In Uttarakhand, when a project destroys a village

On the morning of September 22, 200 policemen and three bulldozers appeared on the horizon, and bulldozed 16 houses, to acquire their land for the Vishnugad-Pipalkoti 444 MW hydroproject
Today, their own district of Chamoli, with its unprecedented glacial avalanche earlier this year, whose flood waters reached right up to Vishnugad – Pipalkoti and destroyed HEP’s just upstream of it (PTI) PREMIUM
Today, their own district of Chamoli, with its unprecedented glacial avalanche earlier this year, whose flood waters reached right up to Vishnugad – Pipalkoti and destroyed HEP’s just upstream of it (PTI)
Updated on Oct 12, 2021 12:12 PM IST
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ByPriyadarshini Patel

En route to Badrinath, on the periphery of the Kedarnath wildlife sanctuary, in a fertile Himalayan valley through which the Alaknanda flows, along its banks, lies the picturesque Haat village.

On the morning of September 22, 200 policemen and three bulldozers appeared on the horizon, and bulldozed 16 houses, to acquire their land for the Vishnugad-Pipalkoti 444 MW hydroproject (HEP). Someone was bathing; someone was in the middle of performing shraadh, final rites for a family member, and had to confront the police shirtless; and yet another was away from home. Vessels, family jewellery, furniture, inherited deities, clothes, all were buried in a heap of rubble.

Since then, the villagers have been protesting, seeking justice, for some decent rehabilitation. The shock of being rendered homeless, within the space of an hour, is yet visible through the outrage.

But what makes such an act even more egregious is the fact that the final decision on this project is yet pending, sub-judice, in the Supreme court.

Vishnugad-Pipalkoti was proposed in 2007, as part of the sudden drive to utilise pristine Himalayan rivers by building a slew of hydroprojects, wherein over 70 projects were envisaged on the Ganga. Since then, extreme weather events coupled with a collapsing ecology and cascading disasters of hitherto unseen proportions, have revealed just how destructive these projects are, and the myth of hydropower as “green” energy has finally been demolished.

In 2013, the Supreme Court, taking suo moto cognisance of the floods that ravaged the entire valley of Kedarnath, formulated a committee to “constitute an expert body to make a detailed study as to whether existing and under construction HEP’s have contributed to environmental degradation, if so, to what extent and also whether it has contributed to the present tragedy.”.

This committee, comprising of no less than 17 experts, concluded in 2014 that, “It is pertinent to conclude that there has been a direct and an indirect impact of the HEPs in the aggravation of the floods of 2013.’ It also found that HEP’s inflict heavy ecological damage that is irreversible, meaning that it cannot be mitigated. It stated: “The EB concluded that on the basis of currently available evidence 23 out of the 24 HEPs would have irreversible impacts on the biodiversity of Alaknanda and Bhagirathi basins.”

The ministry of environment and forests (MoEF) itself concurred and in its affidavit dated in 2014, submitted in the Supreme Court that, “It is clear from the report submitted by the Expert Body which is inclusive of the findings of many researchers/committees, that with the construction of hydropower projects the local ecology is certainly overburdened. There are clear citing of irreversible damages of environment, in terms of loss of forests, degraded water quality, geological, social impacts and that they enhance landslides and other disasters.”

It further stated that “It is pertinent to conclude that there has been a direct and an indirect impact of the HEPs in the aggravation of the floods of 2013.”

The Prime Minister’s Office itself decided in a meeting held in February 2019 that any hydroprojects on the Ganga and her tributaries having less than 50% construction would be scrapped. Locals attest that today Vishnugad- Pipalkoti construction is barely at 25%. However, about a month ago, the ministry of environment and climate change (MoEFCC) suddenly decided that seven under-construction hydro projects (of which one is Vihnugad-Pipalkoti) which were under freeze due to the court proceedings, should be implemented as “substantial progress and sizeable investment have been made”.

This arbitrary and factually incorrect assumption led over 60 leading scientists, lawyers, environmentalists and experts to write an open letter to the government, expressing deep concern. The letter stated, “Our collective Conscience and Science both demand that the decision on restarting these 7 projects be reversed, keeping in mind many factors that have been ignored, in the best interests of our nation and the stated goal of the govt. to rejuvenate the Ganga.” No response has been received to date.

The village of Haat is nothing less than a heritage site. It was brought into existence by Adi Shankaracharya in the 11th century when he brought priests from Bengal and settled them in that isolated valley, to serve the temple of Laxmi-Narayan that substituted for those who could not make the arduous trek to Badrinath. Every house here was built of sturdy, mud and stone masonry; the roofs were of traditional patal slates, and within each home was an individual shrine and deity. Yet, because these houses did not have cement, some of them were reportedly classified as kaccha and they were paid compensation rates that were lower than for pucca houses.

In the end, the cost of building new cement homes exceeded the compensation they had received. The THDC claims to be following the National rehabilitation policy. At the very outset, this policy states that displacement should only happen in unavoidable circumstances. It goes on to state that the displaced will be rehabilitated in a manner to ensure that they are better off than before; it stipulates an en masse shift to a new location with the provision of infrastructure, schools, water, electricity etc. by the acquiring body.

In 2009, without any signed resolution by the Gram Sabha, but based only on an agreement made by the then Pradhan and six to seven signatories (mostly relatives), a price of 1 lakh per nali and a 10 lakh compensation package was decided upon, receiving which the villagers were largely left to fend for themselves and self-relocate.

Today, those who migrated, are scattered in nearby areas. There has been no collective shifting or building of infrastructure at all. Those 16 families who refused to accept any money or leave their ancestral home faced the brutal abuse of power.

The policy requires the acquiring body to consult meaningfully and honestly with the victim who is being uprooted: today the village headman has 4 police cases against him, another protesting villager has 15.

A decade back, the villagers acquiesced to being uprooted from ten centuries of tradition; accepted the destruction of their environment, and permitted their village, a veritable heritage site, to be converted into a muck dumping zone, all under the erroneous impression that the project was for the national good. Facts have shown otherwise. Today, their own district of Chamoli, with its unprecedented glacial avalanche earlier this year, whose floodwaters reached right up to Vishnugad – Pipalkoti and destroyed HEP’s just upstream of it, killing labourers and wreaking destruction, stands as testimony to the diametrically opposite.

Environmental clearances which should have been reviewed and revoked in the last decade, in the view of committees constituted by the MoEFF&CC itself, were instead extended.

If democracy is to mean more than a single moment of euphoria at the ballot box, bringing a group of people to “power", followed by mute and helpless spectatorship for the next five years, it requires a rigorous and unfailing public participation. Today, the best solution would be to restore Haat, recompense villagers, and cancel the HEP. Obviously, the irony of digging a geologically unsound, 50 feet deep and 100 metres wide, Adi Shankaracharya samadhi, in the heights of Kedarnath, whilst simultaneously eradicating the living historical village he set up, has eluded our decision-makers. A model of development that bulldozes culture, environment and rips apart our social fabric; a model that has no respect and zero tolerance of public opinion in self-determining how it wants to “develop”, will lead us anywhere but to real progress and well-being.

Priyadarshini Patel is the head member of Ganga Ahvaan, a citizen forum working towards conservation of the Ganga and the Himalayas

The views expressed are personal

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Wednesday, December 08, 2021