- Residents of two villages located around the Kishanganga hydel project in Bandipora, Kashmir, are living in fear following the recent flash floods in Uttarakhand.
- The 37-meter high concrete dam in Gurez valley of Bandipora was constructed by National Hydroelectric Power Corporation and has remained in the news because of dispute over it with Pakistan.
- The local administration says it is prepared and if required, it will relocate the people. However, the local people say that have been left to fend for themselves and are afraid of meeting the same fate as Uttarakhand victims.
On February 13, at 10.34 p.m, when an earthquake of 6.3 magnitude shook the whole Kashmir valley, 64-year-old Sarfaraz Khan hugged his children. While people in other parts of Kashmir scurried out of their houses and came out on roads, Khan decided to stay in. “I was worried that if we come out, the surge shaft may burst and the water will bury us all,” Khan told Mongabay-India at his residence in ChakMantrigam area of North Kashmir’s Bandipora district some 6o kilometres away from Srinagar. Khan was referring to the Kishanganga hydel power project which lies very close to his home.
The earthquake in Kashmir struck days after a glacier burst in Uttarakhand state in northern India with around 55 people dead and many missing. A glacier broke off at Joshimath in the Chamoli district on February 7 causing flash floods and large-scale devastation in the upper reaches of the ecologically fragile Himalayas and damaged a power project.
Like Khan, the residents of at least two villages Kralpora, and ChakMantrigam located around the Kishanganga hydel project in Bandipora are living in constant fear following a glacier burst in Uttarakhand.
“The Uttarakhand tragedy is giving us sleepless nights. You can see the seepage from the tunnels hasn’t stopped since the project began in 2018,” Khan told Mongabay-India.
The three villages, Kralpora, Mantrigram and ChakMantrigram, sit just below the HRTs (Head Race Tunnel). The HRT of the Kishanganga was constructed using the tunnel boring machine (TBM) located in the middle of mountains.
“You can witness landslides in some areas. One can only imagine that when a high surge shaft is located in the mountains what can happen if something untoward happens,” deputy sarpanch of ChakMantrigam village, Abdul Majeed Khan told Mongabay-India.
Sarfaraz Khan says that the villagers have already informed the district administration about the apprehensions of the people after the Uttarakhand tragedy. However, he alleges that no one seems to be bothered. “We are waiting for a catastrophe,” he added.
The locals residing near the power project have been persistently urging the Jammu & Kashmir administration to relocate them to safer places. However, according to them, they have been left to fend for themselves and are afraid of meeting the same fate as Uttarakhand victims.
“If any untoward incident happens, it will take only 15 minutes to wipe out the entire district, leave alone our villages,” Shakeel Ahmad, another local said.
Ahmad said they have already taken up these issues with the NHPC (National Hydroelectric Power Corporation), who assured that all the concerns will be resolved. However to date their concerns have not been addressed, he said.
Sitting on a ‘time bomb’
A 37-metre high concrete dam in Gurez valley of Bandipora was constructed by National Hydroelectric Power Corporation (NHPC). The Construction on the project began in 2007 and was commissioned in the year 2018.
For the project, the water of Kishanganga river was diverted through a tunnel into an underground powerhouse — located in Kralpora village of the district, with three units of 110 MW each for generating electricity.
The tunnels, however, have been a constant cause of inconvenience for the villagers living in the vicinity of the power project as seepage from the tunnels hasn’t stopped since the Kishanganga project began the trial run in 2018.
A day before the project’s first unit was commissioned on March 20 in 2018, there was seepage and water entered Kralpora village, adjacent to the powerhouse, triggering fear of dislocation among the locals.
The villages, which sit below the HRTs and adjacent to the powerhouse are up in arms against the government for forcibly making them, “sit on a time bomb”.
The locals allege that National Hydroelectric Power Corporation (NHPC) failed to honour the 2009 agreement between the locals and the corporation.
“Our land wasn’t compensated, locals weren’t given employment. We were told by NHPC that they will provide drinking water, electricity and will construct roads but you can see nothing was provided to us,” Deputy Sarpanch Khan said. Adding that “the villagers should be relocated before any untoward incident happen”
Built at a cost of over Rs 5,700 crore, the 330 MW power plant has remained in news because of its dispute with Pakistan. It diverts a portion of water from the Kishanganga, a tributary of the Jhelum, in Gurez, before the river enters Pakistan-occupied Kashmir.
The construction work at the site was halted by the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague in October 2011 following protests by Pakistan, which said it would affect the flow of the river known as the Neelum in Pakistan. In February 2013, the Hague court ruled that India could divert a minimum amount of water for power generation.
The water from Kishanganga is diverted from the dam in Gurez to Bandipora through a 30-kilometer Head Race Tunnels (HRTs), cutting through mountains, and then released back into the Jhelum (through a network of rivers and water bodies), which flows into Pakistan.
The power project reportedly displaced over 400 odd families in Gurez and other areas.
Mudasir Ahmad, an environmentalist, told Mongabay-India that mountain land is always prone to landslides and erosion due to deforestation and added that “a catastrophe is awaited in the region.”
“People saw the economic angle when NHPC started the project but didn’t take the environmental aspect into consideration. Now since the Uttarakhand tragedy happened, people have suddenly woken up,” Ahmad said.
He alleges that the company felled many trees in order to acquire the land as a result the region witnessed massive deforestation and “complete destruction of wildlife habitat”.
He further said, not only deforestation, the company is responsible for the pollution of the local stream—Madhumati nallah that caters the water discharge from Kishanganga project.
The deputy commissioner of Bandipora, Owais Ahmed Rana, told Mongabay-India that his administration is aware about the issue that was raised with him by the villagers.
“As such there is nothing to worry. I had sent my team to the villages along with some officials of NHPC, they found that things are okay right now,” he said, adding that, “However we are preparing to prevent any kind of tragedy. If we find that the villagers need to be relocated, we will take the necessary action,” he said. Senior officials of the NHPC did not respond to requests for their comments.
Banner image: The 37-metre high concrete dam in Gurez valley of Bandipora, Kashmir. Photo from the NHPC website.