In Himachal Pradesh, a hydroelectric project drives a local community off its land

Almost eight years ago, on March 25, 2014, at least 31 women from Jharauta village in the Chamba district of Himachal Pradesh were arrested for protesting against the start of works on the 180 megawatt Bajoli hydropower project. -Holi. The women, who belonged to the Gaddi tribe, feared that the hydroelectric project would destroy their homes, dry up natural water sources and force them from their homes to become refugees overnight. They warned of imminent risks given the loose rocks.

Then, in December 2021, nearly eight years later, their fear turned into reality when tunnel testing of the Bajoli-Holi hydropower project triggered seepage and landslides, damaging homes in the village of Jharauta. . It started on December 19 that year, when the villagers first noticed the seepage in the tunnel in the forest area. A few days later, on December 22, they noticed cracks in the houses near the national road.

There were massive cracks in the walls of three houses which belonged to Savitri Devi, Saini Ram and Jodha Ram. As a result, Savitri Devi had to leave her home and she and her cattle were moved to nearby temporary quarters.

“Due to seepage from the dam, there were cracks in our house which made it impossible to live there,” said Savitri Devi, a dairy farmer. Mongabay-India. “We spent sleepless nights in fear that the house would collapse. So we decided to change. We never thought that we should leave our house that we had built with our life’s earnings.

The cracks in the houses which the villagers say are due to the hydroelectric project. Photo credit: special arrangement

Kavita Devi, a ward member of Jharauta village in Bharmour region, said they had been protesting for “over a decade” and “didn’t even demand the project be shut down”.

“We just asked to move it to the right side of the Ravi River, which was actually the original plan for the project,” Kavita Devi said. Mongabay-India. “On the right side there are no major human settlements, but on the left side there are 27 villages of the Gaddi tribe which are in danger.”

“The slope of the village is more than 60 degrees and is made up of large sedimentary rocks,” Kavita Devi said. “The topsoil is less dense and the soil profile has a grainy, disintegrated part of sedimentary rock blocks after the top layer. Water leaking from the dam carved cracks in the sedimentary rock blocks as the upper layer could not stabilize due to the steep slope.

The Bajoli-Holi hydroelectric project is a run-of-river project on the Ravi River in the Bajoli village of Chamba. In 2004, the Central Electricity Authority prepared the pre-feasibility report for the project, which was based on the right bank design. In 2007, the Himachal Pradesh State Electricity Board also prepared a detailed project report, based on the design of the right bank with scientific contributions from the Geological Survey of India.

In July 2007, the GMR group was awarded the hydroelectric project. It obtained the terms of reference for carrying out environmental impact studies from the Ministry of the Environment in February 2008. This was also based on the design of the right bank and was under the declaration that no forest or dwelling should be affected.

In December 2008, GMR moved the project from the arid, uninhabited right bank to the left bank of the river, allegedly on the grounds that it “was more suitable”. Residents allege that the reason for changing the alignment of the project was to save cost, as there is already an existing road and other infrastructure on the left bank which would need to be developed from scratch on the right bank.

The first public environmental clearance hearing, conducted by GMR, for the project, held on April 19, 2010, witnessed a huge uproar with people protesting the proposed plan. The then deputy commissioner ordered the company to obtain no-objection certificates from the five village councils in the area. GMR said all “politically strong people in every village council spoke up for them”. But two village councils withdrew their support citing the diversion of vast forest lands and possible loss of livelihoods.

When villagers protested, local authorities sought the advice of the Himachal Pradesh State Electricity Board on the relocation. The Chief Engineer of the Himachal Pradesh State Electricity Board had said (in a 2011 statement): “The Chief Engineer of the Himachal Pradesh State Electricity Board considered that the right bank of the Ravi River is suitable for the construction of the project taking into account all necessary aspects for economic and social consideration.As such, there appears to be no aspect justifying moving the project to the Left Bank as proposed by the Independent Power Producer citing various personal reasons/motives, please.

Cases related to the project reached the court but were dismissed, including a petition for review. The agencies that were not previously in favor of moving the project to the left bank, then gave the environmental, forestry and technical-economic authorizations for the construction of the project on the left bank.

In January 2013, another big protest took place when the project developer started cutting down trees for the construction of the project. The main request was for the project tunnel to be moved to the right side, as originally planned.

