Was Once An Old Tehri Town
By Harsh Dobhal
28 December, 2006
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
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
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
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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