The power of corporate greed in a Himalayan state
Copyright: Arun Shrivastava CMC
Hydro-electric power projects of private firms in Himachal Pradesh are being pushed by local officers who have made it clear to the people that they have vested interest in these projects. Officers of the state government have tried to influence local activists to support projects that would destroy the livelihoods of local villagers. Revenue officials are openly canvassing for these projects collecting signatures from villagers for approval. Where popular opposition is strong an environment of fear is being created by the local Police. Many Gram Panchayats [GP, or Village Councils] the chiefs [called Pradhans] are after petty contracts and decisions taken by the Gram Sabha [Village general body] are being overturned which is unconstitutional. This not only raises questions of conflict of interest, but given the scale of hydro-electric projects in this ecologically sensitive state, raises serious questions of long term sustainability of the Himalayas as a region of bio-diversity, carbon sink and a region that moderates global climate.
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In Himalayan region livelihoods are inextricably linked with eco systems. Damage this complex system and livelihoods are fundamentally affected causing immense hardship to women and loss of income to households.
Near Sahoo village, about 25 kilometers from Chamba district town [Latitude 32.559757 and Longitude 76.115382; Google earth], two micro hydel projects, Hul-I [4.5 mega watt, or MW] and II, were approved by the Himachal Government. The two promoting firms are M/S Astha Projects Pvt. Ltd. [Hul-I] and M/s First Hydro Generation Pvt. Ltd. [Hul-II], both registered in Delhi. One project is located off Jadera Village Council [GP] and another near Shillaghat GP. Since Environmental Impact Assessment [EIA] has been done away with for below 50 MW projects, neither the government nor private firms are concerned with impact on the environment and livelihoods. Horrific consequences of this lack of application of mind are emerging as the events in Chamba show.
In order to build Hul-I hydel project, the project authorities [PA] have planned to construct a 7 kilometer channel through a dense primary forests at Lohil, Batat, Dilla, Ghondh and Thanoti habitations. Construction will destroy the forests painstakingly developed into a people's sanctuary by local villagers. Similarly, Hul-II, which will utilize the water coming from Hul-I, will also need a channel to the power house and further destroy about 5 kilometers of forested areas in its path.
Adverse impact of the projects
♦ The firm executing Hul-1 has already cut 30 mature oak and cedar trees. It is estimated that this project alone will destroy 7 kms x 20 metres swath of pristine forest to lay its channel from weir to power house. This will adversely impact forest, wildlife, bio-diversity and sustainability of micro watershed that sustain local livelihoods;
♦ Diversion of water would destroy local weirs, called "Kuhls," that feed irrigation channels that households use for washing cattle and irrigation and will destroy small farms. The "Kuhl" also runs the Gharat [water mills];
♦ The Forest Department has allocated grazing lands for setting up generation and ancillary facilities. It gave its "no-objection" certificate without conferring with local people. Grazing lands are village commons. Access to grazing lands [ghasni] is an established right of Himalayan communities and that right has been unilaterally usurped by the Forest Department to favour private firms.
♦ Employees and outside labour used in these projects are known to destroy forest and wildlife through illegal felling and hunting. Such cases are legion in Chamba alone. These forests have barking dear, bear, otter and over 200 varieties of birds. This sort of mischief is widespread all over Himachal Pradesh including luring rural girls into prostitution;
♦ Twenty years ago, a water supply system was constructed in these parts that supplies drinking water to the city of Chamba. If the project is executed in its current form, the water supply to the district town will suffer. For this reason even townsfolk are vehemently opposed to the projects.
♦ An environment of fear is being created by local officials. One activist was hauled up by the local Police, without any charges, that led to serious confrontation between environmental activists and the Police. Worst, the Police have publicly used derogatory language with well known activists that have been widely condemned.
Chamba is one of the 50 poorest districts of India. It was not so earlier. But the 1100 MW of power projects, that contributes Rs 22,000 million to the Government coffer every year, has destroyed the livelihoods of local people. The smaller power projects will further destroy small farmers who eke out a living from a mean holding of 0.6 hectare.
Three local newspapers [Punjab Kesari, Amar Ujala, and Divya Himachal] have extensively documented and reported these events. It is to their credit that every day these issues are being covered.
There are four or five similar projects planned over small tributaries of Sal and Hul rivers, adding up to 19 MW. Each of these units may create 4-5 lowly paid jobs for the local people, say about 25 in all, but will actually cause massive ecological damage that would render about 7,000 people destitute: roughly 1400-1750 persons per project. That impact has perhaps not entered into the calculations of the state government.
In the Himalayas, Gharat is an important household asset costing about Rs 70-90,000 each, about US$ 1500 to 2000. There are 400,000 gharats in the Himalayan region. They are still used to mill cereals like wheat and corn. When water is diverted, these gharats will become dead assets. Just one "small" project Hul-1 will divert enough water to render 7-8 Gharats redundant and destroy the economy of four villages.