Hidden fees

According to the environmental authorization granted to the Bajoli-Holi hydroelectric project, the total land requirement for the project is 85.70 hectares. Of this number, 18 hectares are in the submersion zone and of the remaining 67 hectares, approximately 23 hectares or nearly 40% of the land diverted to the project must be used for the dumping of manure in land classified as “forest” land. revealed a report by Himdhara Collective, an environmental monitoring group in Himachal Pradesh.

The report states that documents related to environmental clearance compliance at the project from 2013 to 2018 revealed that almost every year the issue of non-compliance related to spoil dumping was raised with project authorities, including issuance of show cause notices. Despite this, the violations continued.

While talking about the accident in December 2021, Manshi Asher, the co-founder of Himdhara Collective, said in a statement that people specifically warned the administration that the area has “very fragile geology and there is would have a huge threat to life and property, but it all fell on deaf ears”.

“This is not the first incident of its kind, these hazards occur at every stage of the project – during construction, due to heavy blasting, during testing, and then long after commissioning,” she said. added. “Once the slopes are destabilized and the geology of the area disturbed, there are bound to be impacts, but all of this should have been considered during the planning and impact assessment phase. However, at this time, the agencies are only concerned with obtaining permissions.

In addition to destabilizing the region, the Bajoli-Holi hydropower project has also impacted the lives and livelihoods of locals, including the Gaddi tribe whose main source of income is agriculture and dairy farming. . Livestock fodder depends on the oak forests close to the village.

“The nearby forest is the main source of pasture for cattle and dry wood for the winter,” said Anoop Jhadota, a teacher from Jharauta village. “But the project developer has cut nearly 4,000 oak trees over the past 10 years, making it difficult for cattle to graze and collect dry wood.”

“The forest is now transformed into a power station, a store, a pressure well and roads,” he added. “The trees left behind are also turned into a water reservoir. Ten years ago there were 70 to 80 buffaloes, which are now down to 15 to 20.”

Women protesting against the hydroelectric project. Photo credit: special arrangement

Hydroelectricity is considered a clean energy source and is encouraged by the government as a source of energy to reduce the carbon footprint. But a landslide risk assessment report released by the Disaster Management Unit of the Himachal Government found that “a large number of hydropower stations i.e. 67 are under threat from landslide hazard…and 10 mega hydropower plants have been found to be in the mid and high landslide hazard zone”.

Asher said, “The plight of the people of Jharauta is a clear example of this.”

“There is a severe dearth of scientific studies by government institutions that examine how hydropower projects have contributed to further disruption of fragile geology and the human and ecological costs of this damage and hazard,” Asher said. “It points to the misplaced priorities of the government, which continues to push and project hydropower as a clean, renewable source of energy.”

According to Himdhara, there are various non-compliance issues observed by the Himachal Pradesh State Pollution Control Board and other non-governmental actors including local communities. The Himachal Pradesh State Pollution Control Board failed to effectively monitor the spoil spill.

Bharmour Subdivision Magistrate, Manish Soni said Mongabay-India which they called “geologists to study the impact of the Bajoli-Holi hydroelectric project in the region” and “will take appropriate measures as soon as” they receive the report. GMR denied any comment.

Migration problem

In 2019, a statement from the Ministry of Tribal Affairs stated: “Wrongfully dispossessing members of Scheduled Castes or Scheduled Tribes from their lands or premises or interfering with the enjoyment of their rights, including forest rights, to lands or premises or water or irrigation facilities. or destroying the crops or removing the produce thereof constitute the offense of atrocities and are punishable under the said law [The Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989].”

Subdivision Magistrate Soni said villagers can bring such suits against the company if they wish.

Jia Lal, the Bharmour lawmaker, who hails from the state’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, said Mongabay-India that they “prepared the list of losses” and told GMR to pay the villagers for the loss.

But when asked that beyond this temporary measure, what permanent measures they plan to take, Lal replied: “People have to migrate and the construction of new houses will be the responsibility of the GMR. . If the area is no longer suitable for life, people should think about their lives and migrate elsewhere.

When it was noted that in this way everyone had to change direction, the legislator said that “the project does not happen overnight” and that the village councils should have protested (earlier). “In Bharmour, there are 12 energy projects. In Chamera, three power stations, these things also happened. People have migrated. Here too people should migrate. The earth is no longer liveable.

This article first appeared on Mongabay.