A saffron twist

Published : Apr 14, 2001 00:00 IST

The Vishwa Hindu Parishad's opposition to the Tehri dam on religious grounds sidesteps the real issues involved in the matter.

THE issue of big dams has always been a matter of controversy and the Tehri dam, under construction now for nearly three decades, has had its share of disputes as well. However, the recent entry of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) in the discourse has not only obfuscated the real issues, such as the seismicity of the dam area and the rehabilitation of the displaced population, but given a religious twist and a saffron hue to the controversy.

The 260.5-metre-high earth and rockfill dam is being constructed at Tehri on the river Bhagirathi. The recent decision of the Uttaranchal government and the Tehri Hydro Development Corporation (THDC) to divert the waters of the Bhagirathi from two tunnels in accordance with their projected plans has brought the controversy centrestage. Work was to begin by the end of March and tunnels T3 and T4 were to be plugged. The residents of Old Tehri town had been informed about the decision and asked to vacate their houses by the end of the month. Once the tunnels were closed, Old Tehri and other low-lying areas would be submerged with the water level in the river rising. But that did not happen, thanks to the intervention of the VHP, the Bajrang Dal to an extent and environmentalist Sunderlal Bahuguna.

Bahuguna has opposed the construction of the dam right from the beginning. This time he has found an ally in the VHP, which has zeroed in on yet another emotive issue - maintaining the purity of the Ganga. The timing was perfect. The problems faced by the government at the Centre and the Assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh being due next year were reason enough for the revival of matters religious. The VHP of late has been trying to bring Hindutva, particularly the building of a Ram Mandir at Ayodhya, centrestage. VHP leader Ashok Singhal has added one more word to the Hindutva terminology - Gangatva (Frontline, February 16, 2001).

IN typical VHP-style agitational tactics, Singhal on March 26 declared his intention to go on an indefinite fast from the month-end, should the shutters be lowered. Devotees of the Ganga were exhorted to reach Tehri by March 31 in order to abort the work. The VHP claims that its interest in protecting the purity of the Ganga dates back to the early 1990s, but it is evident that its current strident tone and overt activism has other aims. Arguing that the reservoir, when constructed, would restrict free flow in the Ganga, the VHP has floated the Ganga Raksha Samiti to protect the "sacredness and purity" of the river. The VHP's resistance to the dam is thus entirely on religious grounds.

Singhal did not have to go on fast as planned as the Union government set up a committee headed by Union Human Resource Development Minister Murli Manohar Joshi to review the project. The committee, comprising experts as well as religious figures, is expected to give its report by April 21. But the VHP's tactics failed to evoke much support from the people of Tehri, who were nonplussed by the entry of Singhal and his supporters. Angry shopowners in the main market area wondered why Singhal had not spoken a word about their demand for proper and fair rehabilitation.

No sant from Hard-war joined Singhal in Tehri on the day of his announced fast or echoed the VHP's sentiments. At a meeting the VHP organised on March 30, the absence of the 100-odd sants that Singhal had reportedly promised to bring to Tehri did not go unnoticed. A local journalist who asked about the missing sants was heckled by VHP supporters.

Talking to Frontline, Sunderlal Bahuguna, whose Ganga Kutir adjacent to the Bhagirathi bridge will be the first to go under when the water level rises, said the fight was for the survival of the hill people. He said people needed water for their survival. Drinking water was a major problem in the area and schemes for the erection of tubewells were abandoned as work on the dam got priority. He was worried about the submergence of 42 sq km of agricultural land and said that no amount of money could compensate adequately those who stand to lose their land.

Bahuguna said the Ganga was pure only up to Rishikesh. He could not understand why the government was putting in so much effort to clean the river when the dam would do the exact opposite by obstructing the river's natural flow. "Our first and last point is that water is the last of the resources left for us. We don't have jangal (forests) or jameen (land) any longer," he said.

Bahuguna argued that the new Tehri township stood on a slope unlike the existing township and the rehabilitation process had divided families and destroyed community relations and links among villages. Those who had left the hills and settled in Hardwar or near Dehra Dun felt insecure in more than one way. Only one-tenth of the displaced population had been rehabilitated, he said. According to Bahuguna, the protesters led by him had demanded the afforestation of the entire area with food, fodder and fruit-yielding trees that would help stabilise the flow of the river.

After the Gujarat earthquake, the seismicity of the Tehri dam area has come under scrutiny, though issues such as those related to its location in a border State are also being raised by the opponents of the dam.

The VHP's role would have been superfluous if the local population had chosen to rise in revolt against the dam well in time. In fact, the local resistance has slowly withered over the years. A vocal section among the protesters (barring Bahuguna and his team) felt that the rehabilitation package had made good their possible losses. Some others were reconciled to the inevitability of the dam and the poor hillfolk who in any event had little to lose remained silent.

