As 2019 elections loom large, the government is trying to fast track the implementation of several important infrastructure development projects with India’s neighbours. With the PM’s visit to Nepal scheduled later this month, Nepal (where according to reports India has been working on joint projects worth some ₹1200 crore) seems to be among its top priorities. To mark a significant upping of stalled bilateral projects, the two sides have now resumed negotiations over water sharing and purchase of hydel power and get the ambitious (1996), Pancheshwar multi-purpose dam project going.
This mega dam (Pancheshwar) will be built upon the Mahakali river (known in India as Sharada) which originates in Nepal and flows through Uttarakhand where various tributaries like Dhauli, Gori, Sarayu and Ramganga feed the Mahakali. It is an ambitious project. Upon completion, this dam, the biggest in South Asia, is expected to generate 6480 MW of power, and will service both India and Nepal, besides controlling floods and decreasing the fear of drought. It will be covering an area larger than Chandigarh. The subject of building big dams to expedite development of the state has been a touchy one in Uttarakhand ever since the 2013 Kedar Valley floods that swept away hundreds of villages and killed thousands. No less than three government committees have also identified dam building activities and changed flow pattern of the rivers as major factors behind the Kedar Valley floods.
In India and Nepal, the proposed catchment area for the water is expected to submerge a total of 11600 hectares of land (7600 hectares in India and 4000 hectares in Nepal). For India, this means some 134 villages in the three districts of Almora, Champavat and Pithoragarh, will be submerged, displacing around 30,000 rural families. It will also drown precious forests, rare flora and fauna. Less land for farming will also mean more male migration to the plains leaving women to fend for families and farms. Less land availability may increase already escalating man-animal conflicts all over the area and make life even more difficult for the village women out working in the farms or gathering fuel and fodder from the remaining forests.
In India and Nepal, the proposed catchment area for the water is expected to submerge a total of 11600 hectares of land (7600 hectares in India and 4000 hectares in Nepal). For India, this means some 134 villages in the three districts of Almora, Champavat and Pithoragarh, will be submerged, displacing around 30,000 rural families. It will also drown precious forests, rare flora and fauna. Less land for farming will also mean more male migration to the plains leaving women to fend for families and farms.
Last year, when heavy monsoon showers had played havoc with the fragile roads in the entire region, in the name of public consultations with the local populace, the government of Uttarakhand held a string of three Jan Sunavais (public hearings) in Champhawat, Pithoragarh and Almora district and block headquarters. These were monitored by the district officials, members of the State Environment and Pollution Control Boards and area MLAs. From local reports, it appears that the Jan Sunvais, conducted in adverse weather conditions, ended up as unstructured and chaotic affairs where the locals found it hard to speak their minds before being shushed by some minor officials or members of the ruling party. Public representation was poor since many poor villagers could not afford to buy bus tickets to attend the event held in district or block headquarters. Many of those who did failed to reach the venue due to torrential rains and flooded roads. The few who somehow made their way to the public venue were (according to reports in Nainital Samachar) dissuaded from speaking aloud by government representatives telling them ‘Halla Mat Karo!’ (Don’t shout!).
In an open letter in Hindi to the secretary, Environmental Protection and Pollution Control Board, the organisers of the Jan Sunvai, published by Hridayesh Joshi, Basant Singh Khaini, a representative of Sarayu Hydroelectric Power Producers, village Bajela of Dhaula Devi block (district Almora), records deep misgivings of the locals of Dhaula Devi block which still remain valid. The letter notes that he and his group are are running a 1 MW power generation plant in Rasyuna village along the Sarayu river which is threatened with submersion by the formation of the proposed 116-kilometre lake under the proposed scheme. The small dam has provided 100 families a monthly income of ₹12,000 each and all shareholders are locals. This had also stemmed the tide of male migration from the villages. The hasty Jan Sunvais, the letter points out, are a violation of the provisions of a government notification of 2006 (amended 2008) that mandates that sufficient notice must be given to people before any Jan Sunvai is held. “If you were keen to talk to us, why did you hold the meetings during the monsoon months knowing well how hard movement becomes when the rains begin,” the letter asks.
The hill folk are a poor but proud people, extremely sensitive about their dignity. Dams to the government may signal a mega achievement in diplomacy. In a pre-election year they may even be held up as an example of India’s human ingenuity and scientific prowess. But to the people threatened with submersion, they mostly spell humiliation and submersion of their meagre assets. Basant Singh’s letter may well have been answered by now in bureaucratese we are so familiar with. But experts (like Himanshu Thakkar) continue to warn the environment ministry of the dangers associated with building large dams in an ecologically sensitive zone where another large (Tehri) dam failed spectacularly to contain the disastrous impact of (the Kedar Valley) floods.