Trouble in Tehri

Print edition : January 05, 2002

The closure of two tunnels of the Tehri dam in the Ganga basin heightens tensions in the Tehri valley.

A FRESH stand-off appears imminent in the Tehri valley following the closure of two crucial tunnels in the Ganga basin by the Tehri Hydro Development Corporation (THDC). The tunnels were closed after the Union Power Ministry gave the green signal. The water level in the valley has risen to 30 metres and the closure of two more tunnels, which are at a higher level, will lead to the complete submergence of Tehri town. The closure of these tunnels has been delayed owing to unresolved issues relating to rehabilitation.

A view of Tehri town, which is facing submergence.-PRAVEEN KUMAR

Since December 9, Sunderlal Bahuguna, environmentalist and founder-leader of the Chipko movement, has been leading a relay hunger-strike launched by several families to draw the government's attention to the issue of rehabilitation. Missing this time, however, are the leaders and activists of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), which attempted to give a religious twist to the issue in March (Frontline, April 27, 2001), when Bahuguna went on a fast protesting against the inadequate measures taken to rehabilitate people who would be affected by the construction of the 260.5-metre-high earth-and-rockfill dam. The construction of the dam is expected to result in the formation of a reservoir over 42 square kilometres, fully submerging Tehri town and about 20 villages and partly affecting 74 villages.

For Bahuguna, the support of "anybody and everybody" was welcome as long as it met the aspirations of the displaced people of Tehri. But the VHP's interest in the issue appeared to be short-lived. It failed to gain any significant support from the people of Tehri for its "Gangatva" campaign, which was aimed at preventing the "taming" of the Ganga, "a source of inspiration and salvation for Hindus", and it was a matter of time before it would withdraw from the agitation. The protest, after all, was hinged on an emotive issue that was divorced from the more realistic problems such as displacement and rehabilitation.

The volte-face of the Sangh Parivar has left Bahuguna and his followers in Tehri high and dry. For the Parivar, if the anti-dam posturing failed to fetch the intended result, then it was time to take a pro-project stance, especially in the context of the impending elections to the Uttranchal Assembly. Such a change of strategy was evident from the claims being made by the Uttranchal government led by the Bharatiya Janata Party. The construction of the Tehri dam, the "world's fifth and Asia's largest" dam, is an achievement, says the government. The closure of the tunnels, according to a THDC official, is a milestone in the history of the project.

Tunnels 1 and 2 of the Tehri dam.-PRAVEEN KUMAR

On December 23, the Information and Public Relations Department of the Uttaranchal government released full-page advertisements in several national dailies proclaiming the closure of the two tunnels (T3 and T4) as a "new chapter in development". The advertisement acknowledged the "able leadership" of Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, the "guidance" of Union Power Minister Suresh Prabhu, and the "constructive efforts" of Chief Minister Bhagat Singh Koshiyari. It highlighted the salient features and benefits of the project, the status of the rehabilitation measures, and so on. It said the people of Tehri had made a great and unforgettable sacrifice that had enabled the construction of the dam. "The government was dedicated to the full and proper rehabilitation of the people of Tehri town and surrounding villages and also to the development of regions beyond the dam that are affected. In the first phase of rehabilitation, 3,251 urban families and 2,583 rural families have been rehabilitated. In the second phase, 2,604 families from the villages in full submergence and 3,663 families from the villages in partial submergence will be rehabilitated," it said.

According to government figures, of the total number of 2,409 affected rural families, 301 are yet to be rehabilitated in the first phase. In the second phase, of the 6,441 affected families, 2,303 are to be rehabilitated.

The people in Tehri town had been asked to vacate their homes by the end of March when the tunnels were to be closed. It was then that the VHP entered the picture with the slogan "Ganga aviral bahati tahe" (Let the Ganga flow unhindered eternally). VHP leader Ashok Singhal announced his plan to "save the purity of the Ganga" and threatened to go on a fast against the closure of the tunnels.

The VHP called off its agitation after the Central government set up a 10-member committee headed by Human Resource Development Minister Murli Manohar Joshi to study the project and submit a report within three months. Its members included R.A. Mashelkar, Director-General, Council for Scientific and Industrial Research; C.D. Thatte, former Secretary, Ministry of Water Resources; Ravi Shankar, Director, Geological Survey of India; and Dilip Biswas, Chairman, Central Pollution Control Board. The committee was asked to look into two aspects of the project: its safety (from the seismic point of view, in the context of the earthquake in Bhuj) and its impact on the purity of the Ganga. Its terms of reference did not include the issue of rehabilitation. The people of Tehri saw through the charade. The setting up of the committee itself was seen as a move to placate the VHP and the anti-dam protesters from the valley.

The partially submerged hut of environmentalist Sunderlal Bahuguna.-PRAVEEN KUMAR

Talking to Frontline over telephone from Tehri, Sunderlal Bahuguna said that the agitators' main demand was just and fair rehabilitation. "Two acres of land is nothing without meeting the requirement of fodder, fuel and green vegetation," he said. Bahuguna also said that the THDC's claim that local manpower was being used in the project was false. According to him, mostly labourers from Bihar, Orissa and even Nepal were being used and that many of them were bonded.

A REPORT brought out in November by the South Asia Network on Dams, River and People (SANDRP) gives a clear picture of the extent of rehabilitation. According to it, the government has not met even the basic requirements of a rehabilitation process. For instance, it does not have a database on the number of people affected and their incomes and livelihood patterns. Nor does it have a comprehensive policy that takes into account all aspects of displacement, the availability of suitable land and the need to settle village communities as social entities that are intact.

There is no master plan for resettlement and rehabilitation and the project-displaced people are not involved in the rehabilitation process, the report says and points out that the current package is inadequate for people to return to their original standards of living. While the Environmental Impact Assessment report of the project estimated the number of affected people at 97,000, the THDC puts the figure at 67,500. Only a limited extent of land is available for some project-affected persons and even that is of questionable quality, the report says. In some cases the land belonged to other communities.

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