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ENVIRONMENT

Vanishing village victim of hydro electric power project

Print edition : Feb 25, 2022 T+T-
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The Laxmi Narayan temple at Haat village in Uttarakhand’s Chamoli district which is believed to have been built by Adi Shankaracharya.

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Haat village before the demolition of houses. The village was not in any danger of submersion, but it sat on the site chosen for the dumping of the debris generated from the construction of the hydro electric project.

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Haat village after the demolition of houses. The village was not in any danger of submersion, but it sat on the site chosen for the dumping of the debris generated from the construction of the hydro electric project.

A tiny village in Uttarakhand’s Chamoli district is getting wiped out because it has been chosen as the site for dumping debris generated by work on the Vishnugad Pipalkoti Hydro Electric Power Project on the Alaknanda river.

Reckless blasting of hills, digging of tunnels, diversion of rivers for construction of dams to generate hydroelectric power, felling of trees and irresponsible dumping of muck has been playing havoc in Uttarakhand. The tiny hill State has been ravaged many times by massive landslides and flash floods. Experts acknowledge that large-scale construction activities for big hydel power projects are mainly responsible for these tragedies. The 2013 Kedarnath disaster and last year’s flash flood in Rishi Ganga river valley, which completely washed away the Rishi Ganga hydel power project, are too recent to be forgotten. Not only have human lives been lost, thousands of crores of public money have literally gone down the drain as governments mindlessly pursue reckless construction of dams, disregarding environmental concerns.

Yet another human-made tragedy is unfolding now at Haat village in Uttarakhand’s Chamoli district. The village traces its origin to Adi Shankaracharya, who is believed to have established the Laxmi Narayan temple there. In 2008-09, it was decided to acquire all the land in the village for the 444 MW Vishnugad Pipalkoti Hydro Electric Power Project to be executed by THDC India Ltd on the Alaknanda river in the Yamuna River basin. (The project was approved in 2008-09 at an estimated cost of Rs.2,491.58 crore. As work kept getting delayed because of issues relating to land acquisition, the cost escalated to Rs.3,860.35 crore as on July 31, 2021. It is expected to be completed by December 2024.)

The village was not in the doob (the area to be submerged) area; it was acquired for storage of construction material and dumping of muck. Now it is getting practically buried under the muck generated from the ongoing construction work for the project. The village residents who resisted attempts to make them accept compensation and move out have been forcefully evacuated. Houses have been demolished and forests have been flattened. What was until recently a bustling, breathing, lively village is fast turning into a graveyard.

The tiny village, which is also called “ noni kashi ” (chhoti, or little, Kashi), had only 140 households. The families claim to be descendants of Gaur Brahmin priests whom Adi Shankaracharya had invited from Bengal to settle there and perform the puja at the Laxmi Narayan temple. Even the Archaeological Survey of India has noted that the temple could date back to the ninth or tenth century. The village residents believe Adi Shankaracharya himself built the temple in the eighth century. They claim to have ancient manuscripts inscribed on tamrapatra (copper plates) to support their claim.

The villagers were given lucrative offers of jobs in the company and good compensation money for their land. A total of 112 households accepted the offer and moved out, relocating to various parts of the State. Of the 28 who were left, 12 households later accepted the THDC offer and shifted out. Only 16 families refused to leave; among them were the priests of the Laxmi Narayan temple. In September last year, they were forcibly removed and their houses were bulldozed.

Rajendra Hatwal, village pradhan, who is spearheading the campaign to reclaim the village, said: “We want our village back. We want our land, our temples, our houses, our culture, our social life back.” He added that those who did not move out were initially assured that “we could stay in the village and continue doing our work at the temple”. But they were evicted in September last year by “the company people” and their homes were flattened.

Since then, the evicted residents have been running from pillar to post, approaching their local MLA, MP, the Chief Minister, and whoever else they thought could help. “Nothing has worked. Every time we are told that they will look into it, but nothing has worked,” Rajendra Hatwal said. Finally, they decided to approach the World Bank, which is funding the project. They made a presentation to the World Bank inspection panel, a four-member independent body headed by Ramanie Kunanayagam, on January 20. According to Rajendra Hatwal, the panel gave them a patient hearing and have assured them that action will be taken after looking at all aspects.

The aggrieved residents feel that not just THDC, but the State and Central governments are indifferent to their woes and appear to be obsessed with large run-of-the-river hydel power projects in this ecologically fragile area. THDC, meanwhile, is smug in the knowledge that most of the residents have accepted their compensation offer and moved out.

R.N. Singh, executive director of the project, said: “We followed all due processes: offered the best compensation package, gave them good jobs, helped them in their rehabilitation. When work of such huge dimensions happens, a few elements who try to arm-twist, blackmail or put undue pressure, are bound to be there. I have no hesitation in saying that 99 per cent of the local population is with us.”

According to him, Government of India norms were followed in working out compensation packages and making environmental impact assessments. He added that the work would be completed in scheduled time by December 2024.

He does not believe Adi Shankaracharya built the Laxmi Narayan temple. But he admits it is an ancient temple; THDC has involved the Archaeological Survey of India in its maintenance and upkeep. He asserted that the temple faced no risk of damage from the dumping of muck. “Our project-related work is not going to affect the temple in any way. We know it is an old temple and that is why we have taken care to protect it,” he said.

But for the people who have been displaced, it is not only about the temple. It is about losing their way of life. Rajendra Hatwal said: “Here in the village we had a collective social life which has been torn apart now. Since we are not living there, not only the main temple, smaller temples and deities, which are an integral part of our culture, are now lying abandoned, uncared for. Now we realise that moving out of the village was a mistake. We want our life in the village back. The worst part is that THDC concealed the fact about the ancient nature of this village or the temple, and misled the World Bank.”

According to the environmental activist Hemant Dhyani, the real issue is misplaced priorities. He said it was ridiculous that a vibrant and ancient culture was being destroyed just because THDC wanted a place for dumping its garbage.

He said: “It is an ancient village; it traces its origin to Adi Shankaracharya. It is part of our rich culture and heritage. Should we not try and protect this culture? Should we allow this rich culture to be buried under garbage?”

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