Hydropower project nudges a tribal community out of their land in Himachal Pradesh

  • Tunnel testing of the 180 megawatts (MW) Bajoli-Holi hydropower project triggered seepage and landslides that caused damage to the houses in Jharauta village in the Chamba district of Himachal Pradesh.
  • The villagers have been protesting against the project for more than 15 years. The protest is due to the unscientific shift of the tunnel site from the barren right bank to the forested and heavily populated left bank of Ravi.
  • The project has allegedly heavily impacted the local ecology, houses, fields, health and the Gaddi tribe in Himachal Pradesh. The project proponent has cut nearly 4,000 oak trees in the last 10 years making it difficult for grazing and dry wood collection.

Almost eight years ago, on March 25, 2014, at least 31 women from Jharauta village in Chamba district of Himachal Pradesh were arrested for protesting against the commencement of the work for the 180 megawatts (MW) Bajoli-Holi Hydro Power Project (BHHPP). The women, who belonged to the Gaddi tribe, feared that the hydropower project would destroy their houses, dry up natural water springs and force them out of their homes to become overnight refugees. They warned of impending risks considering the loose rocks.

Then, in December 2021, almost eight years later, their fear turned into reality when tunnel testing in the BHHPP triggered seepage and landslides, damaging houses in Jharauta village. It started on December 19 of that year, when the villagers first noticed the seepages in the tunnel in the forest area. A few days later, on December 22, they noticed cracks in the houses near the state highway.

There were massive cracks on the walls of three houses that belonged to Savitri Devi, Saini Ram and Jodha Ram. As a result, Savitri Devi had to vacate her house and she, along with her livestock, was shifted to temporary quarters nearby.

“Due to the seepage from the dam, there were cracks in our house which made it impossible to live in. We were spending sleepless nights in fear that the house will collapse. So we decided to shift. We never thought we will have to leave our house which we had made with our life earnings,” Savitri Devi, a dairy farmer, told Mongabay-India.

Cracks in the houses that villagers alleged are due to the hydropower project. Photo by special arrangement.
Cracks in the houses that villagers alleged are due to the hydropower project. Photo by special arrangement.

Kavita Devi, a ward member of the Jharauta village, which lies in the Bharmour area, said they have been protesting for “more than a decade” and “not even demanding the closure of the project.”

“We just demanded to shift it to the right side of the Ravi river, which was in fact the original plan of the project. On the right side, there are no major human habitats, but on the left side, there are 27 villages of the Gaddi tribe which are at risk. The slope of the village is more than 60 degrees and is made of big sedimentary rocks. The topsoil layer is less dense and the soil profile has granular and block disintegrated part of sedimentary rock after the top layer. Water leakage from the dam has made cracks in the blocks of sedimentary rocks as the upper layer couldn’t stabilise due to the high slope area,” Kavita Devi told Mongabay-India.

The BHHPP is a run-of-the-river project on the river Ravi in village Bajoli of Chamba. In 2004, the Central Electricity Authority (CEA) prepared the pre-feasibility report of the project, which was based on right-hand bank design. In 2007, the Himachal Pradesh State Electricity Board (HPSEB), also prepared a detailed project report, which was based upon the right bank design with scientific inputs from the Geological Survey of India.

In July 2007, the GMR group was awarded the hydropower project. It obtained the Terms of Reference for conducting environmental impact assessment (EIA) studies from the environment ministry in February 2008. This was also based on the right-bank design and was under the declaration that no forestland or habitation was to be affected. In December 2008, GMR, shifted the project from the barren and uninhabited right bank to the left bank of the river, purportedly on the basis of it “being more suitable”. The locals allege that the reason for the change of alignment of the project was to save costs, as there is already an existing road and other infrastructure on the left bank which would have to be developed from scratch on the right bank.

The first Environment Clearance Public Hearing, conducted by GMR, for the project, held on April 19, 2010, witnessed a huge uproar with people protesting against the proposed plan. The then Deputy Commissioner ordered the company to obtain no-objection certificates (NOC) from all five village councils in the area. GMR said that all “politically strong people within each village council spoke in their favour”. But two village councils withdrew their support citing the diversion of large forest land and possible loss of livelihood.

When villagers protested, the opinion of HPSEB was sought by the local authorities on shifting. The HPSEB Chief Engineer had said (in 2011 in a statement), “HPSEB has considered the right bank of river Ravi suited for the construction of the project taking into consideration of all the aspects necessitated for economical and social consideration. As such, there seems that no aspects substantiated to shift the project to left bank as proposed by the IPP (Independent Power Producer) by quoting various self vested reasons/grounds please.”

