Echoes From The Mountains
By Manshi Asher
04 May, 2009
The non-descript town of Bilaspur, an erstwhile princely state in the Sutlej Valley, now a district in the Himalayan state of Himachal Pradesh is historical because hundreds of villages around it were submerged in the Sutlej River for the Bhakhra Dam almost 55 years ago. The new town of Bilaspur built upslope of the old, tells the tale of this submergence with its oustee populations on hill slopes and domes of stone temples sticking out of the river bed down in the valley. On 9th April 2009, almost 2000 people affected by dams, mines, urbanization and destructive 'development' projects in the state of Himachal Pradesh gathered and held a historical rally in the streets of Bilaspur shouting slogans of “Aaj Himalaya Jagega – Loootne wala bhagega” and “Vikas chahiye vinash nahin”.
“There is a significance of holding the Himalaya Bachao Rally in Bilaspur – the region which was witness to the oldest displacement in the country.” Nand Lal Sharma the leader of the Bhakhra Oustees Sangarsh Samiti and one of the convening members of the Himalaya Niti Abhiyan. The rally culminated with a public address by social and environmental activist, Medha Patkar. “It is shocking that the courts and government justify the displacement by other big dams citing Bhakhra as an example and quoting that it has benefited the local communities and made their lives better – where as the reality on the ground is opposite and the rest of the country does not know this” echoed her voice.
Guman Singh, co-ordinator of the Himalaya Niti Abhiyan said that it was high time that the several nascent movements which have emerged in Himachal around the issues of displacement and environment destruction came together. "It is especially critical now because the present government is using the climate change agenda to project itself as environmentally conscientious", he added. The ruling BJP government is going all out to draw funds through carbon credits for hydropower and cement projects in the name of clean energy and recycling.
Himachal has been at the helm of hydropower generation in the country with a target of generating 21000 MW by 2015. Hundreds of large, small and micro-hydels have been planned to achieve this target. “The scale and attitude with which hydropower projects are being implemented have left little scope and time for reviewing their impacts and possible alternatives” said R. S Negi, from Him Lok Jagriti Manch. The entire Sutlej Basin in Kinnaur is full of tunnels running within the mountains and the impact will be irreversible, he added. Those displaced by Bhakhra, Kol, Pandoh and Pong dams shared the callousness and apathy of the government and administration in carrying out the rehabilitation and compensation plans for these projects. "Pehle Bhakhra aur Pong ke Visthapiton ko basao, phir Renuka ko haath lagao" was the slogan that emerged in the context of future displacement for Renuka Dam being constructed to provide water for Delhi. The imposition of the urgency clause section 17/4 of the Land Acquisition Act 1894 by the Himachal Government for the purpose of acquiring land of 37 villages has been strongly opposed. In the context of the Renuka Dam, Sreedhar, from Mountain Environics Trust, added “50% of Delhi’s water problems are because of poor water management. There are other solutions to dealing with water requirements than forcefully displacing communities”.
Power generation projects have also given birth to a web of transmission lines criss crossing the entire landscape. Spontaneous protests have emerged in atleast four to five sites in the state against setting up of the tower lines and power grids. The movements have raised issues of agriculture fields being destroyed, horticulture especially apple trees being affected and deforestation in forest areas through which the lines are being taken.
The other growing threat to the Himachal environment is the limestone mining and cement industry. While three such projects are already existing three more are in the pipeline, including a Greenfield project by Lafarge, the largest cement producer in the world. The various presentations repeatedly highlighted that there was a deliberate effort from the side of the government to conceal information about the projects. “While one hand the government plans a public hearing for a project, on the other it refuses to part with the Project related information. On what basis are people expected to make a decision about the project?!” said Pushpal Thakur of the Jan Hit Sangarsh Samiti in the context of the controversial Ski Village Project proposed for Manali.
Over the past two years the people of Nalagarh, in the Shiwalik region, have been resisting the implementation of a Masterplan proposed for the Baddi-Barotiwala-Nalagarh-Development Area. “Whether you call it SEZ or Ski Village or Masterplan under Town Country Planning – there is one single objective of grabbing land and transferring it for real estate purposes to private companies. It is shocking that while the Masterplan talks about areas for shopping malls and industries but has no mention of the farmers who inhabit the land”, said Dukhiya Singh of Him Parivesh.
“How can the government use the colonial Land Acquisition Act for transferring lands to the corporates and also grant them blatant exemptions under section 118 of the Himachal Land Reforms Act – a legislation that has played an important role in protecting the land rights of the Himachalis” added Kulbhushan Upmanyu.
The Himalaya Niti Abhiyan members stated that the objective was not just to say "no" to the present policies but also proposing an alternative vision for development in Himachal. This is based on strengthening natural resource based livelihoods and those that promote small, labour intensive and ecologically sustainable options, instead of falling for the trap of larger projects which generate few jobs and concentrate wealth in the hands of a few.
A people’s manifesto was announced at the end of the public meeting with a list of demands which were put forth to representatives of the political parties. However, barring the CPI, the other parties - especially, the leading BJP and Congress, have been completely silent on these very critical development issues, as campaigning focuses on playing the blame game on the subject of 'national security'.
As far as struggles against displacement or movements for land and forest rights in India are concerned the Himachalis have not exactly been at the forefront. But there seems to be a growing consciousness in the state, amongst those who have been at the receiving end of these recent developments, that good governance does not necessarily translate to justice and rights over resources and that there may be few alternatives to taking to the streets.
The writer is a researcher-activist and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org