New Delhi: The day since cracks started appearing in the houses of the residents of Joshimath in Uttarakhand, there have been extensive write-ups in the national and regional dailies and on web portals. Almost all of them invariably have highlighted the imminent need for intervention and the faulty outlook towards the Himalayas, which are considered to be a super tourist destination and wealth extraction zone.
Indeed, the Himalayas are one of the finest ranges of mountains with impressive flora and fauna, mineral wealth, tremendous hydropower potential and limestone for cement manufacturing. But, often we forget a hard reality, and that is that these are the youngest range of mountains in the world and are extremely fragile.
‘Planned’ and Not ‘Unplanned Development’ Responsible
Some of the write-ups with platitudinal references have been pointing out the unplanned development in the hilly regions and saying that because of houses being constructed on the debris, they are facing cracks as the mountains are subsiding. This is just one part of the story. But why are mountains subsiding?
The push from the centre and the state governments in the mountains to speed up development, particularly in the post-90s period and primarily whence Uttarakhand got its statehood is one of the major reasons for massive activity in the mountains. Himachal has been facing a similar scenario.
The development models of these two states- particularly the widening of the roads, the char dham yatra (Hindu pilgrimage) and harnessing the hydropower potential in both states, have been steered by the World Bank (WB). The WB which was reluctant in funding big hydropower projects changed its policy in 2005.
Quote from a source highlighting the plight of mountains because of massive interventions, states, “abstention from any support of major dams; from 2005 onwards, the Bank(World Bank) has substantially increased its funding to the big hydro project once again, including Nathpa Jhakri but without any critical evaluation. The project was completed at a cost of Rs 8,187 crore. “ Nathpa Jhakri project is on the Satluj basin. It has another interesting story that will follow in the later part of this write-up.
The World Bank website goes on the state that “The World Bank is also assisting the state governments of Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand adopt a river-basin approach in the planning and development of cascaded hydropower systems. The two mountain states that have made hydropower generation a significant development priority had asked for Bank assistance in initiating a River Basin Development Optimisation Study that uses the Satluj and Alaknanda rivers as case studies which have been completed and discussions are ongoing on how to take this work forward.”
Hence, it is not unplanned but ‘planned development’ that has led to such holocausts in the mountains and this has been done by multilateral agencies like the Bank and the state and central governments who have brushed aside the concerns of the people. Take for example- in Himachal Pradesh, a No Objection Certificate (NOC) was essential for constructing a hydropower dam in the panchayat precinct but this was removed by a legislative order led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the state assembly.
The current model of planned development has benefited the multilateral agencies, and the hydropower corporations but not the people who have been forced to fall to ruins.
The Joshimath Story
Need not be explained that the state government of Uttarakhand in its push to attain more revenue for running the state, started doling out hydropower projects to big power corporations. Not to discount the fact that since the Mishra committee report came out in 1976, the town was reported to be on sediments and not on pucca (concrete) rocks. The vulnerability was high. But what precipitated the crisis is the construction of the World Bank-supported hydropower project, Tapovan-Vishnugad. The National Thermal Power Corporation (NTPC) Limited is constructing this project with a capacity of nearly 520 Megawatt (MW). It is a large project.
Now, what happens when a hydropower project is constructed? This project has a huge catchment area of more than 3,000 square kilometres. The so-called new technology, “run of the river dam”-where large dams are not required, was pushed forward in the last few decades as a solution for saving the submergence of large parts of land under big dams. But this technology, which is also used in the above project has its own perils. And in fact, speaks volumes of perilous development in the mountains.
Under this technology, a potential difference is created by blocking water on the main river and then diverting that river through a Head Race Tunnel (HRT)into the surge shaft and finally pouring it onto the turbines. In the Vishnugad project, the HRT is 12.1 kilometres long with a dimension of 5.6m diameters. Then there are Adit tunnels to enter the HRT.
