Tirthan, a tributary of the Beas river in Himachal Pradesh, is one of the rarest of rivers in India.

Not because it is teeming with trout, or because the tiny valley is home to nearly 100 species of butterflies, or because it has several functioning water mills running with flow of the river, but because it is protected by the Himachal legislature and by a court ruling as a free-flowing river. This means that no hydropower and dam projects can be built on the river.

While calculating the costs and benefits of dams, there are no similar discussions when it comes to a free-flowing river. How does a free-flowing river touch lives? Does it provide people with services, with succor, with hope? What are the tangible or intangible benefits of free-flowing rivers?

At the cusp of spring this year, photographer Abhay Kanvinde spent some time with the residents of Tirthan Valley. Here are some of his impressions:

Chunni Rana was our friend-guide and driver in the valley. Born and brought-up in Gushaini Village of Tirthan valley, Chunni holds that tourism in the valley is because of its rivers: Tirthan and Jibhi. He routinely takes researchers and scientists across the valley and has played a small role in protecting Tirthan. Credit: Abhay Kanvinde.
Ranjeev Bharti and his father Dileram Shabab have been the fountainhead of protecting the free-flowing nature of Tirthan. The lodge they started on the banks of Tirthan is not only a place of stay, but a small university of sorts: educating people across the world about the river and its people. Credit: Abhay Kanvinde.
Villagers come to Raju Guest House to help with chores. They all cross the Tirthan on foot to reach the lodge. Credit: Abhay Kanvinde.
Credit: Abhay Kanvinde.
Guman Singh of the Himalaya Neeti Abhiyan in the town of Banjar. He owns a small lodge on the banks of Tirthan. Singh has also played an important role in protecting the Tirthan river and has voiced concern about the heavy development along the river. Credit: Abhay Kanvinde.
Our trek guide Ludhian is from the Gushaini village. He guides trekkers to the origin of Tirthan, the Tirath Glacier. Here he relaxes at the Hippo point at the entrance of the Great Himalayan National Park. Credit: Abhay Kanvinde.
A cowherd waves as his cattle graze on the banks of the Tirthan. Credit: Abhay Kanvinde.
The Tirthan river is worshiped at almost all its waterfalls. Credit: Abhay Kanvinde
Vidya Devi shows the wool she has collected from her sheep that she will weave into shawls and carpets. Credit: Abhay Kanvinde.
Anglers and judges in Tirthan Valley. Credit: Abhay Kanvide.
Tourists, one of the important mainstays of Tirthan Valley’s economy. Like us, they take home not only the beauty of the valley, but a sense of wonder about the people and the river. Credit: Abhay Kanvinde.
Photographer Abhay Kanvinde with Neela Devi’s family.

This is not to say that everything is perfect in Tirthan valley. Too many hotels are being built on the riverbanks, construction debris finds its way into the rivers, sewage treatment is limited, the list goes on. But compared to the neighbouring valley of Sainj, with numerous mega hydropower projects, Tirthan and Jibhi valley hold on to something special: their autonomy.

The residents of Tirthan valley take initiative in protecting the forests, grazing lands and rivers, they are not “displaced or project affected people” stuck in a cycle of protests, fights and negotiations. The river, in turn, provides much to them, including employment. Perhaps the free-flowing nature of their rivers has rubbed off on the residents of the Tirthan Valley too.

This article was first published on South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People.