Straddling the border districts of Dehradun in Uttarakhand and Sirmour in Himachal Pradesh, the Kishau hydropower project, a multipurpose project with a 660-megawatt power generation capacity, has been planned on the Tons river.

The Kishau dam, once built, will be 236 metres of vertical height making it the second-highest dam in India, after the Tehri dam. While the project is intended for generating hydropower and supplying water for irrigation and drinking, it brings along with it the potential loss of homes and livelihoods of people living in the area and could also impact biodiversity.

The project promises to provide irrigation water covering 97,076 hectares of land in five states, which include Haryana, Rajasthan, Delhi, Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand. The dam is meant to also augment the drinking water supply for Delhi, the national capital, by 619 million cubic metres.

The central government will bear 90% of the cost of the project, while the Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand governments will contribute 10% together. Under this project, a 32-km long lake will be built from Mohrad in Himachal to Tuni in Uttarakhand.

In February this year, the government issued a tender for a detailed project report of the Kishau dam project. DK Garg, General Manager, Kishau Corporation Limited, a joint venture company of both the state governments that will implement the project, said, “The tender of Rs 1.24 lakh crore has been awarded to Tracktowel for the revised detailed project report of the dam project. The company will prepare the complete detailed project report in January 2024.”

Local residents allege the dam construction will displace nearly 30 villages with more than 20,000 people. Photo credit: Kapil Kajal/ Mongabay

Meanwhile, the locals of the area, both in Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh, have been protesting for more than a decade against the project. Surat Singh, the co-founder of the collective Kishau Bandh Sangharsh Samiti, said, “The government wants to displace thousands of villagers of Himachal and Uttarakhand and construct the Kishau Dam.”

“This is not acceptable to the people of the area,” Singh said. “We have been protesting against the project for a decade, but the government still wants to construct the dam.”

“We demand from the government of India that if the construction of Kishau dam is urgent, then it should be built in such a way so that the houses of the villagers and their fertile land can be saved,” he added. “Otherwise, we will not allow the government to build the dam under any circumstances.”

A strong opposition is also stemming from the fact that the affected area has a self-sufficient economy based on agriculture and a very low dependency on state government jobs. The government-initiated infrastructure development activity has not reached the area and people are dependent on roads and markets that have been developed on the Uttarakhand side of this region that is spread over two states.

Decades in making

The Kishau dam project was conceived way back in 1963. In the inter-state meeting held on November 7, 1963, four projects (Kishau, Chandini dam on Giri, Lakhawar and Kotch dam on the Yamuna) were proposed on the upper Yamuna basin. Uttar Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh, Punjab, Rajasthan and Delhi agreed, as part of the Yamuna water development agreement, to construct a dam on the Tons river, on the border of Himachal and erstwhile Uttar Pradesh.

In 1965, a detailed project report envisaging a 236-metre Kishau dam was submitted to the Central Water and Power Commission but was rejected on the grounds that the proposed site was in an active seismic zone. In 2000, a Technical Advisory Committee of the Central Electricity Authority deferred the techno-economic clearance of the Kishau project in the absence of established economic viability of the project.

Another detailed project report was prepared in 2010 by Uttarakhand Jal Vidyut Nigam Limited and an application was sent to the Ministry of Environment and Forest for fixing the Terms of Reference or grant of Scoping Clearance under the environmental impact assessment notification 2006. But Uttarakhand Jal Vidyut Nigam Limited never heard back from the authorities. In 2011, the project was formally transferred to Uttarakhand Jal Vidyut Nigam Limited, a state government corporation set up to manage and develop hydropower generation.

The project got a boost on May 7, 2013, with the decision of the central government to bear 90% of the total cost of the project. However, the project was then stalled again as Himachal Pradesh was asking for a 50% share in the hydropower installed capacity. In 2016, Uttarakhand agreed to share 50% of the total 660 megawatts of proposed hydropower installed capacity, with the Himachal government.

Thereafter, in 2020, the Central Water Commission, a central government agency, asked Kishau Corporation Limited to submit a fresh detailed project report again.

In the annual report 2020-’21, Central Water Commission said, “Detailed project report of Kishau Multipurpose Project was submitted to Central Water Commission in 2010 by Uttarakhand Jal Vidyut Nigam Limited for appraisal.

