The Tehri dam is a reality, but the promises made to the displaced locals have not been kept.
Construction of the controversial dam at Tehri in Uttaranchal is now complete, and over the summer the hydropower plant began producing electricity. Following the shutting of the dam’s Tunnel 2 in October 2005, the town of Tehri and other nearby villages are now completely submerged, and more than 100,000 people have been adversely affected, most of them uprooted and moved elsewhere. But despite being at the centre of three decades of legal wrangling, at the time of completion many of the USD 1.2 billion project’s most crucial questions passed unanswered.
The Tehri Dam Project aims to supply an enormous amount of crucially needed resources to increasingly parched and energy-starved areas of North India. Officials with the Tehri Hydro Development Corporation claim it will generate 2400 megawatts of electricity, supply 100 cubic feet of water per second to Delhi, and irrigate 270,000 hectares of land in downstream Uttar Pradesh. At the same time, apart from the old town of Tehri, the dam is directly affecting about 125 villages, completely submerging 33 of them. Nearly 5200 hectares of land are being inundated, and almost 5300 urban and 9250 rural families displaced.
Worries about the Tehri dam also exist on a much broader scale. The dam is constructed at the confluence of the Bhagirathi and Bhilangana rivers in Garhwal, and the 855-foot-high edifice – the fifth tallest dam in the world – is intended to hold back a reservoir that extends 45 km into the Bhagirathi Valley and 25 km into the Bhilangana Valley. Unfortunately, in what many national and international experts have said resembles an act of wilful ignorance, this 43 sq km lake lies directly atop an active seismic area known as the ‘central Himalayan gap’ – just 45 km from the epicentre of the 6.8-strength 1991 Uttarkashi earthquake.
Indeed, in 1991 then-Prime Minister P V Narsimha Rao remarked that the earthquake raised a significant question about the project, a contention agreed with over the past three decades by a string of officially appointed committees. In 1996, the Hanumantha Rao committee pointed out that the dam was being built in violation of the conditions that accompanied its environmental clearance. Both the S K Roy committee, set up by Indira Gandhi, and the 1990 Environmental Appraisal (Bhumla) committee also recommended that construction be halted.
Engineers from the Soviet Union, which had agreed to bankroll the project on concessional loans, subsequently noted in reviews that the dam’s site in a seismic area had not been adequately considered by the Indian planners. The International Commission on Large Dams – no great naysayer as to the construction of dams – has declared the Tehri project to be one of the most hazardous sites in the world. Such experts have repeatedly suggested that an earthquake of large magnitude could result in the bursting of the dam, which would almost immediately swamp downstream towns including Deoprayag, Rishikesh and Haridwar. An estimated 12 hours after the dam broke, the city of Meerut would be underwater.
The rehab game
Along with such catastrophic projections, a more immediate concern has been the government’s poor record on rehabilitation of affected families and communities over the past three decades of development project building. The Tehri oustees have themselves cited hundreds of examples of discrepancy between what was promised and was received, as well as a general absence of political will for rehabilitation. While the officials admit that more than 500 families are yet to be rehabilitated, those affected contend that the number of such families is over 1000. Affected families were promised employment for one adult at the time of acquiring new land, but this has not happened. Furthermore, the creation of the town of New Tehri has significantly altered the social, economic, cultural and administrative dynamics of the entire area.
Besides those recently displaced, there is also the plight of the families that were resettled in areas around Haridwar and Rishikesh a quarter-century ago, when the Tehri project began. The promised hospitals, roads, irrigation canals and link roads are still nowhere to be seen. In addition, resettled individuals have experienced the disorientation of being cut off from their traditional social fabric, which has delivered social disintegration.
The numbers impacted by this 35-year-old project run significantly higher than just those whose lands have been submerged. They include the myriad communities that, in the process, have lost link roads, schools and hospitals. But in the face of calls by local villages for new roads, bridges and ropeways, the government’s rehabilitation policy still does not clearly state anything about the fate of these ‘peripheral’ people. In the narrow-sighted drive to get the Tehri dam built, such questions have long been pushed off, to be dealt with another day. But with electricity production and drinking water now running in far off Delhi, they remain unanswered – even as settlements and infrastructure stand inundated.