-objection certificate to the project.

“Despite repeated protests and agitations of the Sangharsh Morcha against the projects since the last five years on the grounds that the projects would destroy the Hull Nala, which supports irrigation, water mill, fisheries related needs of the region and drinking water needs of Chamba town, both the BJP and the Congress governments turned a deaf ear to the demands of the people,” said Rattan Chand, a Zila Parishad member from the area who was among those who were injured due to the alleged firing.

That the protest actions of the last few days are not isolated cases is proved by the fact that several peoples’ organisations have come together to form a joint action and solidarity committee that will continue to lend active support to the demands and struggle of the ‘Saal Ghaati Bachao Sangharsh Morcha’. Some of these organisations include Himalaya Niti Abhiyan, Seva Himalaya, CITU, AITUC, Sankalp, Vyapar Mandal, Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh, Akhil Bharatiya Kisan Sabha, Himalaya Main Aarthik, Samajik Samanta ke liye Jan Abhiyan and Lok Vigyan Kendra.

“It is becoming a challenge to strike the right balance between local livelihoods,
environmental sustainability and development pressures due to coming of various industrial, mining, hydel and infrastructural development projects. The local interests are being trumped by influential commercial interest. This unequal power relation where despite farmers, both small and marginal, being in majority, their interests were totally ignored due to the fact that they are not organized. This is not an administrative matter, but a political question. Unfortunately, the government is siding with private commercial interests,” said Kuldip Singh Tanwar, state president of Himachal Kisan Sabha.

Whatever the outcome of the ongoing conflict arising out of setting up of these projects, one thing is understood by all and sundry that the state has an exceedingly fragile Himalyan ecosystem, so if all the stakeholders do not tread with caution, nothing much may be left to fight over. The unpredictable weather over the last two decades is already giving indications in that direction, and soon there may not be any Hurla stream left to harness its power potential.

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