Marooned on 'man-made' islands, residents of villages near Uttarakhand's Tehri dam want to swim out of oblivion

Varsha Singh | Mar 24, 2019 | 9 min read

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Marooned on ‘man-made’ islands, residents of villages near Tehri dam want to swim out of oblivion

The memory of Tehri’s iconic Clock Tower standing tall for a long time, defying the rising waters of Bhagirathi which had engulfed most of the town by 2006, is still fresh in the minds of residents of Roulakot village in the district. “Tehri dubi ge (Tehri has sunk). Most of the local newspapers had chosen that headline to mark the day when this piece of Tehri’s glorious heritage finally went under,” the residents say.

At least 39 villages in the erstwhile capital of the princely state of Tehri Garhwal were completely submerged as the dam came into existence. The dam was approved in 1965 but work on the project started only in 1973. The highest dam in the country was built at a cost of Rs 8,000 crore and eyed a power generation of 2,400 MW. The first phase of the dam was finished in 2006, the second phase in 2011 and the entire project was completed by 2012.

While the engineering marvel drew praise from several quarters, those who gave up their homes to ensure the project could be a reality were pushed to the fringes.

The rehabilitation of residents of submerged villages was initiated in 1998. In 2013, it was proposed that 415 families in 17 more villages around Tehri lake would be rehabilitated under the Collateral Damage Policy of the state. The houses in these villages, along with three more villages, including Roulakot, had reported cracks as the water level in the dam had continued to rise. According to the Geological Survey of India, the instability of the slope increased the risks of landslides in the area.

The Tehri Hydro Development Corporation Limited (THDC) challenged this move in the high court and the issue was pushed to the backburner.

Today, families in many villages say that the symbol of development - the Tehri dam – is for them a painful, taunting reminder of days of yore as they are today struggling for basic amenities.

Promises of sops such as free water and subsidized electricity have fallen flat, say residents.  The Hanumant Rao committee set up in 1994 for effective rehabilitation of those displaced had recommended incentives such as free drinking water, subsidized electricity, reservation in state government jobs, a ring road to link villages around the dam and a bridge over the structure to boost connectivity.

Many of the suggestions of the committee have been overlooked by the successive governments with several organizations in these villages protesting time and again for the recommendations of the committee to be implemented.

The guidelines laid by the Ministry of Power have also not been followed, say residents. The ministry recommends that 12% of the power generated from a hydel project should be given for free to the state government so that revenue generated from it can be spent on displaced families. Revenue generated from additional 1% electricity from the project is to be earmarked for a Local Area Development Fund. The fund is to provide a regular stream of income generation for infrastructure and welfare schemes in the area.

Those displaced are also to be provided 100 units of electricity free for 10 years, according to the guidelines.

Not only have they failed to get these incentives, residents in villages around the lake say they have also lost basic facilities such as road connectivity. While the villages are a short boat ride from New Tehri, a road journey now takes anywhere between 8 and 10 hours. A few boats have fixed hours to ferry people for free from these villages thrice a day. 

Roulakot is one such village accessible by boat. Shanti Devi, one of the residents, says that the fixed timing of boats has often led to crisis in case of medical emergency. But everyday life in the village is a struggle too.

The residents fear for their lives as the lake swells up during monsoon. To go from one village to another, they have to climb down treacherous hills in tough weather to take the boat and then once again trek to reach their destination.

Getting daily provisions has also become an ordeal for the residents who add that they do not have enough agricultural land to grow crops or vegetables and depend on the nearest market to buy produce. Dhanpat Singh Bisht, a resident of Roulakot, says that one can reach the nearest market in Koti Colony in 25 minutes by boat while it is 65 kilometres by road.

It is no wonder then that the residents compare their situation to inmates in Kala Pani, a prison in a remote island in Andaman and Nicobar Islands.

Gram Pradhan of Roulakot Darvi Devi says that the government had proposed a suspension bridge to provide accessibility to the village, but it has come to naught. The 440m-long Dobra-Chanti bridge was approved in 2006. Despite Rs 130 crore being spent on the project touted as Asia’s longest bridge in the past few years, it is yet to see the light of day as it is caught in red tapism.

According to Uttarakhand Finance Minister Prakash Pant, the bridge would be completed in the next financial year. The residents, however, say that they have heard such promises several times.