On 16th January a rally of the four affected Village Councils was taken out to oppose the projects in which common citizens of the city of Chamba also participated. The same day information was sent to the Chief Minister of Himachal Pradesh. The rally led to the formation of Save Sal Valley Movement within a wider movement called Save Himalaya Movement, which is being coordinated by Himalaya Policy Campaign Committee [HPCC], a trans-Himalayan people's movement for protecting the eco-systems and livelihoods of this vital region.
About two months ago, the women of Hindu Gaddi and Muslim Gujjar communities snatched the tools and implements of construction workers who were working on the power channel. They chased them out of the villages.
Many affected Village Councils had passed resolution in their respective Gram Sabha to stop these projects. [For instance, Baror, Jadera, Shillagharat, etc.] It is shocking that the administration has not even once responded to their appeals.
The District Council has consistently opposed the project; it has passed resolutions four times opposing the projects in the past. Ratan Chand representing the affected Jadera Ward had placed five resolutions, including declaring the affected valleys as conservation area, which was passed by overwhelming majority.
On 7th March, 2007, concerns were raised in the Vidhan Sabha [Question Number 3996] and all members of the assembly from Chamba district opposed the projects eventually leading up to talk of setting up a review committee. The people want active participation in this review committee.
Fearing backlash, Harsh Mahajan, Minister of Animal Husbandry, on 13th March appealed to Vidya Stokes, the Power Minister, to reconsider the approvals given to these firms, reminding her that she herself had assured the assembly that she would constitute a committee to investigate the adverse impact on local environment and livelihoods and submit its report to the government.  That committee had not been constituted as on 17th April, 2007. Moreover, the people now want representation in whatever committee is formed, indicating that they do not trust the government.
Destruction of livelihoods without displacement
Although no person has been displaced due to these projects, the sustainability of the livelihood of about 7000 persons is in jeopardy because of these "small projects," also known as small hydro projects [SHP].
The life and livelihoods of mountain people is inextricably linked with small streams and rivulets. It is on these streams that Kuhls and gharats are constructed. These streams are also the only source of drinking water. Any diversion of water would destroy their irrigation channels, source of drinking water, water for animals, and water for running gharats. It should be noted that peoples' dependence on large rivers is negligible; it is the small streams that are indispensable to mountain communities. And that resource is being sequestered in micro hydels.
Mountains act as water table; they hold enormous quantity of water provided the forest cover is maintained and local eco-system is not disturbed. It is this water that seeps through small channels and forms rivulets and eventually large streams and rivers. The broad leaf trees provide regular supply of fodder. Trees like Maha-Neem, a gift of nature, produce fruits that strengthen the immune system of birds that feed on them. Alpine pastures in these parts are rich in micro-nutrients that maintain the health of cattle and draught animals. It is for this reason that milk and milk products of Gujjars and Gaddies are in great demand; they are pure and nutritious.
In fact the "small power projects" are causing far greater damage to local eco-systems than planners have ever contemplated. Too many small projects have been contracted out and they would all expropriate community assets of populated villages, leading to staggering loss of livelihoods.
Most importantly, in the Himalayas the forests are a source of nutrition [fruits], cash income [medicinal and aromatic herbs], and provide building materials [through acknowledged timber distribution rights, or TD rights]. That's why mountain people love their forests. Destroy the forests and you deprive the people of cash income and nutrition. They cut the trees when required, but they also plant the trees for future generations.
Let me make it clear that I am no romantic activist. For me the majesty of the Himalaya is far greater than those of law courts or any Constitution or currency notes for reasons discussed below.
Behaviour of administration and the Police
Around this time [April 13-17, 2007] an official meeting took place near Jadera village in which a few activists were also present. Senior Ministers, DC and other officials were present and so was the local Sub Divisional Magistrate [SDM]. The SDM did the most unimaginable thing: he offered Rs 3 to 3.5 million [US$66,000 to 77,000] to the members of HPCC to drop their opposition to power projects. In full view of the public, the SDM offered the bribe and also requested that part of the money be given to Ratan Chand. A government officer bribing activists with a confidence that not even the most hardened criminal would commit a crime?
Ratan Chand is a well known environmentalist of Himachal Pradesh and a member of Chamba District Council. He was responsible for implementing Sahoo Watershed project [1998-2003] that has turned once water deficit region into water surplus one, with dense crown cover and a thriving wild life. I had studied this model watershed project  and wrote a case history on the participatory systems and processes through which Ratan Chand turned Sahoo and neighbouring villages into sustainable and food secure region. The Chetna Kendra [Awareness Centre] he set up, with some government fund, is today a centre for eco tourism and a place where children learn the importance of conservation in the life of mountain communities.
Most shameful was the behaviour of the local Police officer. Jassa Ram, a local anti-dam activist, was picked up on 15th April on a trumped up charge of theft. When senior members of HPCC reached the police station, the Inspector of City police Station [Chamba] told them that "Ratan Chand is anti-development," which was an understated warning that the police will ensure "development at any cost."
