The Tehri Dam, when completed, will be one of the highest dams in the world harnessing the waters of two important Himalayan rivers – Bhagirathi and Bhilangana. Tehri dam is finally expected to be 260.5 m high and impound 3.22 million cu m of water. The reservoir is expected to irrigate 2,70,000 hectares of land and generate 346 mw of hydel power. The dam will completely submerge Tehri town and 23 villages, while 72 other villages will be partially submerged. Nearly 5,200 hectares of land will also be lost to the reservoir. In addition, about 85,000 persons will be displaced by the dam.
The Tehri dam has witnessed continuous questioning and protest by various people, including the noted environmentalist Sunderlal Bahuguna who has virtually made it his life-long mission to stop the construction of the dam by living at the dam site and by going on periodic fasts. To marshal their case, the Tehri opposition has tried to establish connections between ecological, social and mythical values through scientific studies, environmental campaigns and cultural religious references, thus engaging in a wide gamut of environmental politics.
Those opposed to the dam emphasise the economic life and structure of the dam, its geology and seismicity, displacement and rehabilitation, cost and benefit. They also talk about the cultural and religious values of the Ganga river and the Himalayan region. They attempt to use scientific knowledge to explain their perceptions of imaginative and emotional truths. They go on fasts, dharnas, demonstrations, and other agitational programmes, to focus on their demands.
The anti-Tehri dam politics has been subject to a collaborative relationship between what is ‘factual’, ‘scientific’ and ‘technical’ and what is ‘religious’, ‘faith’, ‘emotional’ and ‘mythical’. This collaboration seeks to heal the great environmental and cultural wound that development and the dam has inflicted on the region. Towards this end, they speak the language of ecological politics, as it was the universal language of the anti big-dam movement of the 1970s. They also invoke certain metaphors, and it is through many of these that the anti-dam forces, more especially Sunderlal Bahuguna, reach out to particular religious practices and mythical beliefs. In their use of these metaphors and myths, the environmentalists often come close to the beliefs of conservative Hindu forces and their chosen communal path. In effect, the metaphor and the myth is the Trojan horse through which communal politics enters and re-enters green politics.
Attitudes against big projects and dams, the Tehri dam in particular, were part of the growth of the environmental movement in India in the 1970s. This period is generally seen as one of growing environmental consciousness and movements. One popular mode was to use facts and figures, scientific methods and techniques, to challenge a project that too claimed to be based on scientific calculation and assessment. The concern with reason and measurement, data and cost calculation was like a social enterprise and found expression not only in the setting up of the Tehri Bandh Virodhi Sangharsh Samiti in 1978 and its various campaigns, but also in several studies, research papers and articles.
Through an analysis of technical, social and environmental variables, it has been argued that the economic life of the dam will not exceed 61.4 years and the dam will not yield promised results within the next fifty years at least, by which time the reservoir would be substantially silted up. Regarding the real life situation of the Tehri dam oustees, problems of land alienation, destitution, inequality, abrupt and forced changes in the agricultural pattern, breakage of the joint family system, total lack of the village commons, educational and health facilities were emphasised.
Environmental politics against big projects is often also the preservation and pursuit of the natural and the beautiful. Aesthetic issues revolve around the depiction of what is pristine and heavenly at the project site and what constitutes natural and harmonious living. This has been an important part of the criticism against big projects like dams. In the particular case of Tehri dam, the region and the project site have been repeatedly referred to as pious, peaceful and solitary. The Himalayan region and the Ganga are seen as symbols of a divine force, a thing of beauty and a point of contact with the infinite. Though this landscape regularly appears on the canvas of environmentalists, it is not necessarily associated with mythical and religious figures and symbols.
The Tragedy At Tehri
THE votaries of the mammoth 2,400 MW Tehri hydroelectric project may have felt victorious when the Supreme Court removed all legal hurdles before the construction of the dam in September 2003. Town planners and administrators may have patted themselves on their backs for this victory because they expect the dam, once completed, to solve the power and water crises in most of northern India.
But if the tragedy that struck the Tehri dam, located in the Garhwal Himalayas of Uttaranchal, at 10-35 p.m. on August 2 is any indication, environmentalist Sunderlal Bahuguna’s reiteration that the dam “will spell disaster” could prove prophetic. The huge landmass that caved in and trapped and killed 29 workers (the number is bound to go up once the rescue operations are over) inside a tunnel at the dam site could just be the warning signal of the environmental dangers involved in the construction of the dam in what anti-dam activists regard as a highly seismic zone. As per preliminary details made available about the cause of the accident (the technical inquiry report will be ready only in September), the accident occurred because the topmost platform, called the slip form, which was being built in the vertical shaft to be connected with tunnel T3 caved in after a huge landmass and rocks fell on it from the adjoining loose area. More than 60 workers were engaged in the concreting work at the shaft. In a chain reaction, the slip form crashed on the second platform, called bulkhead, where over 20 workers were on duty, and then cascaded to the base of the shaft, where 30-40 persons were at work. In the process a huge mass of concrete and iron also crashed down, trapping and killing the workers who came under it. The tragedy struck so quickly that most of the workers could hardly react. Some of the workers managed to get out of the tunnel in time. The number of those who got trapped could be between 70 and 80. Eleven injured workers, five of them in a serious condition, were extricated from the debris. The majority of the workers were from Bihar, Jharkhand, Punjab and Orissa and earned between Rs.4,000 and Rs.5,000 a month.
