Another Unwanted Dam Could Spell Ecological Disaster: Pancheshwar, Uttarakhand

The people to be affected by the proposed Pancheshwar multipurpose dam project are saying we need development not dam in ecologically sensitive Himalayan region.  The untimely Environment Public Hearing (EPH) for 123 to-be-affected villages in Uttarakhand State rushed through on August 9, 11 and 17 August 2017 with numerous violations, as reported earlier.

During one week long trip to the affected districts of Champawat, Pithoragarh and Almora, I along with Sumit Mahar of Himdhara visited the proposed dam site and few of the villages that may face submergence in the unlikely possibility of the project coming up, to understand the local social and environmental issues.

The Pancheshwar dam site is about 90 km away (by road) from Pithoragarh district headquarters in south direction. The distance comes down to one fourth if straight jungle route is taken. The gigantic dam is proposed 2 km downstream from ancient Pancheshwar temple built at the confluence of mighty Saryu river and Kali river in Lohaghat block of Champawat district. The geographical location of dam site is 29°25’36.55” N and 80°14’41.91” S. The river is called Sharda in India and Mahakali in Nepal after the confluence.

The confluence of Saryu and Kali Rivers

On the day of the visit, deafening sound of a generator welcomed us at the dam site. The road leading to the dam ends there. The generator was on to facilitate boring of testing tunnels. In all 14 such tunnels have to be bored, we were told, ranging from 30 to 60 meter deep vertically inside mountain.

The contract of this work was awarded to a Shamli-based company. Labours were mainly from Nepal side. About half a dozen tunnels have been bored. The dust clouds were seen flying around as the muck was being dumped from 500 meter above the riverbed of Sharda/ Mahakali river. People from Nepal side were crossing the river through a rope way trolley located hardly 200 meters away from the tunnelling site. There are several risks involved in digging up of tunnels during monsoon season. Given the recurring cloud burst events in the region, it was an invitation to disaster.

Pancheshwar temple is sacred shrine dedicated to Lord Shiva. Local people in large number visit the temple during festivals. At the temple site, Kali river from east and Saryu from west, merge together to form Sharada river which is known as Mahakali in Nepal side. There is a ropeway bridge built on Saryu river to reach the temple. Many local people have settled around the bridge on both side of the river. Fishing activity, particularly catching Mahaseer fish or angling is banned in 500 m river stretch around the temple. The entire temple will be submerged if the project is built. Local people are totally against the dam.

The dam site

When we reached the temple, a local person from Sail village, located on the hill standing behind the temple was sitting with the temple priest named Ram Teerath. He looked very sad and told us that his entire village was against the project. “Our children have stopped eating, elderly are having sleepless nights ever since they heard that they will have to leave their village and forest for the dam” said the person.

“Bhagwan Bholenath (Lord Shiva) will never allow the construction of the dam” the priest interjected strongly. Explaining the religious significance of shrine, the priest in temple service for two decades, condemned the way Environment Public Hearing (EPH) were conducted in Champawat on August 9, 2017.

Since it was monsoon time, the surrounding hills were lush green. Thick fog was enveloping the hills. It seemed like the clouds were floating too low. Both the rivers were in floods and could be seen flowing fast. With silt load, their water colour had turned muddy.

“This government keeps talking of Mandir and here are hundreds of ancient temples facing submergence due to Pancheshwar dam. We have Daropadi Kund, Bhim Kund, Jata Kund, Rameshwar, Taleshwar which are imbibed deep in our culture. How can this government sink them? Why don’t they develop religious pilgrimage on the line of Char Dham shrine. It will generate much more employment without destroying our cultural heritage”, suggested Laxman Singh Bisht, living on left Saryu bank one km from Pancheshwar temple. Laxman Singh, the 60 years old local contractor, has petitioned PMO (Prime Minister Office) and raised these concerns even during Mann Ki Baat, the monthly radio program of the PM.

Pancheshwar Dam Testing Tunnel

There were more habitats across the river on right bank. “Where would we go, we don’t want to leave the place, whether offered compensation in gold. This is no less the heaven to us. Our very existence is attached to this place and temple. We can never survive without them” exploded Janaki Devi a local woman, when asked for views on the project. In an outraged manner she kept expressing her emotions non-stop for minutes.

Her husband Ganesh Pant was equally apprehensive. “We were told nothing about the public hearing. We were given no information about the project. Having deprived for decades of development works, now we have got road and some livelihood means. How can they displace us? We don’t want the dam, we need the development” outburst the middle aged Ganesh. There were many local employed in Mahaseer angling. They all were fearing loss of their jobs drowned in the proposed mammoth dam project.

On our way back we saw the Central Water Commission (CWC) monitoring office undergoing expensive renovation work with air conditioner, steel fences and glasses being installed inside the office complex. We also saw mini and mega landslide sites apart from massive soil erosion across nearby hills on account of mechanized road construction.

