Marooned on 'man-made' islands, residents of villages near Uttarakhand's Tehri dam want to swim out of oblivion

While the Tehri dam drew praise from several quarters, those who gave up their homes to ensure the project could be a reality were pushed to the fringes.

Editor's Note: A network of 60 reporters set off across India to test the idea of development as it is experienced on the ground. Their brief: Use your mobile phone to record the impact of 120 key policy decisions on everyday life; what works, what doesn't and why; what can be done better and what should be done differently. Their findings — straight and raw from the ground — will be combined in this series, Elections on the Go, over a course of 100 days.

Read more articles from the series here

***

Tehri: The memory of Tehri’s iconic Clock Tower standing defiantly against the rising waters of the Bhagirathi river, which had engulfed most of the town by 2006, is still fresh in the minds of residents of Roulakot village in the district. “Tehri dubi ge (Tehri has sunk)” — most of the local newspapers had chosen that headline to mark the day when this part of Tehri’s glorious heritage finally went under, the residents remember.

At least 39 villages in the erstwhile capital of the princely state of Tehri Garhwal were completely submerged as the dam came into existence. The dam was approved in 1965 but work on the project started only in 1973. The highest dam in the country was built at a cost of Rs 8,000 crore and eyed a power generation capacity of 2,400 MW. The first phase of the dam was finished in 2006, the second phase in 2011 and the entire project was completed by 2012.

While the engineering marvel drew praise from several quarters, those who gave up their homes to ensure the project could be a reality were pushed to the fringes. On paper, the rehabilitation of residents of submerged villages was initiated in 1998. But this remained on paper only.

The Tehri Dam in Uttarakhand. Residents of villages near the dam have spoken out about inadequate rehabilitation measures. Varsha Singh/101Reporters

The Tehri Dam in Uttarakhand. Residents of villages near the dam have spoken out about inadequate rehabilitation measures. Varsha Singh/101Reporters

A team of the Geological Survey of India conducted a survey of 45 villages along the valleys of Bhagirathi and Bhilangana and found that these villages were sinking into the ground because of the increased water levels in the lake (by 2010, the water level recorded in Tehri lake, which spans 42 square kilometres, was 830 metres). This led to cracks appearing on the floors and walls of many houses. The team recommended rehabilitation of 415 families living in 17 villages under the Collateral Damage Policy of the state. These villages were in the danger zone and the instability of the slope increased the risks of landslides in the area. Soon after, the Uttarakhand government announced that the families would be relocated to villages in Haridwar, Rishikesh and Dehradun, a proposal challenged in the High Court by the Tehri Hydro Development Corporation Limited (THDC), which had suggested that the families be relocated in Tehri itself. The matter is still in court.

Today, families in many villages say that the Tehri dam — a symbol of development for the outside world — is for them a painful, taunting reminder of days of yore as they are today struggling for basic amenities.

Isolated and forgotten

The Hanumant Rao committee set up in 1994 for effective rehabilitation of those displaced had recommended incentives such as free drinking water, subsidised electricity, reservation in state government jobs, a ring road to link villages around the dam and a bridge over the structure to boost connectivity. Many of the suggestions of the committee have been overlooked by successive governments, with several organisations in these villages protesting time and again for the recommendations of the committee to be implemented.

The guidelines laid down by the Ministry of Power have also not been followed. Those displaced are to be provided 100 units of electricity free for 10 years. The ministry recommends that 12 percent of the power generated from a hydel project should be given for free to the state government so that revenue generated from it can be spent on displaced families. The then Union Minister of Energy Sushil Kumar Shinde had even promised to increase the total percentage of free power for the rehabilitated. Revenue generated from an additional 1 percent of the electricity from the project is to be earmarked for a Local Area Development Fund. The fund was to provide a regular stream of income generation for infrastructure and welfare schemes in the area.

An official memorandum of the central government released in 2001 had held THDC liable to arrange money for the rehabilitation of people on a need basis. But officials at the rehabilitation office in New Tehri say they have not received a penny from THDC. Executive engineer at Directorate of Rehabilitation, Tehri, Subodh Maithani says that they last received Rs 40 crore for rehabilitation two years ago. No funds were released by the state government in 2018-19.

So not only have they failed to get these incentives, residents in villages around the lake say they have also lost basic facilities such as road connectivity. While the villages are a short boat ride from New Tehri, a road journey now takes anywhere between 8 and 10 hours. A few boats have fixed hours to ferry people for free from these villages thrice a day.

