Water flowed only once through the incomplete Kutku Mandal Dam in Latehar district of the eastern Indian state of Jharkhand. Construction was begun in 1975, and the water was released in 1997. According to a report by the Coordination of Democratic Rights Organisations, a coalition of civil rights NGOs, the water was released to shut down protests against the building of the dam.

The report states:

“The immediate reason for the postponement being that in order to silence the villagers’ protests the dam engineer Baijnath Mishra shut the temporary/sluice gate of the dam in August 1997.Thirty two nearby villages were submerged overnight in the resulting floods, and approximately 1100 families were affected. A large number of animals died and a lot of people’s property and goods were destroyed. The elderly people in the village reported that pans for carrying cement and rubble were used as boats to rescue people. Twenty one people drowned.

On 16 August the Maoists assassinated dam engineer Baijnath Mishra. Since then the project has been shut down.”

After years of lying idle, the controversial dam is now likely be revived in the coming months. The 68-metre high dam is a part of North Koel River Project proposed for a sub-tributary of Ganga River. Unsurprisingly, the plans to review the project are agitating tribal villagers. They also pose a threat to the already dwindling population of tigers and elephants in the Palamau Tiger Reserve.

The North Koel River Project report said that the project will help irrigate 1,24,270 hectares of agricultural land in Bihar and Jharkhand. Most of the benefit would be to Bihar’s Aurangabad district, which will receive water for 1,11,800 hectares of parched agricultural land. In Jharkhand, about 12,470 hectares, about a tenth of the total area to be irrigated due to the damn, will also benefit. A 24 MW hydropower plant is also a major component of the project.

Prakash Javedkar, the minister of state for environment, forest and climate change, first announced plans for the revival of the project in Ranchi on his way to an election campaign in Aurangabad. In May this year, his office sent a team to Latehar to assess the revival of the defunct dam. The decades of delay have increased the project costs from Rs 430 million ($6.4 million) in 1972 to Rs 1.3 billion in 2015. A pick up barrage about 100 kilometres downstream of the dam and a network of canals is ready.

Tribal protest

Punit Minz, a tribal activist, said the project’s gory history is set to repeat itself. “The dam might be ready but tribal families from 15 villages whose land would be completely submerged are not ready," he said. "Many people have lost lives because of this project.”

Minz was a witness to the deaths and bloodshed in 1997 at the dam site. The Maoists who claimed responsibility for the killing of Mishra still operate in the area. They claim they are fighting for greater rights for tribal people and rural poor. Their insurgency began in the Eastern state of West Bengal in the late 1960s, spreading to more than one-third of India’s 600-plus administrative districts. Maoists have also formed a strong Red Corridor mainly comprising of three states – Jharkhand, Odisha and Chattisgarh – but also including parts of Maharastra, Bihar and Andhra Pradesh for easy movement of their armed cadre.

Minz warns that tribal villagers are furious over the revival of the dam. “Whole villages have been declared submergence zones," he said. What makes it even worse is that these areas have been largely neglected by the government. “There have been no health centres or government facilities in the area for the last 40 years which further infuriates villagers."

The five villages that were displaced during dam construction have still not received compensation despite ongoing protests. Over 660 displaced families have blocked the national highway every few months to raise their issue.

Damming a dry river

Nitish Priyadarshi, a geologist and former professor of Ranchi University, pointed out rivers in Jharkhand are mostly rain-fed rivulets. “In the last five years, rivers like the Koel and Subrenarekha are drying up. The water flow has become extremely low,” he said. “Construction of a dam on such a river will not serve the purpose of irrigation or power generation.”

With drying rivers, hydropower generation is limited to the monsoon months in the state. The 130 megawatt Sikidiri Hydro Project on Subernarekha River, located around 40 km from Ranchi, is mostly idle throughout the year. The reservoir is supposed to be maintained at a depth of 1,925 metres to ensure drinking water, but this level is reached only three to four months in a year. On many occasions, authorities have closed the dam’s sluice gate because of inadequate water in the reservoir.

Priyadarshi warns that the low level of the water in the reservoir is because of changing rainfall patterns and water use in the region. “In such a scenario, dams on the rivers in Jharkhand are not a very practical idea,” he reiterated.

Big cats' shrinking home

There is another problem. The project will inundate almost half of the 1,000 sq km Palamau Tiger Reserve. Elephants have also died in the reserve because of the construction of the Ranchi-New Delhi railway track that runs through its elephant corridor area.

The tiger population in the reserve is already dwindling. The reserve was home to 22 tigers in 1973 and saw an unprecedented growth to 42 tigers in 2003. But in the 2014 census, the number of tigers dropped down to only three. SEH Kazmi, former director of the reserve, told thethirdpole.net that tiger reserve suffers from severe manpower shortage and constant gun battle between Maoists and security forces furthers hampers conservation work, leading to a low number of the species. Kazmi did not rule out the possibility of poaching, “When the tracking cameras fail to show visible tigers for a long period of time then it’s a hint that the tiger has been poached,” he said.

Kazmi points out that the North Koel River Project will not only reduce the area of the tiger reserve but also lead to the massive movement of armed Maoists, security forces and villagers, further disturbing the abode of tigers and elephants.

“We fear that submergence of villages will lead to more Maoists [in the reserve] leading to increased gun battle with security forces,” he said. “Once villages are submerged then tribal villagers would have no option but to clear the forest land to build their new settlement. This will lead to a major discontent inside the reserve.”

At the moment, the forest department strikes a delicate balance between Maoists and villagers to maintain wildlife in the reserve. Nearly 70% of the forest guard posts are vacant and villagers have become informants and protectors of wildlife.

Kazmi wrote a letter to the National Tiger Conservation Authority warning them of the threats to the tiger reserve. “Now, it’s up to the authority to decide whether it should give its nod to the project,” Kazmi said.

Last year, the Bihar government agreed to reduce the height of the dam by four metres, which will reduce the area of the reserve that will be submerged, but so far that is the only change.

Old project, new laws

Since 1970, new laws have been introduced to protect the environment, which have stalled the project. The Forest and Wildlife Protection Act prohibits any project that runs through protected areas or forest reserve.

However, Upendra Kushwaha, minister of state for human resource development and Sushil Singh, a member of parliament from Aurangabad district, are doing all they can to get the project back on track. They have asked the prime minister to intervene and start the Koel project. Kushwaha is also advocating the Wildlife Protection Act be relaxed for this project. He refused to comment, despite repeated attempts by this correspondent.

Saryu Rai, minister for parliamentary affairs, food, public distribution and consumer affairs in the Jharkhand government, has been active in protecting rivers in Jharkhand. He believes the debate over the project is about the the kind of development the state wants. “The final decision on the issue will be taken by National Tiger Conservation Authority or the Supreme Court,” he said.

This article first appeared on The Third Pole.