- Thousands of hectares of forest land have been diverted and millions of forest trees have been felled in Jammu and Kashmir for the construction of various hydropower projects in 15 years.
- Despite the Forest Rights Act 2006 providing protection to the tribal population from displacement from forest areas, tribal people in Jammu and Kashmir are being deprived of their rights.
- Despite the generation of hydropower in the state, it ends up buying power from other parts of the country. A significant part of this is lost in transmission, and locals fail to get regular power.
- The 800-megawatts Bursar hydropower project, located within 10 kilometres of the boundary of Kishtwar High Altitude National Park (KHANP) was recently recommended for environmental clearance without even a site visit by a committee of the expert panel of the environment ministry.
In the past few months, some videos that showed the demolition of houses of tribal people in south Kashmir’s forests were widely circulated and created fear among nomadic families who have been issued notices for illegally occupying the forest land. This is despite The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006 being in force in the state which provides protection to forest dwellers against forced displacement and ensures the rights of tribals over water resources and non-timber forest products.
The FRA 2006 is applicable to Jammu and Kashmir since October 2019, but it is still to be implemented. Local activists and environmentalists note that despite the law, tribal people are being evicted on the pretext of them encroaching the forest land.
The Jammu and Kashmir administration has claimed that it will implement the FRA 2006, but it has not specified what will happen to the tribal families which have been evicted in Jammu, Kathua, Anantnag and other districts so far.
“If the government says the FRA law will be implemented, then what was the need to demolish hutments of tribal people in the freezing winter? And why are notices of illegal occupation still being sent to tribal people?” questioned Raja Muzaffar, a Kashmir-based Right to Information (RTI) and environmental activist.
The population of tribal people of Jammu and Kashmir is 1.4 million (about 12 percent of the region’s total population) as per the latest census carried out in 2011 by the government. They depend on forest resources for their livelihoods and shelter.
Rapid hydropower development is a cause of concern
Development of hydropower is one of the major reasons behind the diversion of forest land of Jammu and Kashmir.
For years, the Jammu and Kashmir administration has been allowing clearing of thousands of hectares of forest-land and felling of millions of forest trees for different projects including the construction of hydropower projects and transmission lines despite serious objections by local communities and environmentalists.
In January 2016, a group of eminent people from across India wrote to the pollution control board of Jammu and Kashmir about their concerns regarding the “deeply flawed” environment impact assessment (EIA) report for the 1,856 MW Sawalkote hydropower project in Jammu and Kashmir’s Kishtwar area.
They noted that the EIA anticipated that 900 hectares would be submerged due to the project and the total land requirement for the project would be 1,099 hectares but both the submergence area and the land required for the project was increased by 29 percent and 23 percent respectively. It went up to 1,158.75 hectares and 1,401.35 hectares respectively in the final report.
Similarly, the 800 MW Bursar Project, located within 10 km of the boundary of Kishtwar High Altitude National Park (KHANP), was recommended for environmental clearance without even a site visit that an expert panel of the union environment ministry had itself recommended in its October 2017 meeting while noting that the proposed location is in a “rich biodiversity area”.
The panel had said that the project would be considered after a site visit but in its next meeting in December 2017, the panel recommended the project for environmental clearance. “The member secretary informed the Committee that the next visit would be possible only after June 2018 as by that time, weather conditions will become fairly good. As the grant of environmental clearance will be delayed by more than seven months if we wait, the Committee took note of it and after deliberation, site visit to the project site has been dropped and the EAC recommended for grant of EC to the proposed project,” the expert panel had noted in its minutes.
At least 1,149 hectares of the 1,779.33 hectares land required for the Bursar project is forest land. An expert, who was part of the EIA team for the project, told Mongabay-India while wishing anonymity, that over 1.5 million forest trees would be lost because of the project.
In 2020, Raja Muzaffar, along with his friends, trekked to the alpine pastures and lakes in the Pir Panjal forest range several times in the central Kashmir’s Budgam district. “I found out that the Doodganga stream has been diverted for the construction of 7.5 MW Branwar small hydropower project six years back leaving over five kilometres of its original course in the forest dry,” he said.
The dark side of the hydropower
A 2015 research study called for “a critical re-evaluation of current development policy and the approach towards harnessing the enormous hydropower potential of the Himalayan rivers.”
There are concerns not just regarding the environmental impact of the hydropower development but about the benefits of that power itself. A majority of 3,608.46 MW (22 percent of the 16,475 MW identified hydropower potential in J&K) of energy being generated from Jammu and Kashmir flows outside the region to the northern grid from where the state then buys energy worth over Rs 70 billion (Rs. 7,000 crores) annually. One-third of the installed capacity of the NHPC (7,071 MW) across India is generated from Jammu & Kashmir (2,339 MW).
The region’s residents say that despite coming at a huge environmental cost, the hydropower projects and a network of transmission lines in the J&K region are not serving the energy requirements of the local people.
“We have suffered on various fronts — environmental, economic and social — because of hydropower development in our state. Be it the Kishanganga hydropower project in Gurez or other power projects in Jammu and Kashmir, we have paid huge costs. But, we are still buying electricity from outside our state at higher prices which doesn’t suffice our needs leaving us high and dry especially in winters,” Faiz Bakhshi, environmental activist and the former secretary-general of Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industry (KCCI), told Mongabay-India.
According to Jammu and Kashmir’s Power Development Department (PDD), the peak demand in winters in the region is around 3,000 MW.
But, despite the power production of 3,608 MW in J&K and buying electricity worth billions from the northern grid, it loses 60 percent of that electricity (coming from the northern grid) on account of overall transmission losses.
The people are now tired of the blame game. “We witness this blame game every now and then; it is a very sorry state of affairs. The fact is that we have paid huge environmental costs for energy generation and yet we are in no-win situation. We are the losers from all sides. This is so unfortunate,” said Bakhshi. This year’s unprecedented winter power outages have also hit hundreds of Coronavirus patients who rely on oxygen concentrators for oxygen supply.
Transmission line projects are also impacting the trees
Another project that has been in controversy is the Samba-Amargarh transmission line which was completed two years ago. It led to the felling of 40,035 forest trees including Deodar and Kail.
Also, thousands of trees outside forests, that reportedly belonged to farmers and orchard owners, were cut in Shopian, Pulwama, Budgam and Baramullah districts. The project worth Rs 30 billion (Rs 3,000 crores), was executed by Sterlite Power, a Mumbai-based electric transmission development company.
The Alastang-Leh transmission line, which was put in place alongside Samba-Amargarh transmission line, has consumed as many as 14, 600 conifers in eastern Kashmir.
According to an assessment report prepared by the Jammu and Kashmir’s Department of Environment, Ecology and Remote Sensing (DEERS), after the September 2014 floods, ecological degradation across Jammu and Kashmir is a major catalyst of natural disasters as 10 percent of the region’s forest cover was lost to tourism infrastructure in two decades.
In a series of decisions related to diversion of forest land and approval for felling of forest trees, the Jammu and Kashmir government’s forest advisory committee (FAC), which was authorised to make decisions on approval of developmental projects passing through forest land, had approved the diversion of over 727 hectares of forest land.
It had also approved the felling of at least 1,847 trees (which includes 1,471 trees inside designated forest areas and 376 trees in areas earmarked for social forestry) and felling of un-enumerated trees that will be submerged due to construction of a hydro-electricity project (Pakuldul hydro-electricity project) and other development projects.
Banner image: Tribal people live in huts made of mud and wood in forests during summers to ensure their livestock gets space for grazing. Photo by Athar Parvaiz.