Now, what happens in the construction of these tunnels? The technology used in most of these tunnel burrowing is through very heavy blasting, instead of a tunnel boring machine which is considered to be better. Imagine the volume of muck that comes out of such digging of a tunnel. Where is it dumped? All this leads to further vulnerability. During the course of HRT because of massive blasting, the rock layers get disturbed, and because of this, the people living in the mountains lose their natural ecosystem. They lose their water springs, and if the strata are loose, they even lose their houses. This is exactly what happened in Joshimath. Soon, this town with a population of over 20,000 will lose its existence.
There is another interesting part of the construction of Vishnugad. The earlier consortium of an Austrian company, Alpine Mayreder Bau GmbH with Larsen & Toubro (L&T) was terminated in 2014 owing to geological reasons. This contract was then given to another company for constructing the project and this company is known for its notoriety in using more than the required gelatin for blasting. The same company was also in a consortium in the construction of NJPC at
one of the three sites.
And now we know the reality. But this is not just an isolated example. This is the story across the mountain regions.
The Satluj Story
Satluj river as it enters from China into India has been targeted for harnessing its entire potential. The proposed and constructed projects as it enters India are Khab Shaso, Jangi-Thopan, Thopan Powari, Shongthong-Karcham, Karcham Wangtoo, Nathpa Jhakri, Rampur, Luhri, Kol Dam and finally the Bhakra hydropower project. All of these projects are on the Satluj River and a dozen more are on its tributaries.
Similar conditions of working as explained above in the Joshimath region prevail in these projects as well. In Himachal Pradesh, additional leverage was given to the hydropower companies, particularly the private ones. This came in the form of a quality check which was there earlier. The state electricity board is used to monitor the overall quality of the construction of the hydropower projects. The use of material- the use of gelatin in blasting, etc., however, was ended during the BJP rule on the strong push from the Jay Pee industries that constructed the Karcham -Wangtoo hydropower project.
Like Joshimath, people often forget that the Nathpa village, where the dam was constructed has lost its existence. The village was small, perhaps, and because of that, there was not much anger. The entire village started sliding because of the construction activity of the dam and then had to be reallocated to another place. In Himachal, there is a continuous threat of landslides even when it is not raining. The sole reason is the construction activity done whilst constructing the project. So, it is not just during the project construction but even afterwards that the threat looms large.
Construction of Chardham roads and widening of roads
This is another important feature leading to massive cutting of the hills and at places even tunnelling that is leading to huge loss to the mountain ecology. There are around 69 national highways announced in the state. The char dham yatra also is a pointer in this direction. Most of the heavy construction road projects in the state of Himachal Pradesh are supported by the Bank and other multilateral agencies. What the mountain states require is the mobility of the people and not the mobility of the cars.
In none of the cases mentioned above, a geologist is part of the team while constructing these roads. This further enhances the vulnerability of the mountains.
The repeated reference made to the Bank does not mean that some vilification campaign is put up against this agency it is to point out that the planned development models are amply supported by the governments and the multilateral agencies without the participation of the people.
No Means No
This is another movement like the Chipko movement in Uttarakhand. This ‘no means no’ movement is restricted to the tribal district of Kinnaur in Himachal where the natives have taken a strong position against the further construction of hydropower projects and are not allowing any new entry into the hydropower construction.
‘Kiang’, in local dialect means ‘fire’ and is one of the connotations given by the tribals where cross sections of the people from the youth, retired bureaucrats, farmers, and women have woven a network and are not allowing any more hydropower projects in the region.
The current model of development- ‘planned development’, without the participation of the people, has led to massive erosion of nature, trust, wealth, and assets are cheating the common people. But there are movements that beacon a ray of hope that alienation will not lead to the desired results, they must fight back and reclaim their right of planning themselves.
Hence, the flawed understanding “it is unplanned construction” that is leading to such holocausts in the mountains must be corrected with “the planning authorities have failed,” the people have to step in to reclaim their right over planning and conserving nature which they have done for centuries together. ‘Nature and us’ living in dialectical unity and nature, not for profit and capital accumulation must be the war cry.
(The writer is the former deputy mayor of Shimla, Himachal Pradesh.Views are personal.)