Tuesday, July 19, 2011

India's Dam Boom: Small Not Always Beautiful

India's Dam Boom: Small Not Always Beautiful
By Samir Menta
July 18, 2011

[This is part of a two-part trip report to the Satluj and Ravi river
basins of Himachal Pradesh by Samir Mehta. For the full report with
images and links, see www.internationalrivers.org/en/node/6731 and
www.internationalrivers.org/en/node/6734. Feel free to disseminate.]

India's rivers and streams are threatened by a massive hydropower
rollout. Large projects in the northern, mountainous states will have
the biggest impacts, but the smaller ones, which are cropping up all
over the country, are having serious impacts on local people's lives.
Indeed, the High Court of the state of Karnataka has halted the
implementation of a number of mini- and micro-hydel projects in the
Western Ghats region of the state pending a cumulative impact
assessment. During my recent visit to the north Indian state of Himachal
Pradesh I also surveyed many mini- and micro-hydel projects.

The Gujjar and Gaddi tribes in the state of Himachal Pradesh are fully
prepared for a long battle to stop a 4.5 MW hydropower plant from
diverting the entire flow of the Hul stream, on which their lives
depend. For the past three months the tribe members take turns to sit by
the road at Jadera village and stop all vehicles associated with the
project from travelling to the site. This happens under the nose of the
state police hired by the project proponent to ensure protection of
their project. The police have registered cases against more than 50 of
them for blocking the road. The tension is palpable.

The Gujjar tribe keep buffaloes. They supply roughly half the dairy
products used by nearby Chamba town. The Gaddi tribe rear goats and
sheep. They have evolved their own system on who would sit by the road
and when so that there's no adverse impact on their earnings. Food is
provided to the squatters by the families in turns. Their pride will not
let them accept financial support from others. They politely refused my

These communities have for more than a decade protected and preserved
the forests from which the Hul stream originates. Traditional watermills
line its banks, extensive irrigation channels feed terraced vegetable
farms, children bathe in silver pools, and lush oak forests run parallel
along steep slopes. The stream meets Saal River which joins the might
Ravi River. Mr. Ratan Chand from nearby Chamba town was instrumental in
raising awareness of the need to protect and preserve the oak forests.
The project's pipeline will destroy about 2,000 of the slow-growing oak
trees. Oak trees, a tribesman said, retain and release four times the
amount of water than most other trees do. That is why, he adds, the
stream is perennial.

"Government should protect forests. We are doing the Government's job,"
said a Gujjar leader. "The right to the river is ours. Why should anyone
take away our water through pipes," said a Gaddi leader. "We will go to
jail and others will take our place" in the campaign to protect the
stream, said a woman at the roadside checkpoint, adding, "We have faced
bullets, going to jail is nothing in comparison."

While the police harass the protestors, thugs allegedly hired by the
project proponent who have attacked the villagers with guns roam scot-free.

Livelihood and social impacts of poorly planned run-of-the-river mini
hydel projects can be devastating, as exemplified in this case. The
project, named HUL-1, will generate a mere 4.5 MW by diverting the
entire flow of Hul stream to the power house through pipes. These tribes
will be left high and dry. The 65 traditional watermills will grind to a
halt as will fishing in the waters.

Time and again the villages passed resolutions not to permit the
hydropower plant. But the High Court of the state of Himachal Pradesh
has permitted the developer to continue with the project under state
police protection while also permitting the people to protest
peacefully. The people are adamant that they will not allow the project.
One who holds out the longest will win. Only time will tell who that is.

Samir Mehta is the South Asia program director of International Rivers.
He would like to thank Rahul Saxena of the Palampur based Lok Vigyan
Kendra for his insights and support.

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