Bahuguna said the issue of communalism had relevance only in politics. It is significant that he met Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee along with VHP leaders in February to seek his intervention to get the dam proposal reviewed. He said that he met leaders of other political parties as well but only the VHP came out in full support of the cause.

Singhal has declared his intention to go on fast for an indefinite period from April 12 if the work on the dam continued. The work had slowed down as a group of protesters were blocking the entry of trucks carrying equipment.

Jagdamba Raturi, who is associated with the anti-dam protest, said that none of the people displaced by the project had got land for land. Some were given cash and others were compensated only for their loss of homes. Local people this correspondent met were upset over the fact that they had not been allotted cultivable land. Sameer Hathaudi, sitting in protest with many women at the dam site, said that all of them wanted to be relocated as a village and not as individuals. Not even 10 per cent of the local people had been employed on dam work and a substantial number of workers had been brought from other places.

Saroj Vyas from Malidewal, one of the many villages to be submerged, said that different rates of compensation were paid so as to create divisions among those who had lost their land. "If they don't give us land for land, we won't let them work," she said. The rehabilitation department of the State government is located in New Tehri town up in the hills.

IN the Old Tehri town which is the convergence point for several villages, life continues as before. But residents and people from nearby villages were angry over the deadline for the closure of the tunnels. Some 100-odd villages would get cut off when the town is submerged. There was no bridge or road to connect these places with any supply centre of goods. Apart from housing various institutions, Old Tehri town is the main market hub for the adjoining blocks in Tehri district. Not only would economic activity come to a standstill but supplies, medical care and transport would be affected.

M.S. Pundeer, who was running a roadside restaurant, said that the space allotted in the new township was inadequate. Himself a tenant, he had lived in Old Tehri for 30 years. He felt that the rehabilitation had not been in keeping with the needs of the people. He was not against the dam, but felt that the policies of the THDC were "not good". The new town, which was 32 km away from the old one, was not attractive enough for people to shift there.

None of the affected people seemed to be interested in moving to New Tehri as it is cut off from their workplace or village, said Birendra Singh Rawat, a practising advocate. He said that the creation of Uttaranchal had made little difference to them. The average village resident struggled to make ends meet from small and largely unproductive plots of land. Rawat dismissed the VHP's move as a political stunt. He said Singhal had not met the local people. Vijay Kumar, another local citizen, said that at the public meeting Singhal did not encourage questions from anybody and reacted harshly to uncomfortable queries.

This correspondent visited the new town on a Sunday. There were hardly any people around. Neat concrete houses had come up on the slopes, but these were not perceived as a pressing need for the hillfolk. For them livelihood questions are more important than having a concrete roof over their heads.

The picturesque town, which has the trappings of a mini-Mussourie, remains empty save government and THDC employees. In fact, it was ironical that even for the creation of the new concrete town, three villages had to be uprooted and located elsewhere.

At the THDC office in town, there was concern regarding the progress of work on the dam. Senior manager P.P.S. Mann told Frontline that unnecessary panic was created by the State government's announcement of the closure of the tunnels. He said that before the reservoir would fill up, the spillway and the steeling basin had to be completed. It was for this purpose that water had to be diverted from tunnels T3 and T4 through tunnels T1 and T2. There were no plans to build the reservoir. The steeling basin needed to be dried, excavated and cemented and the entire operation would take 15 months.

The ideal period to prepare the steeling basin would be March-April. It would be impossible to plug the tunnels in May-June as the discharge levels would be high in the river.

The project envisages the generation of 2,400 megawatts of electricity. Other targets include provision of some 300 cusecs of drinking water to Delhi benefiting a population of 40 lakhs and an additional 200 cusecs of drinking water to Uttar Pradesh. Mann admitted that after the closure of T3 it would be only a matter of hours before the lower parts that included Tehri town, its bus stand and the bridge were submerged. THDC officials said the State government's orders were needed to close the tunnels as it concerned "Tehri town". The entire town would have to be vacated before the monsoon. According to figures given by the THDC, the total affected area would be 5,236 acres (2,100 hectares).

Some 109 villages in Tehri and 16 villages in Koteshwar have been directly and indirectly affected by the dam work. Two villages in Koteshwar and 35 villages in Tehri will be fully submerged. According to the THDC, Phase I of rural rehabilitation has been nearly completed with 98 per cent of the families having been paid compensation and rehabilitated. In Phase II, 435 of the 2,845 affected families have been rehabilitated and land is being acquired for the sake of the remaining families in Dehra Dun and Hardwar.

The multi-purpose Tehri hydro project, conceived in 1969, has still a long way to go before completion. There are many unresolved questions, the most important among them being the skewed benefits of development.

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