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Why India should stop building mega dams

To the State, big dams are symbols of mega achievement. To the people who are displaced, these monsters mean emptiness of existence

opinion Updated: Sep 21, 2017 08:54 IST
PM Narendra Modi,Sardar Sarovar,Narmada
In this photograph released by the Press Information Bureau on September 17, 2017, Prime Minister Narendra Modi gestures after dedicating the Sardar Sarovar Dam to the people of India at the dam site, Gujarat. (AFP Photo)

After he retired from the civil services, my father-in-law spent the last three decades of his life with his wife in Almora, Uttarakhand (UKD). They were part of the process that saw the state transform from a neglected and rustic backwater of Uttar Pradesh to a fast-developing independent state, currently rated as the sixth richest in India.

But today, thoughtless development --- such as building of bumper-to-bumper dams in its rivers ---- is proving to be a challenge for the state.

The subject of dams is a touchy one in the state. Those of us writing in the media in the 1990s have not forgotten the protests against the Tehri dam, which was built against the advice of ecologists, geologists and activists. I still remember the photographs of beaming netas inaugurating the dam as a “gift to the nation” that were circulated along with those of the dam oustees, who were given homes in the new Tehri city. But the dam oustees never forgot their homes that lay submerged in the dam.

After the 2013 floods, three government panels identified dam-building activities and the corresponding change in the flow of rivers as a major reason for the devastation. Yet the state is planning new ones.

Of late, however, several reports in UKD papers have been talking about how people are worried about a new mega dam proposed on the mighty river Maha Kali, known as Sharada in India. Sharada, which originates in Nepal and flows through UKD, is fed by Dhauli, Gori, Sarayu and Ramganga. The dam, which will be the biggest in South Asia, is expected to generate 5,040 MW of power, and will service both India and Nepal, and cover an area larger than Chandigarh.

The proposed catchment area of the dam will submerge 11,600 hectares (7,600 in India and 4,000 in Nepal). In India, this means 134 villages spread over Almora, Champavat and Pithoragarh will be submerged, displacing 30,000 people. It will also destroy precious forests and inevitably lead to flawed rehabilitation of ousteees. Less land per family will also mean more migration of males to the plains, leaving women to fend for families and farms. It will also increase human-wildlife conflicts, which will make it difficult for women to gather fuel and fodder and also care for their small family farms.

On August 17, when showers wrecked the region’s roads, the state suddenly announced three public hearings in Champhawat, Pithoragarh and Almora district and block headquarters on the issue. The public hearings were held but public representation was poor because of two reasons: Many could not afford to buy expensive bus tickets to attend it, and many of those who did board buses failed to reach the venue due to rains and flooded roads.

From local reports, it seems that the public hearings, remained unstructured and chaotic, and many locals were not allowed to speak or ask even basic questions regarding the proposal. Journalist Hridayesh Joshi reported that at the Pithoragarh public hearing, activist Vimal Bhai’s microphone was disconnected to stop him from speaking.

In Almora, senior journalist and activist Rajiv Lochan Sah was heckled and stopped by the local officials before he could complete his speech.

Congress leader Harish Dhami complained that he was thrown out of the venue when he questioned the viability of the dam.

In a letter to the secretary, Board of Environmental Protection and Pollution Control Board and the organisers of the public hearing, Basant Singh Khaini, a representative of Sarayu Hydroelectric Power Producers in village Bajela of Dhaula Devi block (Almora) wrote that villagers are angry that the 1 MW power generation plant in Rasyuna village along the Sarayu river, which he and his group runs, will be submerged by the proposed 116 kilometre lake of the scheme.

“Our dam has provided 100 families a monthly income of Rs 12,000 and all our share holders are local. This has not only generated power for our area but also stemmed the tide of male migration from our villages,” he wrote.

Your hasty Jan Sunvais, the letter added, are a violation of the provisions of a 2006 notification (amended in 2008), which mandates that sufficient notice must be given to people before any public hearing is held. So stop whining to us about the spurt in our youth migrating to big cities and plains in search of jobs. Your mega project will only give this a further push.

If you were keen to talk to us, why did you hold the meetings during the monsoon months knowing well how hard movement becomes when the rains begin ?

The hill folk are poor but proud people. To governments, dams may be a mega achievement but for the people threatened with submersion, they remain a symbol of humiliation, barrenness and emptiness of existence. There is no doubt that Singh’s letter will get a bureaucratic reply. What use is a system that is only capable of defending itself?

Mrinal Pande is former chairperson, Prasar Bharti and a senior journalist.

The views expressed are personal

First Published: Sep 20, 2017 13:47 IST