The power of corporate greed in Himachal

baspa2himachal_pradesh.jpgHydro-electric power projects of private firms in Himachal Pradesh are being pushed by local officers who have made it clear to the people that they have vested interest in these projects. Officers of the state government have tried to influence local activists to support projects that would destroy the livelihoods of local villagers. Revenue officials are openly canvassing for these projects collecting signatures from villagers for approval. Where popular opposition is strong an environment of fear is being created by the local Police. Many Village Council [GP, or Village Councils] the chiefs [called Pradhans] are after petty contracts and decisions taken by the Gram Sabha [Village general body] are being overturned which is unconstitutional. This not only raises questions of conflict of interest, but given the scale of hydro-electric projects in this ecologically sensitive state, raises serious questions of long term sustainability of the Himalayas as a region of bio-diversity, carbon sink and a region that moderates global climate.

In Himalayan region livelihoods are inextricably linked with eco systems. Damage this complex system and livelihoods are fundamentally affected causing immense hardship to women and loss of income to households.

Near Sahoo village, about 25 kilometers from Chamba district town [Latitude 32.559757 and Longitude 76.115382; Google earth], two micro hydel projects, Hul-I [4.5 mega watt, or MW] and II, were approved by the Himachal Government. The two promoting firms are M/S Astha Projects Pvt. Ltd. [Hul-I] and M/s First Hydro Generation Pvt. Ltd. [Hul-II], both registered in Delhi. One project is located off Jadera Village Council [GP] and another near Shillaghat GP. Since Environmental Impact Assessment [EIA] has been done away with for below 50 MW projects, neither the government nor private firms are concerned with impact on the environment and livelihoods. Horrific consequences of this lack of application of mind are emerging as the events in Chamba show.

In order to build Hul-I hydel project, the project authorities [PA] have planned to construct a 7 kilometer channel through a dense primary forests at Lohil, Batat, Dilla, Ghondh and Thanoti habitations. Construction will destroy the forests painstakingly developed into a people’s sanctuary by local villagers. Similarly, Hul-II, which will utilize the water coming from Hul-I, will also need a channel to the power house and further destroy about 5 kilometers of forested areas in its path.

Adverse impact of the projects

The firm executing Hul-1 has already cut 30 mature oak and cedar trees. It is estimated that this project alone will destroy 7 kms x 20 metres swath of pristine forest to lay its channel from weir to power house. This will adversely impact forest, wildlife, bio-diversity and sustainability of micro watershed that sustain local livelihoods;

Diversion of water would destroy local weirs, called ‘Kuhls’, that feed irrigation channels that households use for washing cattle and irrigation and will destroy small farms. The ‘Kuhl’ also runs the Gharat [water mills];

The Forest Department has allocated grazing lands for setting up generation and ancillary facilities. It gave its no-objection certificate without conferring with local people. Grazing lands are village commons. Access to grazing lands [ghasni] is an established right of Himalayan communities and that right has been unilaterally usurped by the Forest Department to favour private firms.

Employees and outside labour used in these projects are known to destroy forest and wildlife through illegal felling and hunting. Such cases are legion in Chamba alone. These forests have barking dear, bear, otter and over 200 varieties of birds. This sort of mischief is widespread all over Himachal Pradesh including luring rural girls into prostitution;

Twenty years ago, a water supply system was constructed in these parts that supplies drinking water to the city of Chamba. If the project is executed in its current form, the water supply to the district town will suffer. For this reason even townsfolk are vehemently opposed to the projects.

An environment of fear is being created by local officials. One activist was hauled up by the local Police, without any charges, that led to serious confrontation between environmental activists and the Police. Worst, the Police have publicly used derogatory language with well known activists that have been widely condemned.

Chamba is one of the 50 poorest districts of India. It was not so earlier. But the 1100 MW of power projects, that contributes Rs 22,000 million to the Government coffer every year, has destroyed the livelihoods of local people. The smaller power projects will further destroy small farmers who eke out a living from a mean holding of 0.6 hectare.

Three local newspapers [Punjab Kesari, Amar Ujala and Divya Himachal] have extensively documented and reported these events. It is to their credit that every day these issues are being covered.

There are four or five similar projects planned over small tributaries of Sal and Hul rivers, adding up to 19 MW. Each of these units may create 4-5 lowly paid jobs for the local people, say about 25 in all, but will actually cause massive ecological damage that would render about 7,000 people destitute: roughly 1400-1750 persons per project. That impact has perhaps not entered into the calculations of the state government.

