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The making of a fugitive river

In Kinnaur district of Himachal Pradesh, the largest and fastest of the five rivers of the state, enters the Indian subcontinent from Tibet, where its source Mount Kailash stands tall. Call it Langchen Khambab (Tibetan), Satadru (Sanskrit) or Sutlej, as it is commonly known, this river is a mad torrent, especially in the rains. Its size, speed and sound resonate in the Himalayan landscape and makes the human spirit feel vulnerable, apart from filling it up with reverence for this creation of nature. Tales of how buses and trucks that have accidentally plummeted down the hill roads, and into this mammoth river, have disappeared instantly never to be found again are sure to be heard if one is driving around in the upper reaches of the Sutlej Valley. But the power of technology led by infinite greed has attempted to tame the wildest creatures on the planet.

The first noose around the river’s neck, also known as the first temple of modern India, was tied in the 1950s. The Bhakra Dam, the world’s highest gravity dam was built at Bhakra village in Himachal Pradesh, just before the Sutlej enters Punjab, at a height of 740 feet submerged. Fishing, agriculture and forest based livelihoods of more 40,000 families were lost. The river was channelised to feed the power and irrigation needs of the northern states to usher in the Green Revolution. After five decades, even as the fallouts of the miracle called Green Revolution are unravelling themselves in the form of an agriculture crisis, the heavy environmental and social costs of damming the Sutlej itself remain unaccounted for. Cut to the new millennium and the coming of a new technology called “run of the river”. The new catch phrase of the decade when the ‘climate change’ crisis finally registered in the mainstream psyche, is ‘green technology’, with the hydropower revolution leading the way. Causing little or no ‘displacement’ run-of-the-river projects are the answer to India’s power crisis, we are told.

On the Sutlej which is estimated to have the potential to generate 10,000 MW of power, the oldest of the three operational ‘run of the river’ projects in Kinnaur, was the 1500 MW hydro-power project called Nathpa-Jhakhri. At Nathpa village the river is diverted into a tunnel. For several kilometres after, the violent flow of the Sutlej is reduced to a trickle. The river comes gushing out into the valley at Jhakri, a few kilometres later, where the power house has been built. Gone are the tall dams, the deep reservoirs and the colossal submergence areas. Gone along with all this is the river itself. And gone also is the relative stability of, the fragile Himalayan mountains, which are being relentlessly dynamited and tunnelled to create an alternative refuge for the once free flowing river.

Residents of Kinnaur started off as silent witnesses to the ravaging of the Sultej. The state rhetoric of development and the power of money was over-whelming, the impacts and implications too distant. The Kinnars, a scheduled tribe, inhabit this large and sparsely populated district with a population of 78,000 in 80 villages. The creamy layers who made good of the reservation policy of the government have mostly migrated out of the region. For those left behind the main source of livelihood lies in nature’s bounty – the forests, covering more than 70% of the landscape. The dominant occupation is horticulture based on apple cultivation and collection of forest produce – the most profitable being the chilgoza or pine nut which is abundant in the wild. It was only about 6 years ago, after three projects had been constructed that implications became evident at least to the more astute people of the area. That the floodgates had been opened, with more than 15 more projects under various stages of planning, and that these would soon encroach on the forest resources and hence on local livelihoods on a larger scale, was recognised in the wake of Nathpa-Jhakri and Jaypee’s 300 MW Baspa II project at Sangla.

But the project that played a critical role in turn around of local opinion on hydropower plants has been the Jaypee group’s 1000 MW Karchham Wangtoo, the largest private power project in India. While only 31 families actually lost their lands in it, Karchham Wangtoo has become one of the most controversial projects for several reasons, the most prominent being the state repression of the local people’s agitation and the extent of environment violations committed by the project proponent prior to and during the construction.

The Environment Clearance public hearings for the project, in 2003, had to be repeatedly postponed after the company failed to make the relevant impact assessment studies available in the local language. Despite objections and protests the Environment Clearance to the project was granted. By 2006 the movement had gained some momentum and on 9th December 2006 people of the affected villages rallied to Wangtoo as per the wishes of the devta (their local deity) to set up a symbolic shrine and vow that work on the project would be stalled. Section 144 had already been declared by the local administration here to stop any kind of public demonstration. When the rally reached the site, Kaksthal, the police lathi-charged and fired at the silent procession injuring several people. Key leaders of the movement were arrested. After demands for inquiry into the incident a committee was formed for the same and despite reports that the District administration was responsible there has been no action by the HP government in the matter till date.

The repression at Wangtoo succeeded in diffusing the local movement and the two villages, Sapni and Kanhai, who lost 1650 bighas of land in the project, were the first to back out of the struggle, giving an NOC to the project. 6 villages under which the Karchham Wangtoo project’s 17 km. tunnel passes through, but whose lands were not being acquired for the project, were not even considered as affected and neither were NOCs sought from them.

Along with these villages about 8 villages on the left bank of the river are being affected as a result of the construction activity today. More than 800 petitioners from these villages are now fighting a legal battle for compensation for the impact of the tunnelling which has led to drying up of natural springs (the only sources of drinking water and irrigation for apple orchards) and punitive action against the company for violation of tribal, environment and forest laws.

The struggle of the Kinnauras against Jaypee is far from over, even as the project is close to commissioning. The 70% jobs that were promised to the locals in the project have not been given. Compliance conditions that were part of the Environment Clearance granted by the Environment Ministry have been violated blatantly and muck from the tunnel has been disposed all along the river bed.

The transmission line being set up by the company, from Kinnaur to Abdullahpur is being opposed by 4 panchayats. On 9th December 2009, after a news item appeared in a leading English daily about the permission to axe 15000 trees for the Jaypee transmission line, the Shimla High Court gave a suo-moto notice to the Additional Chief Secretary, Forests and the Conservator of Forests. The alternative of laying the line on the right bank of the river was not adequately explored, even though much fewer trees would have been chopped if that was done. Apparently the company had refused the Forest department’s proposal to revise the plan to shift it to the right bank because of the costs involved.

Locals claim that the company has encroached on 400 bighas of forest land for setting up its stone crusher. While initiating construction on the crusher, which operates adjacent to the main link road to a village, no separate clearance had been sought. The ex-District Collector (DC) had also raised this issue. The matter was taken to the High Court but the new Collector filed an affidavit in support of the company. The Jaypee group of companies wield a great deal of influence with the Himachal government – bureaucracy and political parties alike. With an investment over 10,000 crores the company is building a 3 million tonne integrated cement plant, India’s largest private Hydropower project and the first thermal plant (of Himachal) in the state. All three projects face local opposition as well as litigations for series of violations.

For a company whose activities include mining the earth and hollowing mountains, ‘Andar se solid’ seems a bit inappropriate as a promotional tag line. Its irony leaps out at us when ‘accidents’, like the one on 14th February 2010 at the Karccham Wangtoo project site killing six labourers, occur. A landslide at Kaksthal, where work on the project’s tunnel alignment was going on, sent boulders falling on the workers colony situated below.

And coming back to the Sutlej – If all the planned hydro projects materialise, more than 90% of the river will be dammed and tunnelled by the end of the next decade, rendered totally fugitive.

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Author: ih

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