According to officials from the JP Group of Industries, which is carrying out the construction work of the Tehri project, the landmass apparently came loose because of heavy rain in the region. The JP Group has announced Rs.10 lakhs for the families of those killed.
The vertical shaft was meant for discharging extra water from the dam. The excess water would enter the shaft and then flow to the T3 tunnel before emptying into the river on the other side. It is learnt that this shaft was nearing completion.
The accident, many feel, could have been avoided if the work had been stopped during the rain. According to Dr. P.C. Navani, Director, Geological Survey of India, Dehra Dun, who worked at the Tehri dam site for 15 years from 1985, the accident happened because work was still continuing at the “unlined area” of the shaft during the rains. “Work in the rainy season in the unlined area should have been avoided at all costs,” he told Frontline on phone from Dehra Dun. Navani, who had directed and guided the Terhi dam authorities in ” understanding the specific problems at the site”, said that while the concrete lining of the shaft was in progress a portion of it near the top was “unlined and a rock mass was exposed. It got dislodged because pore water pressure had increased because of the rain”. Had this lining been done before the rain came or work was stopped during the rain, the disaster could have been averted, he said.
But work was in full swing to meet the September deadline for the completion of the T3 tunnel. Incidentally, had the deadline been met the two-century-old Tehri town would have moved yet another step closer to its watery grave. If filling of the dam goes as per plan, part of the old town would be submerged sometime in November. The first phase of the project, generating 500 MW of electricity, is slated to be completed by May-June next year.
Meanwhile, heavy downpour has swelled the Bhagirati whose swirling waters are submerging the town, while a number of dam-displaced persons continue to struggle for shelter. Some 500 families from the villages in the doob (submergence) area are still waiting to be rehabilitated, according to Punit Kansal, Tehri District Magistrate. He said the administration was trying to rehabilitate them near Haridwar. According to the District Magistrate 5,991 urban and 5,429 rural families are “eligible oustees” while hundreds of other displaced persons do not come under the government’s rehabilitation scheme for some technical reason or the other.
This correspondent came across several families possessing original land or house documents (making them eligible oustees) and yet being denied any rehabilitation package. Bir Singh Rana, who owned a house in Old Tehri, has not been provided with one at the rehabilitation site. Sunil Singh Rana, along with his four brothers, is waiting for the allotment of a house and shops. His family had owned five shops, but he received compensation for only one shop. Although he was in possession of a house in Old Tehri since 1918, he received no compensation for it. Then there is Kriparam Dhondiyal, who lost his house and is making do with a one-room house in the Motibagh area with his family. Zahur Beg, whose electronics goods shop in the Old Tehri market has gone under water, claims electronic goods worth Rs.3 lakhs were destroyed as he had no alternative place to store them. He has also not been compensated. Then there is Naeem Ahmad, who had a quilt making shop, who is running from pillar to post for some compensation. There are more such stories. But the District Magistrate says nowhere in the world has rehabilitation been done to the entire satisfaction of all those affected.
In the case of the Tehri oustees, even if they get a “suitable package”, their loss is never compensated. In the words of Sunderlal Bahuguna, “our history, geography, culture, everything is going under water. Memories associated with our childhood, with the freedom struggle, with our youth, everything is drowning.” His wife Vimla Bahuguna, sitting beside him, agrees, “It is painful to see the memories from the past getting lost under water for ever.”
The Seismic Fault
In late November 2001, the Indian government ordered shut the diversion tunnels on the partially completed Tehri Dam, beginning the creation of a giant reservoir on the Bhagirathi River. The dam has been under construction since 1978, and when finished will be the world’s seventh highest, at 260 meters. Within days, the rising waters began to flood the 200-year old town of Tehri–which may be completely submerged by late 2002.
In 1980, the project was rejected by the government’s own Environmental Appraisal Committee, which found serious flaws in the geological studies and environmental and social assessments conducted for the proposed barrage. Despite repeated expert warnings about the high risk of earthquakes in the Himalayan region where the dam is located, the government’s dam-building agency has pressed ahead with construction.
The dam is being built on the edge of the Central Himalayan gap, the fault line that separates India from the rest of the Asian continent. Seismologists warn that if the region experienced an earthquake of 8 or more on the Richter scale, the dam would likely fail. The resulting flood would put millions at risk and submerge a number of downstream cities, including Rishikesh, Hardwar, and Meerut–which is just 55 kilometers east of New Delhi. Many seismologists have recommended that the Indian government abandon the large dam in favor of a series of smaller, less risky hydroelectric projects.
In the last 25 years, about 100,000 people have been displaced by the Tehri dam project. And a recent report from the South Asia Network of Dams, Rivers, and People found that more than 70 percent of the affected rural families still have not been appropriately resettled.