Compliance with most of the observations of the Central Water Commission/Central Electricity Authority are awaited since 2011. In view of the fact that this detailed project report was prepared in June 2010, since then technology and design philosophy has changed considerably and it was decided by the Project Authority to update the detailed project report. A timeline of 24 months for preparation and clearance of detailed project report has been submitted by Kishau Corporation Limited.”

Livelihood at stake

Under the project, 2,950 hectares (29.5 sq km) of land – a little more than the area of Dharamshala – are expected to be submerged, of which 1,498 hectares are in Himachal Pradesh and 1,452 hectares in Uttarakhand. An estimated 5,498 people belonging to 701 families in 17 villages will need to be relocated from their homes. As per the project website, nine villages of Uttarakhand and eight villages (six from Sirmour and two from Shimla district) of Himachal Pradesh will be affected by the project.

Mohar Singh, a farmer in Maghgaon village in Dehradun, one of the villages that would be submerged, said, “We have spent our entire lives in this area. We have all of our economic, religious and personal things here. Submerging this area will be like submerging a part of us.”

Of the total submergence area of 2,950 hectares, 512 hectares are cultivated private land and 2,438 hectares are forest land. Agriculture with livestock rearing is the main livelihood activity in the region. Farming is carried out in relatively flat lands with irrigation facilities available all around the year thus allowing multi-cropping and highly productive farming. People also practice commercial farming and cultivate crops like ginger, turmeric, cabbage, tomatoes and groundnut on a large scale.

Livestock rearing is one of the major occupations of the communities. Every household has goats, cows, and buffalos in the area and they are uncertain where they will graze their animals if they are relocated. Photo credit: Kapil Kajal/ Mongabay

Diwan Singh, head of the Maghgaon village, said, “The project will submerge the entire agricultural land of the area. This area along the Tons river is known as diamond for farmers.

“Nowhere in Himachal or Uttarakhand, such a fertile plain area exists,” Singh said. “Even if the government rehabilitates us somewhere, which we are not sure of, we will not get such land in the entire Uttarakhand or Himachal region. The dam will hit directly on our professions.”

Apart from agriculture, livestock rearing is another major occupation of the communities. Every household has goats, cows and buffalos in the area. Guman Singh from Siyasu village in Himachal, another submerging village, said, “I have 14 goats and 4 cows. If our village submerges, I do not know where to take my livestock.”

“I have a plot here in my agricultural land, where I keep them,” Singh said. “The forest is nearby for fodder and grazing. Everything is sorted here, we do not know how to manage our cattle in a new area. Will it be a forest land like ours or barren?”

“We easily get water from the Tons river here,” Singh said. “If we see early rehabilitation, like in the Renuka dam case, the people are not rehabilitated even after a year. Those who were relocated, got a barren land.”

“We have very fertile land, with every facility here,” Singh said. “Managing agriculture and livestock is easy here. We fear that this dam will take our employment, land, houses and animals.”

Diwan explained, “The government says that 17 villages will be submerged and around 5,000 people have to be rehabilitated.”

“All along 44.5 kilometres of the submergence area, villages are located on both sides of the river at some interval,” Diwan said. “Our village’s name is Maghgaon, and Maghgoan combined with two other villages is known as Kuwanu.”

“So Kuwanu technicially is not a single village but a set of three villages,” Diwan said. “In the government reports, however, Kuwanu is shown as a single village.”

He estimates that there are more than 30 villages in the area and more than 20,000 people – about four times the people estimated by the project document – whose lands, houses and everything will be submerged. “The forest-based livelihood and food system will be completely destroyed,” Diwan added.

Biodiversity under threat

The project that will be located in the Tons valley is expected to submerge 2,438 hectares of the forest land. All along the bank of the Tons river, there are scrub forests interspersed with scattered trees, pastures and dense broad-leaved forests.

The forest on the Uttarakhand side falls under reserved forest area (accorded a certain degree of protection) and civil soyam land (under the revenue department) while on the Himachal side, the forests are mostly shaamlaat forests (common lands that have individual and collective ownership) and a small portion of reserved forest.

Wildlife in the area includes some snow leopards, bears, musk deer, Himalayan tahr, common leopard, and serow while the birds found in the area are monal pheasant, koklass pheasant, Western tragopan, Himalayan snow cock, golden eagle, Steppe eagle, black eagle, bearded vulture, pigeons, parakeets, cuckoos, owls, minivets, bulbuls, tits, warblers, thrushes, finches, buntings and more.