Roulakot is one such village accessible by boat. Shanti Devi, one of the residents, says that the fixed timing of boats has often led to crisis in cases of medical emergencies. And everyday life in the village is a struggle too. The residents fear for their lives as the lake swells up during monsoon. To go from one village to another, they have to climb down treacherous hills in tough weather to take the boat and then once again trek to reach their destination.

Getting daily provisions has also become an ordeal for the residents who add that they do not have enough agricultural land to grow crops or vegetables and depend on the nearest market to buy produce. Dhanpat Singh Bisht, a resident of Roulakot, says that one can reach the nearest market in Koti Colony in 25 minutes by boat while it is 65 kilometres by road. It is no wonder then that the residents compare their situation to Kala Pani, an informal name for a former jail on a remote island in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.

The gram pradhan of Roulakot, Darvi Devi, says that the government had proposed a suspension bridge to provide accessibility to the village, but it has come to a naught. The 440 metre-long Dobra-Chanti bridge was approved in 2006. Despite Rs 130 crore being spent on the project touted as Asia’s longest bridge in the past few years, it is yet to see the light of day as it is caught in red-tapism. While Uttarakhand Finance Minister Prakash Pant assures that the bridge would be completed in the next financial year, the residents are unconvinced. They say that they have heard such promises several times.

A warning sign. Varsha Singh/101Reporters

A warning sign asking people to be careful around the reservoir. Varsha Singh/101Reporters

“We have even complained to the Directorate of Rehabilitation in New Tehri several times about the delay in the project, but it has fallen on deaf ears. We are being forced to live a secluded life, risking our lives on boats in the lake to reach the market and the hospital during the monsoons,” Darvi Devi says.

Mahipal Singh Negi from the Tehri Bhoomi Visthapan Sangthan says that the lake has swallowed not just lands of people but their livelihood as well. “Where are the vast pastures where people used to graze their animals? So many shops and livelihoods of traders were destroyed. People are jobless now,” he says.

The majority of the residents were dependent on farming, fishing and cattle breeding for their income. Now, the waters where people used to fish are part of the dam and one needs a license to fish. Agricultural lands have been lost along with water bodies which acted as sources of irrigation. With little forest cover and fodder for livestock, even cattle breeding is not a lucrative alternative.

Executive engineer at Directorate of Rehabilitation, Tehri, Subodh Maithani, admits that people lost their livelihood after agricultural lands were submerged, but adds that those who were capable were given jobs in THDC commensurate with their abilities.

No land for this vote bank

Negi says that the money earned through power generation should be spent on the welfare of those displaced, but this hasn’t happened. “Successive governments have ignored our cause because this is not a sizeable vote bank for them,” he says.

electiononthego2

Many of the residents say that they are mulling a boycott of elections altogether. The five Lok Sabha constituencies in Uttarakhand, including Tehri, will go to polls on 11 April. BJP state vice-president Jyoti Gairola denies that the government has neglected the residents as they are not a large vote bank. Gairola says that rehabilitation is a long process and concerns of people would be addressed in due time. Finance minister Prakash Pant adds that the government is arranging funds and is committed to carrying out the rehabilitation in a phased manner. District panchayat president, Tehri, Sona Sajwan says that the government has not forgotten those displaced by the dam but the rehabilitation process has indeed been delayed.

Tehri MLA Dhan Singh Negi insists that 106 hectares of land in Rishikesh has been earmarked for rehabilitation of these 415 families and the proposal has been sent to the state government. But at the same time, the government also continues to actively endanger the lives of the people here. Vimal Bhai from Matu Jan Sangthan, an organisation working with displaced families, says that an agreement between the state and the Centre in 2017 dictates that the water level at Tehri lake would be kept under RL 825 metres. This would stop further sinking of land in nearby villages.

However, in October 2018, the state government issued a notification to fill the lake up to a level of RL 835 metres. According to Vimal Bhai, the decision was taken to meet the requirement of water for Kumbh in Haridwar.

The residents hope that the MP elected from the Tehri constituency in the upcoming elections would be more sympathetic to their cause. On 3 March this year, with an eye on the upcoming Lok Sabha elections, the state cabinet had waived pending water bills to the tune of Rs 70 crore of 10,000 families relocated from Tehri. A new committee has been set up to study whether it would be feasible to stop charging displaced families water bills completely.

(The author is a Dehradun-based freelance writer and a member 101Reporters)


also read