“We have even complained to the directorate of rehabilitation in New Tehri several times about the delay in the project but it has fallen on deaf ears. We are being forced to live a secluded life, risking our lives on boats in the lake to reach the market and the hospital during monsoon,” Darvi Devi says.

Mahipal Singh Negi from the Tehri Bhoomi Visthapan Sangthan says that the lake has swallowed not just lands of people but their livelihood as well. “Where are the vast pastures people used to graze their animals? So many shops and livelihood of traders were destroyed. People are jobless now,” he says.

Majority of the residents were dependent on farming, fishing and cattle breeding for their income. Now, the waters where people used to fish are part of the dam and one needs a license to fish. Agricultural lands have been lost along with water bodies which acted as sources of irrigation. With little forest cover and fodder for livestock, even cattle breeding is not a lucrative alternative.

Executive engineer at directorate of rehabilitation, Tehri, Subodh Maithani, admits that people lost their livelihood after agricultural lands were submerged but adds that those who were capable were given jobs in THDC commensurate with their abilities.

But Negi says that the money earned through power generation should be spent on welfare of those displaced but this hasn’t happened.

“Successive governments have ignored our cause because this is not a sizeable votebank for them,” he says. 

Many of the residents say that they are mulling boycott of elections altogether. The five Lok Sabha constituencies in Uttarakhand, including Tehri, will go to polls on April 11.

BJP state vice-president Jyoti Gairola denies that the governments have neglected the residents as they are not a large votebank. Gairola says that rehabilitation is a long process and concerns of people would be addressed in due time.

Finance Minister Prakash Pant adds that the government is arranging funds and is committed to carrying out the rehabilitation in a phased manner.

Congress leader Kishore Upadhyay was quick to allege that the displaced families were neglected by the BJP government after the dam was constructed. “The ruling party has closed its eyes to their suffering,” he says.

District panchayat president, Tehri, Sona Sajwan says that the government has not forgotten those displaced by the dam but the rehabilitation process has indeed been delayed.  

In 2010, the water level recorded in Tehri lake, which spans 42 sq km, was recorded at Reservoir Level (RL) 830 metres. A team of the Geological Survey of India conducted a survey of 45 villages along the valleys of Bhagirathi and Bhilangana and found that the increased water level in the lake was causing them to sink into the ground. This led to cracks appearing on floors and walls of many houses. The team recommended rehabilitation of 415 families living in 17 villages which were in the danger zone.

Soon after, the Uttarakhand government announced that the families would be relocated to villages in Haridwar, Rishikesh and Dehradun, a proposal challenged in court by the THDC. Maithani says that the corporation had suggested that the families be relocated in Tehri itself. The matter is still in court.

Tehri MLA Dhan Singh Negi, however, says that 106 hectares of land in Rishikesh has been earmarked for rehabilitation of these 415 families and the proposal has been sent to the state government.

But Vimal Bhai from Matu Jan Sangthan, an organization working with displaced families, says that concerns of people have not been addressed.

Vimal Bhai says that an agreement between the state and the Centre in 2017 dictates that the water level at Tehri lake would be kept under RL 825 metres. This would stop further sinking of land in nearby villages. But, in October 2018, the state government issued a notification to fill the lake up to a level of RL 835 metres. According to Vimal Bhai, the decision was taken to meet the requirement of water for Kumbh in Haridwar.

He adds that those relocated from Tehri were promised a certain percentage of free electricity. The then Union Minister of Energy Shri Sushil K. Shinde had even promised to increase the total percentage of free power for the rehabilitated. None of these promises were fulfilled, residents say.

An official memorandum of the Central Government released in 2001 had held THDC liable to arrange money for rehabilitation of people on need basis. But officials at the rehabilitation office in New Tehri say they have not received a penny from THDC.

Maithani from the directorate of rehabilitation says that they last received Rs 40 crore for rehabilitation two years ago. No funds were released by the state government in 2018-19.

The residents hope that the MP elected from the Tehri constituency in the upcoming elections would be more sympathetic to their cause.

On March 3 this year, with an eye on the upcoming Lok Sabha elections, the state cabinet had waived pending water bills to the tune of Rs 70 crore of 10,000 families relocated from Tehri. A new committee has been set up to study whether it would be feasible to stop charging displaced families water bills completely.

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