The diversity in vegetation and flora of Tons valley has been extensively studied from 1994 to 1998. On the whole 761 species of phanerogams (plants that have seeds) referable to 480 genera and 132 families have been identified in the flora of Tons valley. Around 55 species of medicinal plants, used by the community in the region, have also been recorded in a survey. A study also found that Tons valley is home to 79 butterfly species.

Of the total submergence area of 2,950 hectares, 512 hectares are cultivated private land and 2,438 hectares are forest land. Agriculture is the main livelihood activity in the region which will be impacted with the submerged lands. Photo credit: Kapil Kajal/ Mongabay

Matvar Singh, a local environmentalist, said that the loss of many trees in the forest area that will be submerged will be a huge loss to both Uttarakhand and Himachal where forest area is on the decline.

“This will further induce landslides and floods in other areas as well, which are not submerged,” Matvar added. “Some of the trees are medicinal plants. Many extinct species are in the forests. The project will be a death knell for all the species and many species will be extinct from the planet, both plants and animals.”

A detailed project report, which was made earlier and accessed by local media, mentions that 81,300 trees, 631 wooden houses, 171 pucca houses, 632 group families of Uttarakhand and Himachal, 508 nuclear families, eight temples, six panchayats, two hospitals, seven primary schools, two secondary schools and one college will be submerged to make the project.

The local residents however question the methodology of the data collected for the detailed project report. “The detailed project report mentions that 81,300 trees will be cut for the project, but in reality, each village forest in the area has more than a lakh trees,” said Nisha Chauhan, head of Kota village in Uttarakhand that will be submerged for the project.

Marginalised groups affected

The area that will be submerged on the left bank of the Tons river is part of the Jaunsar Bawar region of Chakrauta in Uttarakhand, which is a Schedule V area – an area with predominantly tribal people. A part of Himachal going to be affected by the Kishau dam, while not a declared Schedule V area, has a significant population of the Jaunasari and Bawar tribes who believe that they are descendants of Kauravs and Pandavas referred to Mahabharata.

The villages also have people from the Dalit community, such as the Bajgis and Koltas, who are usually landless communities and mostly dependent on the forests for their survival. Most of the scheduled caste families are dependent on the upper castes for cash, food grains and access to shaamlaat forests.

Tekam Singh, who hails from the Bajgis, a scheduled caste, from the Kushraad village, said, “I do not know where to go and what to do if all the agricultural land is submerged. I work as a labourer in the fields of locals. I don’t have my own land. I don’t have any property records to show to the government.”

Displacement experiences in the past have shown that those worst affected are usually the Dalits and tribal people, and within them, the women and children. The majority of those displaced in the name of development are landless agricultural farmers working on land owned by someone else. The case of the Renuka dam in Himachal Pradesh too elucidates forcible land acquisition as a great setback for Schedule Caste communities such as the Kolis, Doms and other landless Dalit communities working as tenants.

In Himachal Pradesh, though the landless farmers, mostly Dalits were allotted a minimum of five bighas under the Nautod Scheme, however, the land provided was mainly barren forest and unsuitable for agriculture.

Since most of the scheduled caste families did not enjoy any land entitlements before the 1970s, the transfer of ownership of shamlaat land to the landowners as per their landholding size, left a large majority of these families without land entitlements over the shamlaat forest. This issue of ownership continues to date.

In 2019, a statement from the tribal affairs ministry said, “Wrongfully dispossessing members of scheduled castes or scheduled tribes from their land or premises or interfering with the enjoyment of their rights, including forest rights, over any land or premises or water or irrigation facilities or destroying the crops or taking away the produce therefrom amount to the offence of atrocities and are subject to punishment under said Act [The Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989].”

“Who cares for the Forest Rights Act these days,” said Deena Varma, a Dalit activist based in Dehradun. “We have seen scheduled tribes and castes forcefully evicted from their land since Independence.”

“They will get the least in this case as well,” said Varma. “They have lived their life in misery till now and will be living in hell from now on. Their survival is at stake completely if the dam will be constructed.”

Nilesh Negi, an environmental activist based out of Himachal, said, “The project is in a seismic zone due to which it has already been rejected.”

“The cost analysis of the project is also very low because of which the Technical Advisory Committee had previously rejected the project,” Negi said. “If this project is successfully built, it will be a huge loss to the biodiversity of the area. The floods and landslides will further increase in adjoining areas. Lakhs of springs will die. The government should reconsider their decision of making such a big dam.”

This article first appeared on Mongabay.