Ara village is under Salparh gram sabha in Bhanoli Tehsil of Almora district. In total, 14 villages are part of Ara-Salparh gram sabha. Seven villages including Dhankana, Seri, Rajuyda, Bahisudi, Tiluvapari, Chimkholi and Ara are listed in submergence area of the proposed Pancheshwar dam project. All these agriculturally prosperous villages are located along the right bank of Saryu River bordering Pithoragarh district. The proposed dam project lies about 40 km downstream at India-Nepal border.

Landslide close to the dam area

Officially, the project will submerge 21 villages in Almora district. As per Detailed Project Report (DPR) only 3 villages, namely Uncha Bauragunth, Kaula, Dhura Laga Taak, are to be fully affected and the rest 18 are mentioned as partially affected.

The EPH for these affected villages was scheduled two days later on August 17, 2017.  With the help of Ramesh Bhat, a helpful village youth settled in Danya, we managed to reach the area. He also facilitated a meeting with villagers facing submergence.  The affected villages in Ara-Salparh area are located at base of hill adjoining to Saryu river bank. It can be reached by a 30 km long zig-zag road journey from Danya on hill top. About one and half hour long downhill drive to Ara revealed the living natural wealth of the area. The site of several landslides along the way also exposed the fragility of young hills.

The villagers could know of the Pancheshwar EPH only because of great uproar created by locals during Pithoragarh EPH held on August 9, 2017.Will the government listen to us, was the first question asked by anxious villagers gathered in the meeting held at Maneshwar, a local temple. The question seemed simple but the increasing unease in villagers, lent it added weight as it was repeatedly asked on the very noon, when rest of the country was celebrating 70th Independence Day.

More than a hundred villagers attended the meeting in two sessions. Most of the villagers reported of having no formal information of the EPH. They even told us that no document regarding EPH has been provided in their area. “How can we tell what is at stake unless we get the documents” said Kishen Singh of Bhainsudi. As per local sources, overall 500 hectares highly productive farm land will be gone to the project. There is as much yet to be registered (excluding forest Van Panchayat forest area) land currently under cultivation in these villages.

Villagers also reported that many big villages have disintegrated in smaller settlements which are not mentioned in DPR. The land ownership is also complex web to resolve as there are several instances where exchange and transfer of land has taken place many a time.

The ancient Pancheshwar temple

Ganesh Joshi, a local reporter, stated that post 1960 the government has not registered lands so no one knew the actual land against which compensation will be given. “Mine is irrigated land. I have grown orchard. The road has come to village and now it’s time we reap the benefit of the slow and steady progress made over decades. We are happy here and do not want to be drowned and displaced”, said Dinesh of Dhankana working as a tailor at Dhyadi the local market on hill top.

Gopal Ram the Birkola village Pradhan told us on phone that till that day he neither had information of EPH nor he had been provided any document regarding the project. “We know nothing about the project and do not know what to say in EPH” said Gopal Ram. As per Ramesh Bhat, many villages in the area like Salparh and Setti were on the edge of reservoir rim but not mentioned in DPR. “Once the reservoir is filled, landslide will bring our village down, but we are listed neither as fully nor as partially affected”, said Ramesh.

Due to lack of reliable official information, there were misleading rumours like Rs 80 thousand crore released as relief package for affected villages, plots allotment started in Haldwani for displaced doing rounds among affected villagers.

Ara-Salparh area is bestowed with rich natural resources. It has fertile farms, irrigation facility, electricity, road connectivity, healthy livestock and water mills. Villagers demand improvement in basic health and education facility and regular bus service to the village. The area is self-reliant and on the path of sustainability. They feel Pancheswar dam will take away all this.
Temple priest Ramteerath

Other Observations
During the trip, the conversation held with numerous people with different background, also revealed that some people are supporting the project. It appears that they already have settled in urban centres hence do not have much to do with village life and lands. They see the project an opportunity to gain monetary compensation to make their urban life more comfortable.

Deprived of basic facilities even after 70 years of independence, some villagers are compelled to see destructive dam project as solace and escape route to better living. If their their basic development needs are met, they do not wish to move away from their native places.
However, some corrupt politicians, hand in glove with the dam lobby, will never stop vouching for such projects even when they know or do not know the social and ecological costs of the project and know that such a project is not even needed either for the local people, for India or for Nepal.

The Pancheshwar dam is proposed in an area where forest patches are still intact, where rivers are still pristine and flowing, where communities are thriving, where agriculture is rewarding and where community needs can be met locally with alternative and sustainable development programs. Unfortunately an unwanted dam project imposed from outside, threatens to undermine all this and could be scripting a disaster as the area is ecologically sensitive, earthquake prone where cloudburst and landslides are recurring with increasing frequency and intensity. The proposed dam could worsen all these and more vulnerabilities.

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