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Faultlines threaten Renuka Dam project


The proposed Renuka Dam Project is one of the largest projects in the backward district of Sirmour in Himachal Pradesh and also one of the most controversial initiatives in recent years. More than 2,200 hectares of land will be acquired for the project and almost 60% of this will be submerged in 4 tehsils of Sirmour district. The submergence will lead to displacement and/or dispossession of more than 750 families in 37 villages leading to huge livelihood losses. How much these projected facts are true remains debatable, but if a recent study conducted by People’s Action for People in Need (PAPN), Andheri, Sirmour, with support from ActionAid India is to be believed, there is real threat to the sustainable livelihood of communities living around the proposed Renuka Dam.

Excerpts from the report:

On 12 May, 1994 the governments of Himachal Pradesh, Delhi, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan signed a Memorandum of Understanding for the utilization and allocation of the waters of the Upper Yamuna . As a part of this agreement, a storage dam was to be constructed across Giri river, a tributary of the Yamuna, at Renukaji in Sirmour district of Himachal Pradesh. The agreement, whose legal validity stands challenged because of the absence of the signature of the then Rajasthan Chief Minister, states that the project would meet the drinking water needs of Delhi . It was also proposed that the project would generate 40 megawatts (MW) power. The cost of the Hydropower component would be borne by the Himachal Pradesh government while the rest of the funds, a major chunk, are to be given by the Delhi government. Initially the cost of the project was Rs. 1300 crores which was increased to 2700 crores and now has been enhanced to 3,600 crores. While the MoU was signed in 1994, the inhabitants of the Giri valley, who will be affected as a result of the dam, say that they have been hearing about the proposed project since the last 40 years. Political representatives of both the Congress and BJP have over the last few decades, made several promises of ushering in the project, which they claimed would bring much needed ‘development’ to what is considered as the most ‘backward’ region of the State.

As per the Detailed Project Report (DPR) the conception of the project dates back to the early 1960s when the State government proposed to construct the project on river Giri in two phases. The first stage was to be a barrage at Jataun for a 60 MW power project and the second, construction of a 140 metre dam at the confluence of Giri River and Jogar ka Khala to generate 40 MW power and to augment power of Majri power station. “To make this project economically feasible a component of flood control in Yamuna was added in the scope of the project” states the DPR. It goes on to state that during scrutiny of the project proposal it was found that the catchment area of Giri is only 7% of the total catchments of river Yamuna – and a dam here would not really significantly contribute to flood control measures and hence augmenting the drinking water supply of Delhi was later added as the main purpose of the dam to make the project viable.

Stage-I of the Giri project (also know as Giri-Bata Hydel Plant) was commissioned in the year 1978. The Giri-Bata project happened to be a run-of-the-river 4 project – smaller in size by virtue of the fact that it did not involve the creation of a reservoir and hence submergence of land/villages. However, in the past fifteen years, since the signing of the MoU, the second phase called the Renuka Dam Project has remained at the centre of many a controversy and conflicts – the most prominent being around three issues – land acquisition for the project and related displacement; the environmental concerns and technical feasibility of the project itself.

Though the displacement concerns related to Renuka Dam came to the fore only around 2006-07 when the project officials started interacting with the local communities, the delay in the Renuka Dam case has been more due to the fact that a large part of the land involved, nearly 40%, is under the category of the ‘Forest land’ of which 49 hectares falls under the Renuka Wildlife Sanctuary (RWLS). Obtaining the necessary clearances under the Wildlife Protection Act 1972, Forest Conservation Act 1980 and the Environment Protection Act 1972 from the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests has been a real “hurdle” for the Himachal Pradesh Hydropower Corporation Limited5 which is the executing agency for the project.

While the Environment Clearance was granted as recently as October 2009, the Clearance for the diversion of 901 hectares 7 of Forest land is still pending.

The acquisition of 1047.61 hectares 8 of private land, on the other hand, which is the back bone of the local agrarian economy, has been made easy by the draconian provision of the Land Acquisition Act 1894. Acquisition notices under the “urgency clause” of the Act have been issued to about 36 villages. While on one hand the Land Acquisition notices are being issued, on the other HPPCL, through what it calls a ‘Negotiation Committee’ 9, has proposed compensation rates which are completely unacceptable to the people for their fertile agriculture and valuable private forest lands. The registries and sale deeds have already been initiated and HPPCL through various means has been exerting pressure on the affected persons to accept the rates being offered in order to be declared as beneficiaries under the project (Refer to Section 7 of the document for details). Renuka Bandh Sangarsh Samiti, an organization of project affected villages, formed three years ago, is attempting to raise some of these issues with the government but has got little response so far with the threat of ‘compensation awards’ being declared looming large.