The cases related to the project reached the court but were dismissed including a review petition. The agencies that were earlier not in the favour of shifting the project to the left bank, later gave the environment, forest and techno-economic clearances for constructing the project on the left bank. In January 2013, another big protest took place when the project proponent started felling trees for construction on the project. The key demand was a shift in the tunnel of the project back to the right-hand side as originally planned.

Read more: [Commentary] The role of hydropower projects in development and disasters in Uttarakhand

The hidden cost of clean energy

According to the environmental clearance granted to the BHHPP, the total land requirement for the project is 85.70 hectares. Of this, 18 hectares is submergence area and from the remaining 67 hectares, approximately 23 hectares or nearly 40 percent of the land diverted to the project is to be used for dumping of muck in a land which is classified as ‘forest’ land, revealed a report by Himdhara Collective, an environment watch group in Himachal Pradesh.

The report said the documents related to compliance of EC to the project from 2013 to 2018 found that almost every year the issue of non-compliance related to muck dumping was raised with the project authorities including issuing of show-cause notices. Despite this, the violations continued.

While talking about the December 2021 accident, Manshi Asher, the co-founder of Himdhara Collective, said in a statement, people had warned the administration exactly of this that the area had “very fragile geology and there would be a tremendous threat to life and property but it all fell on deaf ears”.

“This is not a first of its kind incident, these hazards are occurring at every stage of the project – during the construction, due to intensive blasting, during the testing and then long after commissioning. Once the slopes have been destabilised and the geology of the area disturbed, there are bound to be impacted, but all this should have been looked into during the planning and impact assessment phase. However, at that time the agencies are only concerned with getting clearances,” she added.

Apart from destabilising the area, the BHHPP has also impacted the lives and livelihood of locals including the Gaddi tribe whose major income source is crop and dairy farming. The cattle’s fodder is dependent on the oak forests near the village. “The forest nearby is the main source of cattle graze land and dry wood for winters. But the project proponent has cut nearly 4,000 oak trees in the last 10 years making it difficult for cattle graze and dry wood collection,” said Anoop Jhadota, a teacher in Jharauta village.

“The forest is now turned into a powerhouse, store, pressure shaft and roads. The trees left are also turned into a water reservoir. There were 70-80 buffalos a decade ago which has now reduced to 15-20,” he added.

Women protesting against the hydropower project. Photo by special arrangement.
Women protesting against the hydropower project. Photo by special arrangement.

Hydropower is considered a clean source of energy and is encouraged by the government as a source of energy to reduce carbon footprint. But a landslide hazard risk assessment report published by the Himachal government’s Disaster Management Cell found that “a huge number of hydropower stations i.e. 67 are under threat of landslide hazard risk… and it was found that 10 mega hydropower stations are in the medium and high-risk landslide area.”

“The plight of people in Jharauta is a clear example of this. There is a serious dearth of scientific studies by government institutions that examine how hydropower projects have contributed to disturbing the fragile geology further and the human and ecological costs of such damages and hazards. This indicates the misplaced priorities of the government, which is continuing to push and project hydropower as a clean and renewable source of power,” Asher emphasised.

According to Himdhara, there are various issues of non-compliance observed by the Himachal Pradesh State Pollution Control Board (HPSPCB) and other non-governmental actors including local communities. The HPSPCB has failed to effectively monitor muck dumping.

Sub-divisional magistrate (SDM) of Bharmour, Manish Soni told Mongabay-India that they have called “geologists to study the impact of the BHHPP in the area” and “will take appropriate actions as soon as” they get the report. GMR denied any comments.

Read more: Purulia pumped storage project shows why pumped hydropower may not be clean

Migration the only option?

In 2019, a statement from the tribal affairs ministry said, “Wrongfully dispossessing members of scheduled castes or scheduled tribes from their land or premises or interfering with the enjoyment of their rights, including forest rights, over any land or premises or water or irrigation facilities or destroying the crops or taking away the produce therefrom amount to the offence of atrocities and are subject to punishment under said Act [The Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989].”

SDM Soni said that the villagers can pursue such cases against the company if they want to.

Jia Lal, the legislator of Bharmour, who hails from Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which is in power in the state, told Mongabay-India that they “prepared the list of losses” and told GMR to pay the villagers for the loss.

But when asked that beyond this interim measure what are the permanent measures they are planning to take, Lal said, “The people have to migrate and the construction of new houses will be borne by the GMR. If the area is no more suitable to live, the people should think of their lives and migrate somewhere else.”

When noted that in this way everybody has to shift, the legislator said the “project is not made overnight” and the village councils should have protested (earlier). “In Bharmour, there are 12 power projects. In Chamera, three power stations, these things happened as well. The people have migrated. Here also the people should migrate. The land is no more liveable.”


Banner image: A view of the Bajoli-Holi hydropower project. Photo by special arrangement.

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