In a throwback to the Chipko movement to save trees in the seventies, the Rakhi festival has turned into a rallying point for hundreds of village women in and aroun Renuka in Himachal as they pledge to protect their 'brother' trees that will be drowned by the Renuka hydroelectric project.
Women from villages near this town in Himachal Pradesh's Sirmaur district are tying rakhis -- a sacred thread symbolising the brother-sister bond -- on the trees as the dam aimed at providing drinking water to New Delhi will inundate them.
"It's a noble way to draw the attention of dam authorities to the voluminous damage to biodiversity in the area with its construction," said Rukhmani Devi of Mohtu village, situated on the banks of the Giri river.
Mohtu will be the first village to be submerged with the construction of the dam for which land acquisition is on right now.
"Every day, we (nearly 300 women of various villages) are tying more than 1,000 rakhis around the trees that will be finally submerged with the construction of the dam. We will not allow our 'brothers' to die. We took a pledge that we would prefer a watery grave with them," she said.
Another villager Satya Devi said, "It will be turned into a mass movement on Raksha Bandhan (Aug 5), when thousands of women from 37 dam-affected villages will tie rakhis to trees and take a pledge to protect them."
"We are doing a role reversal. On Raksha Bandhan, brothers take a pledge to protect their sisters. Here we are tying rakhis to trees with a pledge to safeguard them."
"Embrace our trees. Save them from certain death. These are the property of our hills. Save them from being looted," is the slogan that is heard in the affected villages.
A similar movement to save trees in the seventies was known as the Chipko movement, derived from the Hindi word 'chipko', meaning to stick, where batches of men and women, led by the grassroots environmental activist Sunderlal Bahuguna, embraced and stuck to trees to prevent them from being felled. It began in the hills of Uttar Pradesh and then was taken up in other parts of India.
The Rs.27 billion (Rs.2,700 crore or $560 million) Renuka dam, to be built on a tributary of the Yamuna in Sirmaur district, will not only provide water to the people in the national capital by providing 23 cubic metres of water per second but also generate 40 MW of electricity for the hill state.
Yoginder Kapila, convenor of the Renuka Bandh Jan Sangharsh Samiti, told IANS that 700 families in 37 villages would be affected by the construction of the dam.
"The villagers have been lodging protests since the project was conceived. Over 400 villagers boycotted the parliamentary polls in May this year as a protest against the construction of the dam. Not even a single vote was cast in six villages," Kapila said.
Kulbhushan Upmanyu, an environmental activist who is heading the Himalaya Niti Abhiyaan (HNA), said: "We won't allow any government to plunder our natural resources in the name of development. The Renuka dam is the newest floodgate to submerge forest land and livelihood."
The HNA, a conglomerate of more than 20 action committees, has launched protests against the mega projects coming up across the state. "What is most painful is the fact that the government sacrificed 49 hectares of the Renuka Wildlife Sanctuary and 700 hectares of reserved forest land just to quench the increasing thirst of Delhiites," Upmanyu told IANS.
The villagers agitating against the dam say the government did not take them into confidence before starting the land acquisition process. According to them, the project may have ecological repercussions and endanger the Renuka lake, which lies downstream of the proposed dam and is of religious importance to them.
Himachal Pradesh Power Corporation Ltd (HPPCL) managing director Tarun Kapoor, however, said the government would provide more compensation to the affected villagers. The HPPCL, a public sector undertaking, is executing the project.
"The government will provide 100 units of power free for 10 years to each of the project-affected families, besides a series of other economic benefits," he said.
The 148-metre-high dam on the Giri river, a tributary of the Yamuna, 350 km from Delhi, will create a 24-km-long reservoir. As per the Environment Appraisal Committee of the environment and forests ministry, the total area to be acquired for the project is 1,560 hectares, of which 1,200 hectares will be submerged.