The findings of the study basically reveal gaps in information available in public domain; the contradictions in the conception and execution of the project; issues of livelihood losses; and socio cultural and environmental impacts.

The figures in the Environment Impact Assessment report indicate the total area to be acquired for the project as 1560 hectares where as HPPCL, in a response (dated 29 July, 2009) to civil society representations to the MoEF, says that total area acquired will be 2239 hectares. The Environment Clearance letter states that total land requirement will be 1477.78 hectares. To this day it remains unclear as to how much land is actually required for the project and why there are discrepancies between the data from different sources.

While the Detailed Project Report shows only 165 hectares of private land to be acquired, in an RTI response HPPCL has placed this figure at 591 hectares. In contrast the Renuka Forest Division in an RTI application response informed that the private land involved is more than 1320 hectares. One of the main reasons of ‘confusion’ around the private land to be lost is the legal status of the land vis a vis the land use. Many families have had village (shamlaat) forests regularized into private forests and these are now under individual ownership. So the private land ownership is of two types, under agriculture and that under forests. As per HPPCL’s information, apart from the shamlaat forests spread over 455 hectares which would be acquired for the dam, 558.88 hectares of ‘Forest’ department lands will be diverted. The Forest Department data however puts the forest land figure at 790 hectares, including 49 hectares of Renuka WildlifeSanctuary which will be diverted towards the project. An additional 110 hectares of ‘Other Government Land’ will be diverted from other forest divisions for the purpose of compensatory afforestation.

According to HPPCL’s baseline survey, which is yet to be finalized and published, a total of 786 families will be affected by the project. As per the EIA report the affected families have been divided into three broad categories – Category 1: Families to be fully displaced – those losing homestead lands; Category 2: Fully affected families – losing more than 50% of their land and; Category 3: Partially affected – losing less than 50% of their land. Category 4: Families losing shops as well. The mismatch that prevails in the land data also exists as far as data related to the number of affected families is concerned.

According to the Rehabilitation and Resettlement Plan, 340 families from 32 villages are going to be affected due to land acquisition. Out of these, the R&R plan places 283 as fully affected households and 57 as partially affected. 117 of the 340 families are going to lose their homes and 39 are going to lose their shops.

The Chief Minister of Himachal Pradesh in response to a question in the Assembly gave a whole new set of figures of the affected families and area to be submerged. “About 84 families would be rendered homeless and 81 others displaced due to the Renuka Dam Project in Sirmour district. The government would acquire about 2235 hectares area in which 1731 hectares would be submerged” states a news report quoting the CM.

Seventeen of the affected revenue villages fall on the right bank or Giri-Vaar characterized by abundant water due to streams and seepages. Many of the villages on the left bank are supplied water via pipelines from the right bank side. The right bank of the river is north and north east facing and hence covered with thick vegetation. Warm and humid climatic conditions of the valley supporting tropical vegetation ensure better agricultural production as well as availability of a diverse variety of fuel-wood and broadleaf fodder trees to support livestock. As per data obtained through RTI from HPPCL, 3852 bighas18 private land and 2408 bighas shamlaat / common land will be acquired on this side. Deed Bagad village on the right bank is losing the maximum private forests (778.5 bighas). Malhaan further upstream will lose 658 bighas – mostly agriculture land with some private forests.

Fourteen kilometers of the state highway road and all the area below it on the left bank will be submerged by the dam. 3165 private and 2998 bighas of common land will be lost on this side, with Siyun being the largest village having an expanse of flat fields of which 1215 bighas will be acquired. Lagnu and Mohtu are the other major villages whose agriculture will be impacted. Lagnu is losing 540 agriculture and 852 bighas of shamlaat land.

Like in all mountain areas here too people use different production systems like agriculture, forest, livestock and manual labour to earn their livelihood. There are strong linkages within all these production systems. Many families may not be earning directly from each of these production systems but without access to forest, livestock and manual labour (no outside manual labour is available) agriculture becomes unsustainable.

