Himachal Pradesh: Is incompatible development damaging the state’s ecology, leading to natural calamities?

In recent years, landslides have been frequent in the region. On August 11, at least four people died after a landslide in Kinnaur. | Picture: PTI

Several reports and statements by the local organizations, scholars, and activists have time and again warned against the impracticability of making large-scale hydropower projects in a cold desert, like Lahaul-Spiti, with fragile ecology.

Nikita D | TwoCircles.net

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Frequent reports from the north Indian state of Himachal Pradesh present a wary picture of a development model gone wrong in the ecologically fragile state. Reports record the “natural calamities” that occurred in the region throughout July and August this year. While landslides, avalanches, cloud bursts, and flash floods are common in the fragile landscape of the state, this year the state saw an unprecedented number of incidents and lives lost. The reports said that 35 landslides were recorded between June 13 and July 30. The landslide that occurred in the Kinnaur district on August 11 killed at least 28 people. A report estimated the death toll from the recurring landslides to be around 246. Apart from landslides, erratic and heavy rainfall in the cold desert of Lahaul-Spiti on 27-28 July claimed 7 lives while Keylong and Udaipur experienced 12 flash floods.  

Experts and environmentalists have unambiguously pointed out the cause of such an increase in calamities to the incompatible development model undertaken in the region. The young Himalayas experience sensitive climate and active tectonic movement, making it unfit for projects that require large technologies and radical altercations to the natural landscape of the region.  

Hydropower projects in the Himalayan landscape 
Himachal Pradesh is abundant in water resources and houses 5 major rivers – Chenab, Sutlej, Ravi, Yamuna, and Beas. This feature of the mountainous region makes it a prime location for the generation of hydropower for the country. The Planning Commission of the Government of India in 2013 had estimated the hydropower potential of Himachal to be 112,000 MW (megawatt), accounting for nearly 78% of the country’s hydropower generation capacity. Other data also suggest that majority of the country’s capacity rests on the Himalayan region. 

Kinnaur district of Himachal, where the Sutlej basin is located, is the hydropower hub of the north Indian state. Roughly 53 hydropower projects are ongoing in the region while 140 projects are allocated in the Sutlej basin. One of the mega projects going on in the region is the Jangi Thopan Hydel Project that proposes to generate 804MW of power. 

Such expansive hydel projects also mean that highway projects are underway to support their construction. Reports suggest important scientific measures of road-building such as slope stability, retaining wall and rock bolting have been neglected in Kinnaur.  

Apart from Kinnaur, authorities have also turned to Lahaul-Spiti for furthering hydropower projects. The sangam (confluence) of Chandra and Bhaga rivers in Lahaul-Spiti has become the site of at least 16 big hydropower projects and many minor projects in the area, reports suggest. 

The irony of green energy
India has been a forerunner in the international bid for green energy. The UN Climate Change Conference (COP26), is set to take place in November 2021. In the 2015 Paris Climate Summit, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had announced India’s goal of ramping up renewable energy to 175 GW by 2022. The push for hydropower projects in the Himalayas reflects the Centre’s target to meet its promise at the international forum. However, activists say that the region is more compatible for smaller projects of hydropower or for harnessing wind and solar energy. This has created a contradiction between the ecological needs of the region and the renewable energy expectations of the nation-state. 

People’s movement
On August 26, various organizations including women and youth organizations of Kinnaur protested against the ongoing hydropower projects. One of the key demands was the halt of the Jangi Thopan Powari Power project, run by SJVN Limited, a mini Ratna, Category-I public sector company, and the Himachal Pradesh Power Corporation Limited (HPPPCL). This project, based in Sutlej valley, is set to generate 804 MV (megawatt) of power.  

The project will submerge 150 hectares of forest land, thereby endangering the chilgoza tree. According to another report, 72% of the river water will be passed through artificial reservoir channels, putting the river ecology of the Sutlej basin under immense pressure. Apart from the natural ecology, the project will disturb the staple apple economy of the region, the mode of sustenance used by the Kannaura tribe in the region. 

Early this year, the residents of Tandi village in Lahaul-Spiti district opposed the passing of a hydropower project by the state government at the Chandrabhaga confluence. 

Several reports and statements by the local organizations, scholars, and activists have time and again warned against the impracticability of making large-scale hydropower projects in a cold desert, like Lahaul-Spiti, with fragile ecology. 

PESA Act and its implementation
What makes this community versus development conflict more critical is the fact that the Himachal region is under Schedule 5 Areas in the Indian Constitution. This means that the demographic of the region is significantly composed of Adivasis, who have the right to protect their way of living against any form of intrusion. The Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas), PESA Act of 1996 was formulated to give autonomy to the Adivasis in dealing with their land, resources, and ecology in Schedule 5 Areas. The rules under the Act are composed state-wise and in Himachal Pradesh, they came into effect in 2011. The Act gives authority to the gram sabhas in the region to make important decisions regarding their land, resources, and income, including the right to sanction projects in their area.  

However, sources inform that there are many problems with the implementation of the Act. Firstly, there has been no initiative from governmental authorities to educate the people about their rights under the Act. Secondly, the office bearers refuse to acknowledge the Act and implement its provisions. Thirdly, the attitude of the people towards the gram sabhas is one of obligation rather than taking it seriously as a forum that can impact their lives. This has resulted in a poor channel of communication between the gram sabhas and the state government authorities.  

Sources from Kinnaur inform that the permission of the gram sabha was not taken for building the Jangi Thopan Powari Power Project. Lahaul-Spiti Ekta Mach, operating out of Lahaul-Spiti, sent in a representation to the governor for keeping the river free-flowing. They had further proposed a model of development that would encourage the locals to become employment generators. There has been no effective outcome of these deliberations yet. 

However, activists in the region and various organizations such as Save Lahaul-Spiti Society, have been working towards making people aware of the PESA Act and in pressuring the government to implement its provisions. There is a hope that PESA Act along with Forest Rights Act (FRA) if implemented, can save the region and its people from destruction unleashed by the hydropower projects.


Nikita D is an intern with TwoCircles.net.