What do young Indians who voted for the first time in 2014 think about the past decade? Scroll reporters find out in The Modi Generation.

Sunder Negi, who was a first-time voter in the 2014 general elections, cannot recall whom he voted for then. Nor does he remember the poll promises that candidates had made.

“MPs barely campaign in Kinnaur before elections to raise issues particular to the district or the tribals,” Negi said. “So, promises made during the 2014 general elections for Himachal don’t penetrate all the way here. This is probably why I don’t remember it!”

Negi has, however, closely watched changes in the region since 2014, when the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance came to power, under the leadership of Narendra Modi. Since then, he said, the government has promoted “unsustainable development” in the form of broader roads, particularly in border districts like Kinnaur, which shares an international border with China.

“The Centre sets these targets in Delhi, but we see the impacts of it in Kinnaur,” he said. “Opposition and local sentiments of people that we have communicated to the Center and prime minister have not been heard.”

Negi lives in Khadura, a village that falls under the Rarang panchayat, and is situated along the river Sutlej, about 30 km from Kinnaur’s district headquarters, Reckong Peo. Kinnaur is Himachal Pradesh’s hydropower hub – it has 15 operational projects and 53 more are planned. Experts and locals have raised grave concerns about the environmental losses and tribal rights violations that have accompanied dam-building here.

Since 2019, Negi and other young people in Kinnaur have been leading a resistance movement against large hydropower dams in the district.

While Negi’s memory of the 2014 election is a blur, he clearly remembered the by-poll in 2021 for Himachal Pradesh’s Mandi Lok Sabha seat, a constituency under which he is a voter.

Before the by-election, residents of Akpa, Jangi, and Rarang panchayats discussed the possibility of casting “none-of-the-above” votes as a mark of protest against the hydropower development. Soon, they decided on another option: boycotting the election completely.

Indeed, till 5 pm on the day of polling, Kinnaur’s district commissioner and district election officer told PTI that no votes had been cast in the three panchayats. This amounted to around 1,800 lost votes. Kinnaur also saw over 1,000 NOTA votes, Negi said.

Negi noted that political candidates and the administration had often claimed that hydropower projects could generate employment in the region. However, most locals were not persuaded by these promises. “Having seen other villages’ experiences with hydropower, people knew how temporary these jobs are, and that it’s usually the contractors that get the job, not local residents,” Negi said.

The question is significant because Himachal Pradesh offers limited job opportunities. “Youth usually go out to study, and once back, they look mostly for either government jobs, or continue their family’s business of growing cash crops like apple orchards or peas,” Negi said. He added that this trend has largely remained unchanged in the last ten years. “Private jobs have always been few and the situation remains the same today,” he said.

Negi studied and worked outside Kinnaur between 2010 and 2019, during which time the state government commissioned two new large dams and began construction on another two.

The year he returned to Kinnaur, 2019, the state government allotted another dam, the 804 MW Jangi Thopan dam, to Satluj Jal Vidyut Nigam, or SJVN, a public-sector undertaking. The dam was being constructed just a few kilometres from Negi’s home.

Negi believed “that Jangi Thopan must be stopped,” to protect local livelihoods and ecology. He and his friend Dinesh brought together youth clubs of the six panchayats affected by the dam – such youth clubs have been formed across the country since 1972 under the auspices of the Nehru Yuva Kendra, which itself falls under the ministry of youth affairs and sports, and normally worked towards organising sporting and horticulture activities.

The activists also met a retired IAS officer named RS Negi and other members of the Him Lok Jagriti Manch, a collective that works on environmental issues and other challenges in the state – the collective helped them with information on strategies they had used in earlier protests and movements against dams. Another collective, the Himdhara Environment Collective, shared with them research and information on environment law.

With their help, the young activists educated themselves about concerns of hydropower developments that had been raised in previously filed memorandums – such as of the deforestation of the endemic chilgoza tree, the risks of landslides given the region’s topography, and the violation of tribal rights. A local social media initiative, Kyang, also started supporting their campaign. “In 2017-’18 and earlier, very few locals had been active in resisting the dams,” Negi said. “Rest of the people in Kinnaur knew that such development was happening but did not have enough information to act on.”

Sundar Negi at an anti-dam campaign meeting in Kinnaur. After a stint outside the district, Negi returned in 2019 and became one of the leaders of the movement. Photo: Sumit Mahar

By now, the youth had realised that no matter which party was in power, panchayat members would readily sign no-objection certificates, or NOCs, giving companies their consent to use their forests and lands for hydropower projects. Often, they gave these permissions without consulting the rest of the village, Negi said. “We wanted to change this and wanted to have a representative inside so that such information about NOCs comes out to the public.”

In 2020, the position for a block development committee member of Akpa panchayat, became vacant. The youth collectively decided that Dinesh should stand for the election as an independent candidate – his campaign focused on environmental and social issues linked to hydropower. Dinesh won by 292 votes.

As an elected member, Dinesh would be called for official meetings regarding Jangi Thopan. One such meeting pertained to the formation of a monitoring committee to assess how natural resources would be impacted by the dam’s construction.

At the meeting, Dinesh, Negi and others voiced their opposition to the very formation of the committee, because it indicated that the project was going ahead. The discussion grew heated and one young man addressed SJVN officials loudly – “dam nahi chahiye toh nahi chahiye, why don’t you understand, no means no!”

The phrase caught on, and became the label under which Kinnaur’s anti-dam movement gained momentum. Negi noted that while people from the six panchayats directly impacted by the dam were most active in the movement, it received support from villages across the district.

In 2021, members of the No Means No movement were in a meeting when they heard that SJVN’s vehicles had arrived at the dam site to unload some construction material. “We rushed down to the spot, and had a long argument demanding SJVNL to leave,” Negi said. “Even the police came.” Finally, the youth sat down on the road in protest and refused to leave till the company representatives left. “That became our first dharna,” Negi said with a smile. Since then, members of the movement have held multiple meetings, spoken to district officials to convey their opposition to the project and carried out rallies.

Ahead of the assembly elections held in November 2022, neither the Congress nor the BJP spoke about the issue of hydropower dams. Then, two BJP candidates left the party, and one of them, Tejwant Singh Negi stood independently. “He was being very vocal about hydropower, so we supported him.” Though the Congress candidate won with over 20,000 votes, and Tejwant stood third with around 8,500 votes, the election marked an important step in the movement, in which activists and citizens directly participated in electoral politics.

“I believe that it’s not necessary that we make some big changes at the national level to be impactful,” Negi said. “Even if we are making changes at the village level, that’s a big thing for us.”

In November 2023, the state government cancelled SJVN’s tender for the construction of Jangi Thopan after the company failed to make progress as per deadlines that were agreed on. Now, members of the movement are waiting to see if another company will be allotted the dam project.

“It does not matter to us whether the company left because of our efforts or other external factors,” Negi said. “It matters to us that they left, and that all of Kinnaur had supported No Means No in this regard.”