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This shattered the hill economy, 20,000 road side dhabhas which did brisk business and the vast network of ‘char dham tourism’, which was central to sustenance of the economy, of the region called Dev Bhumi or abode of the gods.

Succinctly put, the people blamed the heavy losses on unplanned development, the sore point essentially being the proliferation of dams on the rivers across the Himalayan state. The efforts to revive economy are yet to bear fruit with one chief minister Vijay Bahuguna forced to quit office for slow relief efforts. Hydro dams in Uttarakhand evoke extreme response. There is a pro and an anti-dam lobby. Both the lobbies debate hard in support of their point.

As is the wont, such disputed matters reach courts for arbitration. The Supreme Court has directed the environment ministry not to clear hydropower projects in Uttarakhand saying it was concerned with the proliferation of such projects and the impact on the Bhagirathi and Alaknanda rivers, the two major tributaries of Ganga. As of now the court has asked the ministry to set up an expert group, which must include representatives of the state government, Wildlife Institute of India and Central Electricity Authority, to assess whether hydro projects, including those under construction, contributed to environmental degradation.

The expert group will also need to assess whether the hydropower projects contributed, and to what extent, to the recent devastation in Uttarakhand. All construction activities on dams have been stopped, which includes near completion projects, which have been asked to maintain status quo.

Recent development, however, is threatening the status quo. On the one hand, an expert body constituted by the Supreme Court is examining the full ambit of dams, on the other hand, the governments of India and Nepal are signing pacts for hydro power generation.  One of the three pacts signed during the visit of the prime minister Narendra Modi to Nepal related to the Pancheshwar project. Both countries will share equally the electricity produced from the project but India would bear 62.5 per cent of the expenses.

Pancheshwar is scheduled to generate more power than Tehri but surprisingly it has not yet invited attention of the environmentalists. It would be three times bigger than Tehri and would cost five times as much to build. With a height of 315 metres, it will be the second highest dam in world; the highest being Rogun Dam in Russia at 335 metres. Tehri Dam is 261 metres high. A look at the map clearly shows it to be located in an area where there is least political mileage thus the set of rules applying for the dam are different it seems.

This project is essentially located in Uttarakhand where power projects are on hold. How can the government have two yardsticks, one for domestic population and another for a foreign country? Uttarkhand chief minister Harish Rawat is correct when he says that the state needs to benefit from the project.

In a letter to the PM, he has correctly stated that storage dam on the Mahakali River would submerge 60 villages affecting 19,700 people compared to 14 villages and 11,466 people in Nepal. The dam will submerge a total of 134 square km out of which 120 square km would be in Uttarakhand. As far as the catchment area is concerned out of the total 12,100 square km, the bulk of the area nearly 9,720 square km is in Uttarakhand. He correctly feels that 13 per cent of the energy and a right to purchase 50 per cent of the remaining Indian share should come here to Uttarakhand.

There is also a problem of bearing the expenses for rehabilitation of the displaced people. The state cannot bear the expenses of Indo-Nepal goodwill on its own. Should there be one standard rule for all or does the Centre feel that it can have two yardsticks. Critics may say that the Pancheshwar project is different, it is between two countries, but the fact of the matter is that it displaces people, submerges an area and has an environmental impact.

Criticising the agreement between the two nations, environmentalist and founder of Uttarakhand Nadi Bachao Abhiyan, Suresh Bhai said that while the world was considering the options of mini and micro level hydro power projects after learning about the serious threat posed by the big dams on local civilisations and ecological system, we were trying to replicate the Tehri experience.

‘We are doing just the opposite of what the world is doing. In 1996, when people were opposing Tehri dam at local and national levels, BJP leaders including Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Murli Manohar Joshi, LK Advani and VHP’s Ashok Singhal had echoed public sentiment by opposing a big dam like the one at Tehri though the then ruling party – Congress – went ahead ignoring public outcry. On the one hand, the BJP-led NDA government at the Centre is planning a separate ministry to protect and rejuvenate the Ganga and other rivers, while on the other hand, it is planning to build the large Pancheshwar dam on the Mahakali river. The consequences of this dam will be felt most by the people living in the border areas of India and Nepal,’ he said.

It was claimed in the past that the Tehri dam would generate 2,400 MW power. More than two lakh people were displaced from their ancestral land for construction of this dam but so far it has never produced 2,400 MW power. Even during peak monsoon season it has never generated more
than 1000 MW, added the environmentalist.

‘The proposed 315 metre-high Pancheshwar dam will take 13 years to be constructed and will entail the dislocation of more than three lakh persons living in 200 Indian and 70 Nepali villages. Almost everything has been decided by the top brass but unfortunately, locals who will pay the price don’t know anything about the project,’ said Radha Behen, a known Gandhian activist of the state.

‘Environmental and other impacts of the dam ought to be discussed with the locals to reach a consensus on the proposed dam. Migration will be the biggest hurdle in construction of hydro power projects as in Uttarakhand alone, construction of the already proposed 558 dams will entail the dislocation of 30 lakh people,’ she said.

(The writer is a retired Brigadier and expert on India-Nepal relations)
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