In the Himalayas, Gharat is an important household asset costing about Rs 70-90,000 each, about US$ 1500 to 2000. There are 400,000 gharats in the Himalayan region. They are still used to mill cereals like wheat and corn. When water is diverted, these gharats will become dead assets. Just one small project Hul-1 will divert enough water to render 7-8 Gharats redundant and destroy the economy of four villages.

People’s opposition

On 16th January a rally of the four affected Village Councils was taken out to oppose the projects in which common citizens of the city of Chamba also participated. The same day information was sent to the Chief Minister of Himachal Pradesh. The rally led to the formation of Save Sal Valley Movement within a wider movement called Save Himalaya Movement, which is being coordinated by Himalaya Policy Campaign Committee [HPCC], a trans-Himalayan people’s movement for protecting the eco-systems and livelihoods of this vital region.

About two months ago, the women of Hindu Gaddi and Muslim Gujjar communities snatched the tools and implements of construction workers who were working on the power channel. They chased them out of the villages.

Many affected Village Councils had passed resolution in their respective Gram Sabha to stop these projects. [For instance, Baror, Jadera, Shillagharat, etc.] It is shocking that the administration has not even once responded to their appeals.

The District Council has consistently opposed the project; it has passed resolutions four times opposing the projects in the past. Ratan Chand representing the affected Jadera Ward had placed five resolutions, including declaring the affected valleys as conservation area, which was passed by overwhelming majority.

On 7th March, 2007, concerns were raised in the Vidhan Sabha [Question Number 3996] and all members of the assembly from Chamba district opposed the projects eventually leading up to talk of setting up a review committee. The people want active participation in this review committee.

Fearing backlash, Harsh Mahajan, Minister of Animal Husbandry, on 13th March appealed to Vidya Stokes, the Power Minister, to reconsider the approvals given to these firms, reminding her that she herself had assured the assembly that she would constitute a committee to investigate the adverse impact on local environment and livelihoods and submit its report to the government. [3] That committee had not been constituted as on 17th April, 2007. Moreover, the people now want representation in whatever committee is formed, indicating that they do not trust the government.

Destruction of livelihoods without displacement

Although no person has been displaced due to these projects, the sustainability of the livelihood of about 7000 persons is in jeopardy because of these ‘small projects,’ also known as small hydro projects [SHP].

The life and livelihoods of mountain people is inextricably linked with small streams and rivulets. It is on these streams that Kuhls and gharats are constructed. These streams are also the only source of drinking water. Any diversion of water would destroy their irrigation channels, source of drinking water, water for animals, and water for running gharats. It should be noted that peoples’ dependence on large rivers is negligible; it is the small streams that are indispensable to mountain communities. And that resource is being sequestered in micro hydels.

Mountains act as water table; they hold enormous quantity of water provided the forest cover is maintained and local eco-system is not disturbed. It is this water that seeps through small channels and forms rivulets and eventually large streams and rivers. The broad leaf trees provide regular supply of fodder. Trees like Maha-Neem, a gift of nature, produce fruits that strengthen the immune system of birds that feed on them. Alpine pastures in these parts are rich in micro-nutrients that maintain the health of cattle and draught animals. It is for this reason that milk and milk products of Gujjars and Gaddies are in great demand; they are pure and nutritious.

In fact the a small power projects” are causing far greater damage to local eco-systems than planners have ever contemplated. Too many small projects have been contracted out and they would all expropriate community assets of populated villages, leading to staggering loss of livelihoods.

Most importantly, in the Himalayas the forests are a source of nutrition [fruits], cash income [medicinal and aromatic herbs], and provide building materials [through acknowledged timber distribution rights, or TD rights]. That’s why mountain people love their forests. Destroy the forests and you deprive the people of cash income and nutrition. They cut the trees when required, but they also plant the trees for future generations.

Let me make it clear that I am no romantic activist. For me the majesty of the Himalaya is far greater than those of law courts or any Constitution or currency notes for reasons discussed below.

Behaviour of administration and the Police

Around this time [April 13-17, 2007] an official meeting took place near Jadera village in which a few activists were also present. Senior Ministers, DC and other officials were present and so was the local Sub Divisional Magistrate [SDM]. The SDM did the most unimaginable thing: he offered Rs 3 to 3.5 million [US$66,000 to 77,000] to the members of HPCC to drop their opposition to power projects. In full view of the public, the SDM offered the bribe and also requested that part of the money be given to Ratan Chand. A government officer bribing activists with a confidence that not even the most hardened criminal would commit a crime?

