Will they all be displaced?

Damn the dam, says the opposition. If built, Tehri Dam in Garhwal will submerge the homes of 86,000 people. The decision is the Supreme Court's.

Work on the controversial Tehri Dam continues as opposition to it mounts. Meanwhile, thousands of would-be refugees, caught in mid- air as it were, await their fate, which lies in a Supreme Court verdict.

In the face of widespread support, the arguments of the dam authorities sound increasingly hollow. Though the Supreme Court's acceptance of the petition gave greater legitimacy to the opposition, at least five years have passed since then. Work on the dam has dragged on for a decade with little chance of meeting the 1997 dead-line. Most hurt are the 86,000 people, whose homes are to be buried under the reservoir. Caught in the middle, they have no choice but to endure these long disruptions and uncertainties until the Court decides, or something else gives.

Meanwhile, present-day Tehri town is a place with a death sentence. All construction work and development projects have been stopped since 1969. All monies earmarked for the town have been diverted to the new Tehri town. Thus, the Tehri people find themselves split between two bad homes, one long neglected, the other remaining unfinished.

Even the windfall in jobs that the Tehri people had been hopeful for did not materialize. According to the Cultural Survival Journal, not a single engineer from Tehri has been employed, and cheap labour has streamed in from Bihar. Instead of a boost, more people have had to be accommodated, the town facilities shared among many more, and prices have shot up. The crumbling town now supports double the population it had in 1969.

New Tehri, near completion, is like a ghost town, with schools but no residents. The traditional hillside homes have been supplanted by box-like concrete structures in identical pink and blue lines, a "brutal monument to the folly of modern Indian architecture." The town also lies above 4,000 feet above the old town, and is thus colder.

Residents are grumbling that Tehri – as the new district headquarter – will be filled with government buildings, courts and employees. These could not be relocated elsewhere as all the towns in the region sit on hill-tops, except for Tehri, which will be submerged.

A journalist who recently visited said, "People just don't want to move to Tehri." According to him, the town can accommodate 20,000, but the remaining 66,000 rural "oustees" have nowhere to go. The government has reportedly been unsuccessful in acquiring land for the vast majority who will be displaced, namely the farm people. Another critic said that, at any rate, the town would be filled with only those who have the money.

The proposed dam lies in the Tehri valley in the Garhwal region of Uttar Pradesh. It entails the building of a 260.5 m-high rockfill dam across the Bhagirathi River just 1.5 km downstream of the ancient town of Tehri, at the confluence of the Bhagirathi and Bhilangana rivers.

According to its propopents, the power crisis and the huge requirement for irrigation made the harnessing of the Ganga Valley urgent. The absence of a storage dam in the valley, they said, resulted in a loss of 6 million acre-feet of water. The Tehri Dam could turn this "colossal waste" around to spur the state's industrialisation with the added hydropower as well as expand its irrigation system. Tehri had been selected for commissioning the first out of three storage schemes. Its reservoir, extending 45 km into the Bhagirathi valley and 35km into the Bhilangana (a water spread of 42.5 sq km), would impound 2.62 million acre-feet of water. The darn would have on completion an installed capacity of 2400 MW of hydropower.

The only disadvantage, according to dam authorities, is that the dam would submerge the town of Tehri, 25 villages, "partially submerge" another 72 villages, and 1600 ha of the region's richest farmland. But the project was considered economically viable despite the high cost of resettling 86,000 people.

The proposed dam, which would be the world's fifth largest if built, was any-thing but straightforward. It gave birth to a protracted battle between the developers and those who believed the behemoth project posed potential hazards to both human lives and the environment which far outweighed its purported benefits.

The ongoing project faces an increasingly formidable opposition, composed of passionate supporters with some compelling arguments. At the core of this opposition is the TehriBandh Virodh Sangarsh Samiti (the Anti-Tehri Dam Struggle Committee), made up of the people of Tehri, led by V.D. Saklani, and supported by well-known environmental activists, scientists and scholars of the region.

Opposition to the dam began in the late '70s mainly on the displacement issue. It was the heyday of the Chipko movement, and the anti-dam resistance got its inspiration from it. For a while, the government responded by paying "very fiber ar compensation to the would-be refugees. But the opposition gained impetus when the Wadia Institute of Himalayan Geology in Dehra Dun cautioned the project because of the seismicity of the dam site, and its potential hazards. Armed with a persuasive scientific critique, the opposition in 1983 took its protests from the streets to the Supreme Court of India.

Put simply, the anti-dam people argue that it is foolhardy, indeed criminal, to build a dam as high as the Tehri on a site that lies in an active seismic zone because of the potential hazards to communities up and downstream, and the possibility of a reservoir induced earthquake. They also argue that the silt-load of the dam would give it a useful life of less than half that officially estimated. Further-more, the high cost of resettling 86,000 people, and the environmental impact wrought by landslides, flooding, and deforestation, dictated that the project be halted.

The Tehri Dam proposal, although conceived in 1949, was sanctioned only in 1972 by the planning commission. But lacking funding, all that was accomplished by the late 70's was a project report and some minor construction. The dam drew attention again during Gorbachev's 1986 visit to India when an atomic agreement fell through. As a substitute, the Soviets signed an agreement for the Tehri Dam.