The insensitivity of some officials and the gross behaviour of the police inspector angered the members of HPCC, the local people, and the media. Kulbhushan Upmanyu [founder of Chipko movement in Himachal Pradesh] Guman Singh, Dev Badrotra, Manu Sharma, Man Singh [Up-pradhan of Jadera Panchayat], could take it no more. Not only they took the Police Officers to task in the Police Station itself, they took it upon themselves to explain what development is all about. Later, a meeting was called at the office of the DC. The DC ordered an inquiry.
The above incidence reveals exposes a dangerous trend: government officers are actually working as agents of private companies, misusing their official position. There is also an emerging trend in Himachal Pradesh of retired government officials taking up senior management positions in power utility companies. In order to secure a comfortable job after retirement, many officers are misusing their present official position which is unethical and unprofessional and should be universally condemned. The extent of this malaise is being probed by HPCC. It should be probed throughout India and action taken.
Is Himachal Pradesh an environmental disaster area?
Not yet, but is fast sliding into one. The state government has approved about 115 medium and large and 206 small [under 5MW capacity] hydro-electric projects. More are in the pipeline. Some of the "medium" projects are 300 to 400 MW, and there are several 1000 MW projects under execution, the largest being Parbati [2200 MW] on Beas river for which ten square kilometers of land within the Great Himalayan National Park [GHNP] was allotted to the project authorities in utter violation of park area laws in 2002 despite massive protest by local people. In Park Areas no construction is allowed. All conservation acts have been thrown into the waste bin to accommodate power projects.
These projects are to be located on five river basins: Ravi, Chenab, Satluj, Yamuna and Beas. For small projects below 50MW capacity the provision of Environmental Impact Assessment has been waived. There is no requirement for conducting initial socio-economic or a baseline, assessment to assess the impact on livelihoods of local people due to these projects. So, there is absolutely no database to compare before and after livelihood and environmental situations. This legal lacuna is being exploited to the hilt by promoters of small power projects.
The plan is to exploit the estimated 20,386 MW, which is about 24% of India's total estimated hydro-electric potential. 93 small projects have been cancelled "for various reasons", a key reason appears to be opposition of local people. Not once the Government has encouraged community based institutions or cooperatives to set up small hydro power projects, which many are capable of doing. Instead, businessmen from all over India are being invited who bribe the local officials to protect their interests.
These trends pose grave threats to the people and the Himalayan eco systems and raise several basic questions.
First, loss of physical assets like land and building can be compensated but when lands have not been acquired but people's livelihoods are affected to the extent of rendering them destitute, is there any way of compensating them? The law is silent on this and that legal loophole is being exploited to the hilt by small hydel project authorities.
Second, are we, the tax payers of India, paying public servants [salary, facilities and benefits they enjoy] for them to serve the interest of private firms without any concern for people's rights and interest? Influential local officers openly canvassing the people to accept projects destructive of livelihoods and eco systems, instead of maintaining strict neutrality as government servants must do? When saam and daam fails, Janta ko danda maro?
Third, should we allow private companies to expropriate community assets [water and forests] and village commons [grazing lands]? Can Government Departments issue "no-objection" certificate to private firms permitting them to pillage critical community assets? The law is again silent on this.
Fourth, do corporations have primacy over community rights? Does the Constitution of India say that? If the Constitution is silent, what remedies are available to the people, given the fact that it is the sum total of micro ecological systems that form the Great Himalaya that moderates global climate as much as it ensures local livelihoods?
And finally, let us place the Chamba event in broader political context. In Nandigram the local police in collusion with local political goons, shot at unarmed people killing at least 12, grievously injuring over 200 and raped 2 women opposed to the private project of an Indonesian company. Sangrur village has been in the news because small farmers do not want to give up their farms to Tata's small car project. In many Orissa villages the police and local administration are harassing local villagers to leave because their lands have been forcibly acquired for POSCO [a Korean firm]. Thousands of acres of lands are being forcibly acquired, or have been acquired, and handed over to property developers in the planned 500 SEZs that would displace millions of farmers. All these events unequivocally establish that the interests of corporations have now become paramount. People do not matter. People's rights do not matter. Community rights do not matter. Community assets can be expropriated at will. The state is trampling on human rights in collusion with private firms.
When the whole world is facing a serious threat from climate change, large parts of Himalayan region are being handed over to corporations who have shown utter disregard for conservation. Not if but when Himalayan eco-systems collapse because of these power projects, the rural economy of entire Indus and Gangetic plains will collapse, leading to famine and hunger on a scale that can't even be imagined. Warning signs are all over and Government knows about these warning signs. Governments are extremely well briefed, let there be no doubt about that. Therefore, a nagging question keeps cropping up, "Is there a method in all this madness?" Is the Government deliberately marginalizing, pauperizing and frequently brutalizing the ordinary people, everywhere? All evidences indicate that this is actually so.
That raises another uncomfortable question: Are we becoming a fascistic state? In fact, the way we are going we are almost there. That leaves us little political space for dialogue. I believe that time is now ripe for a decisive action by the civil society through a consensus on an alternative model of development and rewrite the Constitution.