Ratan Chand is a well known environmentalist of Himachal Pradesh and a member of Chamba District Council. He was responsible for implementing Sahoo Watershed project [1998-2003] that has turned once water deficit region into water surplus one, with dense crown cover and a thriving wild life. I had studied this model watershed project [2001] and wrote a case history on the participatory systems and processes through which Ratan Chand turned Sahoo and neighbouring villages into sustainable and food secure region. The Chetna Kendra [Awareness Centre] he set up, with some government fund, is today a centre for eco tourism and a place where children learn the importance of conservation in the life of mountain communities.

Most shameful was the behaviour of the local Police officer. Jassa Ram, a local anti-dam activist, was picked up on 15th April on a trumped up charge of theft. When senior members of HPCC reached the police station, the Inspector of City police Station [Chamba] told them that Ratan Chand is anti-development, which was an understated warning that the police will ensure development at any cost.

The insensitivity of some officials and the gross behaviour of the police inspector angered the members of HPCC, the local people, and the media. Kulbushan Upmanyu [founder of Chipko movement in Himachal Pradesh] Guman Singh, Dev Badrotra, Manu Sharma, Man Singh [Up-pradhan of Jadera Panchayat], could take it no more. Not only they took the Police Officers to task in the Police Station itself, they took it upon themselves to explain what development is all about. Later, a meeting was called at the office of the DC. The DC ordered an inquiry.

The above incidence reveals exposes a dangerous trend: government officers are actually working as agents of private companies, misusing their official position. There is also an emerging trend in Himachal Pradesh of retired government officials taking up senior management positions in power utility companies. In order to secure a comfortable job after retirement, many officers are misusing their present official position which is unethical and unprofessional and should be universally condemned. The extent of this malaise is being probed by HPCC. It should be probed throughout India and action taken.

Is Himachal Pradesh an environmental disaster area?

Not yet, but is fast sliding into one. The state government has approved about 115 medium and large and 206 small [under 5MW capacity] hydro-electric projects. More are in the pipeline. Some of the “medium” projects are 300 to 400 MW, and there are several 1000 MW projects under execution, the largest being Parbati [2200 MW] on Beas river for which ten square kilometers of land within the Great Himalayan National Park [GHNP] was allotted to the project authorities in utter violation of park area laws in 2002 despite massive protest by local people. In Park Areas no construction is allowed. All conservation acts have been thrown into the waste bin to accommodate power projects.

These projects are to be located on five river basins: Ravi, Chenab, Satluj, Yamuna and Beas. For small projects below 50MW capacity the provision of Environmental Impact Assessment has been waived. There is no requirement for conducting initial socio-economic or a baseline, assessment to assess the impact on livelihoods of local people due to these projects. So, there is absolutely no database to compare before and after livelihood and environmental situations. This legal lacuna is being exploited to the hilt by promoters of small power projects.

The plan is to exploit the estimated 20,386 MW, which is about 24% of India’s total estimated hydro-electric potential. 93 small projects have been canceled for various reasons, a key reason appears to be opposition of local people. Not once the Government has encouraged community based institutions or cooperatives to set up small hydro power projects, which many are capable of doing. Instead, businessmen from all over India are being invited who bribe the local officials to protect their interests.

Key issues

These trends pose grave threats to the people and the Himalayan eco systems and raise several basic questions.

First, loss of physical assets like land and building can be compensated but when lands have not been acquired but people’s livelihoods are affected to the extent of rendering them destitute, is there any way of compensating them? The law is silent on this and that legal loophole is being exploited to the hilt by small hydel project authorities.

Second, are we, the tax payers of India, paying public servants [salary, facilities and benefits they enjoy] for them to serve the interest of private firms without any concern for people’s rights and interest? Influential local officers openly canvassing the people to accept projects destructive of livelihoods and eco systems, instead of maintaining strict neutrality as government servants must do? When saam and daam fails, Janta ko danda maro?

Third, should we allow private companies to expropriate community assets [water and forests] and village commons [grazing lands]? Can Government Departments issue “no-objection” certificate to private firms permitting them to pillage critical community assets? The law is again silent on this.

Fourth, do corporations have primacy over community rights? Does the Constitution of India say that? If the Constitution is silent, what remedies are available to the people, given the fact that it is the sum total of micro ecological systems that form the Great Himalaya that moderates global climate as much as it ensures local livelihoods?

