Home > Archives (2006 on) > 2008 > April 26, 2008 > Minor Nandigrams of Uttarakhand

Mainstream, Vol XLVI, No 19

Minor Nandigrams of Uttarakhand

Sunday 27 April 2008, by Harish Chandola

The Uttarakhand government is acquiring land all over the State for building, expanding and renewing 98 hydropower projects. With this large-scale activity it seeks to make the State a major powerhouse. Most of these will be, what is called, run-of-the-river projects, generating power from the flow of rivers, without building dams on them. The tiny state will not need all this energy. It will be to promote market economy.

Waters of almost 90 rivers, big and small, including the Alaknanda, the Bhagirathi, the Yamuna and the Ganga, are being utilised for this purpose. Most of these rivers will be channelled into tunnels to create sharp drops capable of turning turbines to generate power.

For this purpose, land has been acquired to build barrages at sites where rivers will be diverted into tunnels, construct roads to lead to the barrages, colonies for workers and officials of power companies and power houses at places. The State Government has done and is doing the acquiring of land for these projects, which are both in the public and private sectors.

THERE is very little cultivable land in this hill State. Forests cover its 75 per cent of its area. Over 70 per cent of its 8,000,000 population is of farmers and lives on land. Holdings are small. Therefore acquiring and taking away village lands for power projects severely affects the livelihood of the people. That is why villagers are protesting and agitating at almost all the places where the government has acquired land for power projects. Where lands have been taken over, people are demanding partnership in the projects, which means a share in the income that will be earned with the sale of electricity. They are also asking for jobs in these projects for at least one person per affected family, setting up of technical schools in their areas so that their young can learn trades, particularly the ones related to electricity generation, distribution and maintenance. At project sites villagers are holding daily sit-ins and in some places relay hunger strikes to press their demands. The population of these protesting villages is very small and scattered in remote places, from where news hardly ever comes.

Very few jobs are available in the Uttarakhand hills. Most of its people have no other means of making a livelihood except cultivating their land. Those whose lands have been acquired do not know how they will be able to survive. They have been paid a part of their land price. On that they cannot live the rest of their lives. The sum is not enough for them to migrate and make a living elsewhere.

The setting up of these projects brings other problems. First of course is unemployment, caused by the loss of land. Then there is the adverse affect on environment. The third is of villagers losing their identity and the fourth the dangers of land subsiding and eroding in areas under which tunnels are being built.

After a 400-megawatt power project was completed last year by a private company, J.P. Associates, at Vishnu Prayag on the Alaknanda Ganga, houses in the Chayin village, below which its 16 kilometer-long tunnel carrying water passed, began cracking and a high voltage transmission tower sank several meters resulting in the stoppage of power supply and several days repair work. Living in the cracked and damaged houses became so dangerous that the district authorities had to evacuate and shift 16 families to places 16 kilometres away. The tunnel was dug almost a kilometre below the village, through, according to geologists, a very hard rock structure. Fortunately there was just one village over the entire length of the 16 kilometre-long tunnel. The other tunnels being excavated will pass under several villages and under India’s last border town of Joshimath, which, according to geologists, stands not over a structure of rocks but on a glacial moraine. To go to the beginning, these projects had to obtain clearances from the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests in Delhi. For that they had to prepare environment impact assessment reports on the protection and safety of the area of their work. These had to be circulated among the people living in the project areas and had to be approved by them, at public hearings. Public hearings were held but not even a single of the five projects being built around Joshimath town was approved at them. First of all, the project reports as well as the environment impact assessment reports were all written in English, a language the villagers there could not read. Yet, supposedly on the basis of approval at public hearings, clearances were obtained from the Ministry in Delhi. What the clever officials of companies like the National Thermal Power Corporation, building a 530- megawatt power project on the Dhauli-Vishnugad river at Tapovan, did was to approach village heads (gram pradhans), often with presents for them and their families, and get their signatures on papers saying they had no objection to the construction of the project and they approve their environment impact assessment reports. On the basis of such managed approvals the officials obtained clearances from the Ministry in Delhi, and not at public hearings. Public hearing proceedings are available which show that no approvals were obtained at them.

The same is the story of the 420-megawatt Vishnugad-Pipalkoti project of the Tehri Hydro Development Corporation (the public sector company which built the Tehri dam), on which also work has started. Around villages where the government has acquired farmers’ lands, stood other lands belonging to whole villages, known as common lands, containing pastures, water sources and even cremation grounds. These have also been given to companies for projects. Farmers whose lands have been acquired have been left with just their houses in villages. With no work around and their pastures, water sources and cremation grounds all given away to companies, what are these people going to do? These projects have eroded the character and identity of hill villages.

THE placing of rivers in tunnels is going to adversely affect the environment. With most of their water driven underground the moisture in these areas that nourishes forests and agriculture crops will drastically decrease. As a result both crops and the forest cover will suffer and die. Without moisture these areas will in course of time turn into an arid zones.

The tunnel-building activity will affect the surface springs from which the villagers draw their drinking water. The digging will drive the surface water down into depths and the springs will dry up. This is what has happened in Chayin village under which a tunnel has been built.

This tunnel was built by blasting underground rocks with explosives. This had severely shaken the rock structure of the mountain called Hathi Parbat through which the tunnel passes. Poisonous gases from the explosions began seeping up to the village surface through rocks that got fractured, resulting in the death of newborn calves. What affect the gases will have on human health will only be known after some time. The Chairman of J.P. Associates, who built and runs the project, had promised to bring a tunnel-boring machine to do the work. But he did not, perhaps largely because the hill roads are narrow and bridges on them not strong enough to take the weight of the huge rock and earth-drilling machine.

The companies building the other projects, like the National Thermal Power Corporation, also promise to bring tunnel-boring machines for their work. But the roads in the mountains remain the same; narrow, with very sharp turns and weak bridges, which will not be able to take the weight of the huge and heavy machines. These companies are so far doing all their work with the help of explosives. If these continue their tunnel building work with the use of explosives, gases released will very adversely affect the health of people and domestic animals in the area.

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