The key feature of agriculture in the area is that it is extremely diverse with multi cropping and mostly three crops a year. 28 different variety of food grains, pulses, oil yielding crops, spices, vegetables grown in the affected area, that were documented during the course of this study. While crops like ginger and garlic are the traditional cash crops cultivated in the area, tomato, capsicum, french bean, peas and other off season vegetables have picked-up as cash crops in recent years. The per bigha income from tomato is the highest at Rs. 40,000/-. This crop is highly dependent on forests for providing branches to support the tomato plants and to fulfill its high demand for organic

manure. Ginger, which used to be a major crop in the past has in the last few years, taken a back seat because of pests and diseases. Apart from these wheat and maize remain the staple crops. Most villages are located at quite a distance from Dadahu, the main market for the area, and are entirely self-sufficient in terms of food requirements. There is minimal chemical input in what they grow and consume which contributes to their overall nutrition and health as well.

In the entire submergence area there are hardly any farms without irrigation facilities. Of the 74 persons/families who were interviewed during the course of this study all of them reported that more than 90% of their land was irrigated. Even the EIA report states “Most of the area falling in the submergence zone has a well developed irrigation system with water channels drawn from the natural springs through the pipes. Sprinklers can also be seen in many of the villages.” In case of Siyun village where there is no major irrigation scheme individual families have developed their own irrigation systems – through minor lift irrigation using other sources of water. Interestingly, these are not reflected in revenue records, based on which HPPCL is collecting its baseline data, as irrigated lands.

Most families which have settled in these villages of the Giri Valley, especially Giri-Paar have migrated from the villages located on the upper ridges. In the past they used these low lying areas as “Dogariyan” (temporary settlements/sheds) and used to come down with their cattle in summers/monsoons, cultivate the land and go back to their permanent residence in winters. But as the families grew larger, part of them came down to the valley and started living here permanently. Owing to this background, a certain kind of resource use pattern has developed, which varies from village to village and sometimes within a village from family to family.

1. There are those families following the traditional system – migrating down to the valley seasonally and residing there for part of the year to carry out agricultural activities.

2. There are cases where part of the family is permanently residing in the valley areas and the rest of the family members, residing in the upper reaches move down to these areas in summer to help with the cultivation and move back in winter.

3. There are families who have divided the responsibilities amongst the adult male heirs (and their nuclear families) to live and earn their livelihood as and where they are settled – valley or upper villages (without division of property titles).

4. There are those who have given their lands in the valley to share croppers residing permanently in the area. If a farmer is not able to till his entire land, he gives it away on adhiya to another farmer, an from that land. If the land is rented then the owner receives a fixed amount as rent on an annual basis from the tenant. A lot of marginal, landless farmers, many of them dalits, depend on these arrangements to secure enough food grains for their families and at times also cultivate cash crops on these lands in the valley which provide crucial cash incomes for their families.

5. There are a few cases that cannot be technically classified as tenants but are engaging in farming on lands owned by others settled elsewhere. These are mostly Nepalis and marginal farmers who came into the area a few decades ago, and are tilling others ’ lands through an informal arrangement without entering into any official contract or paying any rent. In the first three types of land use arrangements, the land title is not necessarily divided among different shareholders. So while it is common to find a single family cultivating a huge piece of land, when it comes to ownership there may be many shareholders making the average land holding size in the area small and a large majority of the population marginal farmers.

Women have no ownership over land, private or common. They continue to labour on the land to raise the family and remain at the margins as far as their rights are concerned with almost no control over the family income. Decisions related to land also, obviously remain out of their domain, which will make them the most vulnerable group, when dispossession occurs. And yet the access to land, even in absence of ownership provides women the much needed support that the absence of it will take away. In a Focus Group
Discussion in Nadel village, with widowed women, the importance of land as an asset was highlighted. Women are not expected to be active in Gram Sabhas and village matters and as a result collective actions related to the agitation against the dam have also seen few women. When men of the family decide to sell the land they almost never take the opinion of the women. The compensation amounts when distributed will be handed over to the title holders, generally the male members of the family, further exacerbating gender divides in the society.

In mountain regions forests are the backbone of the agricultural economy, providing valuable ecosystem services, leaf litter, fodder, fuel and other non-timber forest produce, contributing directly to cash incomes and lending support to cultivation. Forests are an intrinsic part of the landscape in the Giri river valley as well. While many of these lands are classified as “forests” under the jurisdiction of the Forest Departments, there are other forests, of equally good or better health, that are known as shamlaat jungle. In Himachal Pradesh, the forest and land settlements carried out in the 19th and 20th centuries, established a framework for ownership of forest lands. While this ownership was vested mostly with the Forest department, the framework also recognized community and individual rights over forests. Shamlaat lands were the village commons delineated as a buffer zone between “forest” lands and villages

However, the act consisted of a provision where by individually partitioned forest land could be exempted from take over by the state. Those who were astute and understood the law used this provision to get the land transferred back to a group of families or share-holders. More recently in 2001, the shamlaat forests, which remained unused by the government were returned to the villages and the state recognized only those families as shareholders in shamlaat lands, who had recorded land ownership over private lands before 1972. As a result in the Giri valley one finds various ownership patterns over shamlaat forests.