And finally, let us place the Chamba event in broader political context. In Nandigram the local police in collusion with local political goons, shot at unarmed people killing at least 12, grievously injuring over 200 and raped 2 women opposed to the private project of an Indonesian company. Sangrur village has been in the news because small farmers do not want to give up their farms to Tata’s small car project. In many Orissa villages the police and local administration are harassing local villagers to leave because their lands have been forcibly acquired for POSCO [a Korean firm]. Thousands of acres of lands are being forcibly acquired, or have been acquired, and handed over to property developers in the planned 500 SEZs that would displace millions of farmers. All these events unequivocally establish that the interests of corporations have now become paramount. People do not matter. People’s rights do not matter. Community rights do not matter. Community assets can be expropriated at will. The state is trampling on human rights in collusion with private firms.

When the whole world is facing a serious threat from climate change, large parts of Himalayan region are being handed over to corporations who have shown utter disregard for conservation. Not if but when Himalayan eco-systems collapse because of these power projects, the rural economy of entire Indus and Gangetic plains will collapse, leading to famine and hunger on a scale that can’t even be imagined. Warning signs are all over and Government knows about these warning signs. Governments are extremely well briefed, let there be no doubt about that. Therefore, a nagging question keeps cropping up, ‘there is a method in all this madness?’ Is the Government deliberately marginalizing, pauperizing and frequently brutalizing the ordinary people, everywhere? All evidences indicate that this is actually so.

That raises another uncomfortable question: Are we becoming a fascistic state? In fact, the way we are going we are almost there. That leaves us little political space for dialogue. I believe that time is now ripe for a decisive action by the civil society through a consensus on an alternative model of development and rewrite the Constitution.

Copyright Arun Shrivastava

Arun Shrivastava is a management consultant. He lives in Delhi and can be contacted at: arun1951 [at] yahoo[dot]com

10 Comments

  • I know a few bits about the Sahoo Nala in Chamba. Way Back in 1988, Dr Narang of Zoological Survey of India conducted a Western Tragopan (WT) survey and found this IUCN listed Red Data Book bird on the site. The WT is a pheasant of primeval forests and found in the undergrowth of western Himalayan temperate forests between 2400 and 3500 meters altitude. The bird does not tolerate any disturbance and is the first one to disappear from the area because of the biotic pressures. That is how this is known as one of the important indicators of the health of a primary forest. The WT in Chamba is known as Fulgar among the local people. It is sad that there is no environmental clearance for projects below 50 MW. However, the civil society can bring pressures and save the forests from the clutches of these hydro power projects.

  • It is very important to highlight these issues otherwise these crimes will pass unnoticed and unchallenged. While, development is important, it needs to be sustainable and in the long-term interests of all affected people. Corporations are notoriously lax in self-regulation. And the government is usally in cahoots with them. In such an environment it falls upon civic-minded citizens and organizations to remove the veil of secrecy and unmask the criminals who are motivated by greed and avarice.

  • Let down by the political leadership, who have failed to protect the rich water resources of the state, what is happening in Himachal Pradesh is nothing short of an ecological disaster.

    Most rivers have been sold out piece meal for hydro-generation. The Government continues to live beyond its means and to meet expanding expenditure it resorts to parting with its hydro potential sites. Some on upfront money basis, others on royalty basis to the state sector.

    Other than that scenic surroundings have been let out to Cement industry, which have already played havoc where ever a cement plant has come up. The present Virbhadra Singh let congress government in four years has given four such sites, two to Jaypee Industries, one to India Cements and the fourth to French conglomerate Lafarge.

    Neither of the two political parties, namely Congress or the Bhartiya Janta Party (BJP) is interested in wresting the situation. The people have been left defenseless.

    What is ironic, is that even the Judiciary has not stepped in to save precious Himalayan ecology up for sale and rape, to the highest bidder.

    Quick money is all that the corrupt elements within the system aspire for. God bless the Land of the Gods.

  • Hi, I read your article on Himachal Pradesh. Its very intresting and informative.These kind of articles help us to know more about our country. Also check out some articles by real travellerswhich i think you will find useful.

  • No one is REALLY CONCERNED about environmental impact of hydel power projects or for the matter any other work until and unless one is not directly affected.

    The State Govt. recently advertised as you have mentioned about 150 small hydel projects for allotment to private sector and in which there is reservation for projects upto 2 MW to Himachalis and preference for projects of other capacities to Himachalis.

    Now if the Bona fide Himachalis would really be concerned about environmental impact of projects then the state government would not have received about 1200 application from bona fide Himachalis for allotment and implementation of such projects.

    It is same situation like “if I have a project then all is well” and “if an outsider is implementing a project then there is an issue about environmental concern and other local problems”.