In 1979, in response to growing out-cry, the Department of Science and Technology was directed to form a Working Group to assess the environmental impact of the Tehri Dam. The team, headed by noted environmentalist Sunil Roy, "recognized the urgent need to harness the Himalayan waters for its potential energy." But their concern centred on the extensive deforestation, the location of the Tehri on a highly seismic zone, the known instability of the hillsides, "all of which could have grave consequences for Tehri and the upstream and downstream com-munities."

The issues raised by the Working Group's interim report elicited a directive from the prime minister's secretariat that "there were grounds for concern," and it recommended that "the project be examined." In the end, because of powerful pro-dam lobbying, the Working Group did not recommend that the project be halted. Roy described his experience as "harrowing and distressing," saying he had "never encountered such an unbendingly dogmatic approach…to ensure continued work on the Tehri Dam whatever the cost to the environment and public funds."

Stated Roy: "From the outset I held the view that work should be halted on the Tehri Dam but lacked an adequate data base. Now, I consider this is essential as it is clear that the extensive environment recommendations will be largely ignored…. " He added: "….there is enough national and international experience now to show that taking all factors into consideration, including the social and environmental costs, major water resource projects are no longer economically feasible."

Some similar concerns were ex-pressed by the Soviet team that assessed the project. According to chief engineer Alexander Fink, the high seismicity of the Tehri Dam "fails to be adequately considered,"and that the"design insufficiently ensures the reliability and safety of structures, especially considering the height of the dam and the fact that a densely populated area lies behind it." His team's conclusion was that a new design would be necessary.

Although a new design might enable the dam to withstand a major earthquake, "the enhanced cost of the new structure may not be economically viable," says ecologist Jayanta Bandyopadhyay.

The siltation factor is another issue to contend with. Even the Soviets have not solved the problem of heavy sedimentation in their mountainous dams, and the sedimentation of Himalayan rivers is as high, said Bandyopadhyay. According to a study by Singha and Gupta, the siltation of the Bhagirathi River during 1978's heavy monsoon was 40 million tons per year. And according to the anti-dam petition, even if the siltation is 16.53 hectare metres per year per 100 sq km, the useful life of the dam is less than 50 years, and if it is higher – as claimed by the petition – the dam life could be less than 20 years.

Its final recommendation notwithstanding, the Working Group had been shocked by the intensity of the opposition to the Tehri Dam and the concerns raised by the local people. Its final recommendation, therefore, sowed dissent among Group members themselves, which was voiced by the group's chairman Sunil Roy. Their opposition was understandable. Not only were their homes to be submerged under 260 m. of water but the ancient city of Tehri on the River Ganga (Bhagirathi becomes the Ganga), on the pilgrimage routes to Gangotri and Yamnotri, would be lost forever.

By way of rehabilitation, the plan called for a new Tehri town to be built on a mountaintop south of the reservoir, and the acquisition of forest and private land for rural resettlement near Rishikesh and Haridwar in Dehra Dun and Sahanpur districts. The "oustees" -¬as they have been dubbed — could, on the other hand, also take cash compensation. According to the Cultural Survival Journal, the government has already distributed money to one-sixth of Tehri town's population — who accepted because of alleged intimidation. But they now ask what the money will be worth when the dam is completed.

While it might have looked alright on paper, the government has a dismal record in rehabilitation. Dams in India are said to have produced a half-million "refugees" — left to fend for themselves. The Working Group had thus stressed that "even greater efforts be made to ensure that those being rehabilitated in distant sites receive all the facilities, and that immediate steps be taken to improve the condition of those already relocated."

Two rehabilitation sites visited by the working group — Bhaniwala and Johra — showed them that "despite the best efforts of the project authorities, the conditions were far from satisfactory." There were none of the facilities such as a hospital, school, water supply, post office, temple, and approach roads that were supposed to have been provided. The local people — "already among the most neglected in the Himalayan region" — were deriving no benefit.

Little attention has been given to the break-up of village and family units. In the village of Khandal, for example, according to the report in the Journal, more than half of the village's 50 families who had accepted relocation were now unhappy in their new homes, the poor yield of the land, and water scarcity. Some had moved to cities or returned to their villages to face social ostracism by those who had stayed.

In his dissent, Roy wrote: "Apart from the dislocation of local lifestyles, the oustees are uprooted and, almost literally, scattered on a dust heap." He criticised the planners for not seeing the hill village as an "integrated entity," and that "village groups are broken up and the oustees thrust helter skelter into the cash economy."

In acquiring land for the new town, villages and farm land, the government has acquired some forest land, thereby violating its own conservation laws. Other villagers (who too need compensation), have also been removed by the government, thus setting off a vicious cycle.

The 30-odd-km road linking present and future towns is a circuitous two-hour journey on a rugged mountain road. The Dam Authority did not succeed in buying land from villages (such as Baurori and Pipli) that had been included in the blueprint of new Tehri Town. Today, many Tehri school children have to travel a few hours daily to attend classes. And higher transportation costs have already increased the prices of milk, vegetables, and other items.

Given their situation, it is hardly surprising that the project has fueled so fierce an opposition. "What is being opposed," according to ecologist Bandyopadhyay, is "the wisdom of destroying the sustainable and perennial economy of the fertile valley agriculture and the displacement of thousands of villagers for a highly costly construction with a questionable life-span." All because of, in the words of Sunil Roy, "the undiminished drive for development without environmental consideration."

Charges the opposition: "The dam is an exercise in unconstitutional economics," and adds that to display "giganticism in the fragile eco-system of the Himalaya is nothing but to invite disaster."

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