It’s dark in here. Villagers in remote Urni in Himachal Pradesh are fighting a massive mountain tunnel that they — and a number of environmentalists — believe will ruin the ecology along the banks of the Sutlej River.
Worse, 10 other such hydropower projects have been sanctioned in the Kinnaur district, about 250 km north-east of the state capital of Shimla.
So the tribals now plan to use their most powerful weapon — their vote — in the upcoming national elections in which the environment seems to be the last thing on the political agenda.
The local Congress legislator was voted out after several tribals were wounded in police were ordered to fire in December 2006 into peaceful protesters against the hydroelectricity project.
Kinnaur now has a BJP legislator — and the state has a BJP government. But the tunnel work continues.
“We will not give up the battle,” says 31-year-old Bimal Singh Lakhan, sitting in his tiny grocery shop in the hilltop village of Urni. His parents live off their barley, millet and pea fields. Their neighbours have apple orchards.
It’s a peaceful, picturesque life they fear is about to be disrupted. “They want to favour big companies, and they don’t care if it is at the cost of our environment and way of life,” he says, pointing to the work underway 15 kilometres downhill. “This will not do.”
Brigadier (retired) S.K.Uppal, general manager of Jaypee Group, the private company executing the 1,000 megawatt Karcham Wangtoo project in Kinnaur, shrugs off the concerns.
“There is no reason for people to be apprehensive. We are not destroying the environment in any manner,” he says. “Rather, the people in Kinnaur should be happy that so many hydel projects are coming to the area, which will ultimately see them better off.”
But villagers say the 18-kilometre tunnel under construction, which will run through a hill that houses 12 villages, could cause damage and divert the small water sources that keep their fields and orchards alive.
The fish may disappear from the river, the picturesque apple orchards shrivel away.
“The Sutlej is our lifeline. It has kept the Kinnaur soil moist for generations. How can they say all these many projects will not affect that?” says Tenzin Norbu (36), sitting in his small apple orchard in Pooh village.
Environmental expert and activist Kulbhushan Upmanyu agrees. “It could be a disaster,” says the state head of the Himalaya Neeti Abhiyaan (Himalayan Policy Campaign) and a leader of the 1981 Chipko Movement to save trees.
“The government should ensure the projects allow the natural flow of the river as far as possible. Otherwise, the groundwater in many of the apple orchards will recede, and the biodiversity of the river itself will be damaged.”
The upcoming elections have given hope to Kinnaur’s tribals. “Political parties can no longer ignore us,” says Balmo Negi, 29, a graduate from Tapri village.
Since the 2004 elections, the Election Commission has been holding assembly and parliamentary polls in the tribal areas of Himachal Pradesh simultaneously with the rest of the state and the country.
In the past, polling here, including in Kinnaur, was generally held after the governments had been formed, mainly due to weather constraints. Kinnaur used to be heavily snowbound and easy access was only possible in summer.
This meant that tribals had virtually no stake in the government.
“This time, our votes can make a difference,” says Balmo. “And we plan to make sure that they do.”