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There Was Once An Old Tehri Town

By Harsh Dobhal

28 December, 2006

With the Tehri water gushing into the Sonia Vihar water treatment plant, a long wait by a parched Delhi has ended with the completion of the first phase of the controversial Tehri dam project. As of mid-July, the project has begun producing 150 to 400 megawatts of electricity, depending upon water availability. Meanwhile, with the closure of the project's Tunnel 2 in October 2005, Tehri town and nearby villages have been completely submerged under the dam's artificial lake. This project has been mired in controversy ever since its 1972 approval, particularly with regard to rehabilitation and environmental issues, but also as pertains to alleged structural flaws in the dam, its size, design and location. Lawsuits have repeatedly challenged the project, and national and international criticism has forced construction to drag on for nearly three decades.

Officials with the Tehri Hydro Development Corporation (THDC) spout statistics: the project will generate 2400 megawatts of electricity, supply about 100 cubic feet of water per second (about 25 crore litres per day) to Delhi, and irrigate about 2,70,000 hectares (6,90,000 acres) of land in Uttar Pradesh, which has a 25 percent share in the project. But such figures do not drown out the project's negative impact, nor do they address the potentially drastic problems that have come up and would further arise from its construction.

Apart from the old town of Tehri, the dam directly affects about 125 villages, 33 of which will be completely submerged. Nearly 5200 hectares of land is being inundated, and almost 5300 urban, and over 9000 rural families, 5429 of them fully, are being displaced from their homes and land. In 1972, the Tehri project's cost was assessed at Rs 197 crore, and aimed to produce 600 MW of electricity. Over the years, the size and the cost of the project have multiplied. With the completion of the first phase of the project, which is estimated to produce 1000 megawatts of electricity, Rs 8000 crores have already been spent – a 24-fold increase in cost. The second phase will both pump up the water to produce another 1000 MW and the third phase, adjacent Koteshwar dam, will produce 400 MW. But completion of these two phases will further require massive amounts of funding.

Constructed over the confluence of the Bhagirathi and Bhilangana rivers in the Garhwal Himalaya, the reservoir that is being formed by the dam extends 45 km into the Bhagirathi valley, and 25 km into the Bhilangana valley. The lake's total surface area is nearly 43 square km. Perhaps most critically, the dam has been built on an active seismic area known as the 'central Himalayan gap,' just 45 km from the epicentre of the 1991 Uttarkashi earthquake. In the event of a major quake, experts argue, the dam can fail and the massive amount of water in the reservoir could suddenly come crashing out, inundating an unknown amount of the surrounding and downstream land and communities.

Catastrophe in waiting

Construction began in 1978, six years after the Planning Commission formally sanctioned the Tehri project in 1972. The dam was vehemently opposed by the Tehri bandh virodhi sangharsh samiti (TBVSS), which went to the Supreme Court against the construction in 1978. Although the apex court rejected the appeal, the movement against the dam continued. The government's Environmental Appraisal Committee twice refused to give clearance to the project before finally granting it in 1993.

The issue again hit the headlines following the 6.6-strength earthquake of October 20, 1991 in the area. Then Prime Minister, P V Narsimha Rao, remarked that the earthquake had raised a question about the project. During that year, opposition to the project further gained momentum when environmentalist Sunderlal Bahuguna undertook a long fast and succeeded in bringing construction to a standstill for 75 days. Bahuguna and other activists were subsequently arrested, and the work resumed under heavy police protection. Two fasts undertaken by Bahuguna in 1992 and 1995 marked the high point of the anti-dam movement to press for an independent and transparent review. Following both of these fasts, which lasted 45 and 49 days respectively, the government promised a review but later reneged, allowing the work to continue.

After Bahuguna undertook a third fast in April 1996, New Delhi appointed an official committee to look into the matter. The Hanumantha Rao Committee subsequently pointed out that the dam was being built in violation of the conditions that accompanied its environmental clearance. This committee was in fact the last in a series to look into the dam's construction. Both the S K Roy Committee, set up by Indira Gandhi, and the 1990 Environmental Appraisal (Bhumla) Committee had recommended that the construction of the project be halted. In addition, engineers from the Soviet Union, which had agreed to bankroll the project on concessional loans, had noted in reviews that the fact that the dam site was located in a seismic area had not been taken into adequate consideration by the Indian planners. The project was unsuccessfully challenged in the Supreme Court. Another petition, raising rehabilitation and environmental issues, is still pending with the apex court.

In April 1987, the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) sponsored an independent assessment of the dam's economic feasibility. After calculating social and environmental costs and benefits, the multi-disciplinary team concluded that the project's benefit-to-cost ratio worked out to around 0.56:1 – not simply short of the 1.5:1 ratio adopted by the Planning Commission to sanction such projects, but that the project will cost more than the benefits it is expected to deliver. The INTACH team also noted that the projected useful lifespan of 100 years was questionable, as the high siltation rate in the Bhagirathi River would reduce the life of the dam to just 62 years at most.

The International Commission on Large Dams (ICOLD) has declared the Tehri dam to be one of the most hazardous sites in the world, a contention supported by independent seismologists from within and outside India. An earthquake of large magnitude could result in bursting of the dam, which would almost immediately flood nearby towns such as Deoprayag, Rishikesh and Haridwar, as well as those farther away. If the dam broke, the city of Meerut would be under water within 12 hours.

The myth of rehabilitation

The story of rehabilitation for those affected by the dam's construction has been one of broken promises. The creation of the town of New Tehri has significantly altered the social, economic, cultural and administrative dynamics of the entire area. Oustees have cited hundreds of examples of discrepancy, as well as a general absence of political will to rehabilitate people. While affected families were promised employment for one adult at the time of acquiring their land, authorities appeared to quickly forget the promise, leading to massive discontent.

Community members could have taken a cue from those families that were resettled to areas around Haridwar and Rishikesh a quarter century ago, back at the beginning of the Tehri project. Promised hospitals, roads, irrigation canals, link roads and the like are still nowhere to be seen. In addition, resettled individuals have experienced a disorienting process of being cut off from their traditional social fabric, thereby risking social disintegration.

While compensation has been reserved for those who had land in their name before 1985, many families who came after that year have also been left out – particularly those who do not have 'good contacts.' Furthermore, even while 1985 was set as the cut-off date for the people living in the town, people living in villages are eligible for rehabilitation only if they were there before 1976. Partially affected villages face another problem. Only those who have had more than half of their lands acquired qualify for complete rehabilitation; those with less than half of their lands affected are compensated, but not moved to new lands. Nonetheless, in most cases, the land being submerged, even if less that 50 per cent of their landholding, is the only fertile land around the river valley – the rest is barren land on steep hills, not suitable for agriculture.

The number of affected families runs higher than just those whose lands have been submerged, and include those who have lost link roads and government institutions such as schools and hospitals. With crucial infrastructural links having been disrupted, local communities have been demanding new link roads, bridges and ropeways. But the government's rehabilitation policy does not clearly state anything about partially submerged villages, or the fate of the people living in such altered situations.

The Tehri project is technically nearing completion, but there are crucial questions and concerns related to the environment, development and rehabilitation – some of which are still unanticipated, and many of which are as unanswerable as Old Tehri town is forever unreachable.

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