In the age when protecting and conserving our forest wealth, especially in the Himalayan region has become crucial to the survival of communities not just in the mountains but across the globe, it is distressing to know that more than a thousand hectares of broadleaf, mixed forests and grasslands are being destroyed for the construction of the Renuka dam. The wide variety of wild flora and fauna that these forests comprise of has been adequately documented by the Indian Council of Forestry Research and Education, who
prepared the EIA report for HPPCL. And though the report comprehensively lists the species biodiversity of the Renuka Wildlife Sanctuary and the Renuka wetland adjacent to the Giri River, the same is completely inadequate in its articulation of the nature of impacts that the destruction of this ecosystem will have. “The hydrological cycle showing the interaction between the lake, the ground water and the Giri River does not find a place in the EIA document. The Ramsar Wetland document shows a connection between the Giri River and the Renuka Lake through the Parshuram taal”, say environmental activists challenging the reassurances that the present Renukaji wetland will not be impacted by the Dam. Much of the wild flora and fauna is not just restricted to the Wild life Sanctuary and Reserved Forest areas report the local people.

The EIA report does admit that the impact of the submergence of forests will go much beyond the actual area of forest that will be diverted. “Since, the proposed dam will submerge a vast stretch of vegetation in about 24 km area and accordingly, a number of trees and other plant species will be felled/submerged. Therefore, there will be sudden shifts in the population density of the species, which certainly will have some impact on the ecology of the region”, states the report. It also admits that the damming of the Giri would cause more damage to the aquatic fauna and riverine ecology but steers clear from going into the gravity of the impacts. As a result the Environment Management Plan suggests superficial “solutions” like plantations to compensate for the environmental losses.

Closely intertwined with the ecological values and the landscape are the spiritual and religious ethos of mountain societies. Legend has it that the Renuka Lake was earlier a small pond into which Renuka, an incarnation of Goddess Durga and mother of Lord Parshuram (an incarnation of Vishnu), jumped in after she was abducted by a king who wanted to marry her. Local communities believe that their deity will not allow their submergence and there will be divine intervention whenever the dam authorities try to
force them out.

A strong element of the cultural fabric of the society is cooperation and collective action in times of need. Since most villages are located away from the road, carriage and transportation requires collective labour. Termed locally as Ella, this system is used in activities like grass cutting, repair of houses, marriages and harvest of labor intensive crops such as ginger, todiya, maize, wheat. It reduces the need for cash and enables
sustenance in an inaccessible area and harsh climate. Ella for ginger harvest, Malhan village Most of the widows interviewed during the course of the study narrated how they were assisted with ploughing of fields or bringing up their children by the community.

That this sense of cooperation will be entirely lost, as parts of the village are displaced and also as cash compensations are distributed, was a concern voiced by many. The area has also seen settlers from outside being accepted into the community, a primary example being the existence of 5 Nepali families who have been cultivating lands over decades, without actually buying the land. However, these families will be left totally landless after submergence.

Despite the negligence of the state government in providing basic infrastructure to the area, the rich natural resources of the area and the collective efforts of the local community have led to the evolution of an economy and way of life that sustains livelihoods of the communities in the area. The most significant characteristic feature of the submergence area is its inaccessibility. Only two or three of the villages in the submergence zone are directly connected with a non-tarred road without a regular bus service. All other habitations in the area are scattered across the valley with distances from road heads varying from a half an hour to 3 hour steep walk. Carriage and transportation involves severe hardship. A five kilometers stretch of Dadahu-Sangrah road passing through Renuka wildlife sanctuary will be submerged under Renuka Dam. According to Puran Chand Sharma, a local resident, the alternative road proposed by HPPCL will add up an extra distance of 9 kms of travel from Dadahu to Sangrah which will affect thousands of people from trans- Giri area in terms of extra money and time they will have to spend for their travel to Dadahu, which is the main market place and vegetable mandi for their agriculture produce.

Because accessibility is a constraint, health and education services are poor. There is only one anganwadi 26 and three primary schools in the area. Children have to walk distances from 2.5 to 5 kms even to get primary education. For higher education there are degree colleges in Sangrah and Dadahu towns. There is not a single primary health centre in the entire submergence area.

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