    Secondly even the State Government is a Party to what I would call “Small Hydel Power Projects Allotment SCAM”. It had lastly allotted about 70 Small Hydel Project and out of which about 30 projects to “Himachalis” Illegally and Arbitrarily. Since the applications for allotment were pending since the year 2004-2005 and imore than 225
    applications were received, it arbitrarily applied the reservation clause under the new power policy to even applications which were pending for the last 2-3 years giving undue benefit to “Bonafide Himachalis” thereby allotting them around 30 projects arbitrarily and
    illegally. That time there is “NO CONCERN” ? The New Power Policy and reservation to Himachali is thus applied to applications which were pending for allotment much prior to any such policy, thereby giving undue benefit to 30 Himachalis project. The proximity of these allottees with the high ups in political circles is being cited as one of the reason.

    And moreover the Small Hydel Projects which were recently advertised by the State Govt are the same Illegally rejected applications and the projects being identified by various other IPP’s out of the above 225
    applications.

    How does the Govt. acquired the right to advertise the said projects terming them as their own, where in fact the same were identified and applied by various IPP’s for allotment.

    If the Govt. and locals are really concerned about Environmental Impact, then no project should be alloted to Himachalis, and all the Small Hydel Projects which have not come into construction be scrapped and instead, one large project of say 100-300 MW would serve the purpose even if all such small hydel projects are scrapped!

    If you have the real courage to come out against the Govt and the Himachali Beneficiaries, then atleast file a writ against the present allotment of 70 small hydel projects, out of which 30 were allotted to Himachalis, with just one point

    How can the Govt apply a new policy which was not even notified, to projects for which applications were received prior to existence of such policy?

    At least you would be saving the environmental impact of these 70 projects!

    Thanks,

    Vishal Singal

    Singal Hydel Consulting SHC
    “Power House” # 892, Sector 12
    Panchkula 134 112, HRY INDIA
    Tel +91 9888188891, 9888288892
    E-Mail: singalhy…@yahoo.com
    Web: http://www.singal.in
    [Tapping the Power of the Himalayas]

  • Thanks for educative FACTS . Why can´s the Govt of HP Scarp all Hydr-Electric projects and concentarte of other methods of Power productions ? All the outsider pvt firms or even himachalis who are REALLY keen for the Power production should venture out to the upper ranges of himalayas and set up Cement plants or power production through Wind energy but at uppre himalayas where living condtions are tough. Set up WIND ENERGY parks at areas beyound Routang pass and see how many will come ? These JOKERS wnat to set up industries and power projects in the comfortable localitie and pullute the Kuhls and drain out our lovely riversand destry the BEAUTY of NATURE alongwith bringing other ill effects as listed in the artcles

    Invite tenders ONLY to set up POWER PLANTS at greater hights of himalaya and see how Himalaya treats or ill treats these JOKERS !!!!!

    Regards

    KAMAL

  • Thanks for all the good words about this article. As some have pointed out, what can anyone do when the enemy is within!
    It is not only the Government and their officers. Please remember that our own home-grown activists, some NOT all, are as much responsible for for this..because they believe in “compromise.’ hey are right there in Himachal. How could the people ever fight a war when the Foxes are are guarding the hen?
    Arun Shrivastava

  • Dear Mr. Arun Shrivastava,

    I am glad you’ve put in a great deal of efforts in putting together this article. However, I am saddened that your hard work and research has only yield negative aspect of Small Hydro Projects.

    Climate change is a global phenomenon, and the biggest contributors to Green House emmission are the Developed Countries. Rapid melting of Arctic Glacier is not because of Himachal coming up with SHP projects, but the Global industrialization. Has any environmentalist ever walked from their home to the international event fearing he would contribute to Carbon Emission or eaten raw food thinking buring gas is not emission free either??

    My friend, the problem does not end with you or I crying wolves, or selling the heard fearing of loosing sheep to the predators !! It would be wise to engage sheep dogs to keep the wolves at bay and continue making a living with the heard.

    If we are to conduct a field study of deforestation in Himachal in the last 30 years, you will find that it is to make room for cultivation to meed the growing demand. Hydro Projects only account to a nominal percentage of it.

    So, what I feel would be wise is to form a support group to work with all the parties concerned (Governement/Project Developer/Local Community) and find a way to mutually benefit everyone, without compromising on environment. And make sure that the money collected by the Government for LADA or compulsary aforestation is well spent within the affected are and for the said purpose only.

  • Very well researched and well documented article describing the agony of Himalayan Badlands……………………….very sad to learn such things……………

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