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“Damning the Himalayan rivers by dams” by Dinesh Pant, The Pioneer

Pant, D. “Damning the Himalayan rivers by dams.” The Pioneer. 18 October 2011.

Damning the Himalayan rivers by Dams

By Dinesh Pant

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

The mindless construction of projects on various rivers risks the livelihood of nearly 20 lakh people, besides triggering natural disasters like landslides, writes Dinesh Pant

We have come a long way. Not respecting the majesty of the Himalayas is itself a travesty, wantonly disturbing its natural environment, the sanctity of its mind-boggling terrains that act as a bulwark for the subcontinent’s ecological balance is a brazen crime. We are now paying the price.

Glaciers are melting. Weather cycles are changing. Biodiversity is in danger. Rivers are drying up. Agricultural lands are barren. Villages exist but people have migrated in search of livelihoods, of resources that will sustain them. The soil that once was firm on the mountainside, held down by trees and grasses, is now loose, increasing the threat of landslides.

But who is listening, who is picking up these alarming signs? Mega projects are continually being built, ripping the Himalayan land. Huge dams to bind rivers are coming up on seismically-sensitive zones. What will this imply, this stopping of the flow of Himalayan rivers, damming them?

Doubtless, the answers to these questions require extensive study, research and field observations. Collating the data and formulating a cohesive picture of the destruction in the Himalayan region can be a Himalayan task. In Uttarakhand, some facts are too obvious, making a stark statement on the flawed policy for development.

The State has a wide network of rivers; Ganges, Yamuna, Alaknanda, Bhagirathi, Saryu, Tauns, Kali and Gauri. Across the state large-scale and small power projects are being built on these rivers. The region, which is now Uttarakhand, has a long history of dam construction, beginning at the start of the century in 1897.

According to sources, there are 558 dams on the Himalayan rivers in the state, including those complete, under-construction and still others that are proposed. Unbelievable? The facts speak for themselves: The famed river Bhagirathi and its tributaries has 85 projects dotting its flow. Of the other major rivers, Bhilangna has 19 dams, Alaknanda and its tributaries have an astounding 91, Dhauliganga and its tributaries 19, Pindar and its tributaries 23, Gauri and its tributaries have 27 dams.

The mighty two rivers that have defined cultures and civilisations down the ages, the Ganga and the Yamuna, along with their tributaries, have 55 ongoing projects.

Experts apprehend that these will affect nearly 20 lakh people in the state. The damages are colossal. Agricultural work is affected. Landslides recur.  Displacement is an inevitable fall-out of any such project, with villagers having to cope with the loss of settled lives for themselves, their children and the elderly. Chances are that their houses and fields are flooded, their livelihoods jeopardised. Danger created by the power transmission lines is another risk. Who is accountable for the human fall-out of such fast-paced and mindless development?

This is a quintessential scenario.  Locals are told that the project would result in the generation of electricity for the progress of the region.  But there is no information on where this electricity will be distributed, who will benefit from it?  In this day and age of transparency and the Right to Information Act, these people are in the dark about the projects that are damming their rivers, digging up their mountainsides.

But people have begun to wake up, to question the basis of these mega development projects on the Himalayan rivers.  What they seek is not information on cost, area of operation but what it holds for them, the changes that it will bring to the people who live there.

The effects are not only in the immediate sense. Construction of the Tehri Dam on the Bhagirathi river began over three decades ago amidst voices raised against it by locals and environmentalists.  The construction displaced close to 10,700 families from 102 villages in the region.  Some 3800 families though not displaced entirely were affected by the dam. The displaced people are still struggling to be rehabilitated in a way that compensates them for the loss adequately.

It is a matter of shame and certainly a matter to ponder over seriously that over the last few decades, the same questions persist. Who is paying the price for development and who is benefitting?  It seems that the process of defining development, of adopting polices is flawed, if it has not answered these fundamental questions.

The Tehri dam was an ambitious project, one of the largest in Asia at the time and the Government claimed that the interests of the state would be paramount.  Power would be supplied across Uttarakhand and there would be perennial water for irrigation. Time has shown this to be a baseless claim. Without a doubt the Tehri dam supplied power to Delhi and Uttar Pradesh, but what has it given the local people except misery, the destruction of their habitat, life-patterns and an uncertain future?

The old Tehri has shrunk, with people still facing the effects of displacement. As for the power situation, a state which produces so much still faces long hours of load-shedding and is dependent on supplies from Uttar Pradesh, a bizarre situation, considering Uttarakhand in a powerhouse of hydel!

It is time to radically change the approach to planning and initiating projects, particularly an ecologically sensitive one like the Himalayan region. The locals have the first claim to the land, forests, to common grazing grounds. They are the custodians of a way of life, culture, an environment which they have inherent rights to as well as the duty to protect.

It is vital that their views are taken into consideration before planning any project. The voice of the people needs to not only be strengthened but to find ways to reach policy making forums in the state and at the national level. If we have not learnt this lesson through the years of mindless destruction, its fall-out on human and natural resources, it is high time we do.

The planners and implementation agencies, either from the Government or the private sector, need to take into confidence the local voice. They need to present their case, in a human perspective to local communities.

What would be the provision for rehabilitation, employment, facilities for health, education and infrastructure? What will the project rob them of, what will they gain from it? It is only fair and in keeping with the spirit of democratic processes at the grassroots that this be done.

Only then would there be hope for the magnificent Himalayas and the people living in its lap to flourish and continue to nurture its amazing wealth for generations ahead.

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Genre: Hydropower Dams & Water Diversions Articles
Subjects: Hydropower Dams & Water Diversions