The Indian state of Himachal Pradesh has about a quarter of the country’s hydropower potential. It has an installed capacity of a little over 10,000 MW out of its full potential of over 27,000 MW. While the last decade saw a surge in hydropower development in the state, for the last three years, the state government has been making desperate attempts to revive the hydropower sector.

Falling revenues, the lack of interest of the private sector in taking up any new projects, the inability of existing projects to be completed on time, the rising cost of hydropower and the social and environmental impacts leading to local resentment are some indicators that the government seriously needs to review its unrelenting faith in hydropower development as the driver of the state’s economy. But instead of taking a critical look at the hydro policy, the government has kept the focus squarely on easing the environment for developers.

On March 4, 2014, the state government’s power department issued a notification on amendments to the 2006 hydropower policy, doing away with the requirement of separate No Objection Certificates from the Public Works Department, the Irrigation and Public Health Department, Revenue Department, Fisheries Departments and Gram Panchayats (village-level elected bodies).

On August 17, this notification was issued again with the intention to fast-track clearance procedures. Last year, approximately two dozen groups and community representatives made a submission objecting to these amendments, especially to the dilution of NOCs of local village councils, stating that it was in violation of the provisions of the Forest Rights Act 2006 which is yet to be implemented in the state. Despite this the government went ahead with the changes.

The Himachal government has also dragged its feet on the implementation of the Forest Rights Act, precisely because it is worried about its provisions being an obstruction for hydro-development. And now on September 24, the cabinet of the Himachal government approved a proposal regarding non-applicability of the Forest Conservation Act, 1980, in the Scheduled Areas of Kinnaur, Chamba and Lahaul-Spiti for a period of two years. Amidst such a dismal scenario, the people of a small village in faraway Kinnaur, who challenged the forest clearance for the Kashang hydropower project, have been in the news for getting their voices heard.

A village in the Himalayas

Article 51 A (g) of the Constitution of India imposes upon every citizen, the duty to protect and improve the natural environment including forests, lakes, rivers and wildlife, and to have compassion for living creatures. The National Green Tribunal quoted this Article in May in a judgment on the Integrated Kashang Hydropower Project in Kinnaur, and expressed, “a deep sense of foreboding and serious anxiety on the future of the state and its progeny” in the context of the number of hydropower projects coming up in the state and the subsequent ecological impacts of these.

The NGT directed the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change and the Himachal state government to place the entire forest diversion proposal for the said project before the affected Gram Sabhas for their perusal. The judgement went on to conclude that, “the Gram Sabha shall consider all community and individual claims” in the process bringing under it the cultural, religious, environmental and livelihood impacts as a result of the loss of forests and water sources.

This visual journey through Lippa, one of the main affected villages helps put the NGT’s judgment in perspective.

Lippa, also referred to as Chhota Shimla, is tucked away in a high mountain valley in Kinnaur. A bridge greets you at the entrance of the Lippa village. Underneath flows the roaring Kerang khadd (stream), a perennial snowfed river that makes its way through high mountain slopes into the mighty Satluj. It is this river that will be diverted from its original route through a tunnel and dropped into another river called Kashang to generate 130 MW of power. It is the lifeline to the people of Lippa village.

At the base of the Lippa village, another stream, Pajer joins the Kerang. “If it was not for the Kerang holding down the Pajer and washing off the silt brought by it, Lippa would have been buried under debris by now”, said SS Negi. The failure of the EIA reports of the project to assess the sediment load of Pajer and emphasise the role of Kerang for the survival of the village is a blatant oversight according to him and the key reason for resistance to the project.

Bridge over Pajer stream [image by Manshi Asher]
Bridge washed away in 2014 [image by Prakash Bhandari]

Negi is a resident of Lippa and one of the leaders of the Paryavaran Sanrankshan Sangarsh Samiti (Environment Protection Struggle Group), Lippa. He does not carry the air of a retired vice chancellor, a post he held at the Dr YS Parmar University of Horticulture and Forestry in Solan, but speaks with the authority of someone who knows his village and its history well.

S. S. Negi deposing to the panel at the Satluj Basic Cumulative Impact Assessment Report Consultation [image by Sumit Mahar]

In fact, most residents of this Buddhist village narrate with pride stories of their ecological and cultural heritage which defines their very existence. These include the stories of the Buddhist monks who visit the Padmasambhava temple, located just along the proposed tunnel for the Kashang project, to attain siddhi, or divine knowledge. There are also two high altitude lakes along the ridge, where the monks go to pray for rains in times of long dry spells.

The traditional devta puja at Lippa village [image by Manshi Asher]

In December men and women, old and young, are seen with necklaces of dried pine nuts, locally known as chilgoza, a species endemic to the area which is now under threat. Close to 530 chilgoza trees will be felled in the 0.63 square kilometres of forest land to be cleared for the Kashang project. According to Devi Gyan from Lippa village, 10,600 kilogrammes of chilgozas are collected and sold at Rs 450 ($6.75) per kg; some years they sell for as much as Rs 1,000 ($15) per kg.

Collecting pinenuts, locally known as chilgoza [image by Sumit Mahar]

The peculiar terrain provides very limited scope for construction as well as farming, and yet the people of the region have worked hard to carve out terraces on steep slopes and river sides to support the thriving apple and horticulture based economy. The diversion tunnel for Kerang with 4 access tunnels for the project will be constructed upstream of Lippa at a place called Lappo. There are close to 150 natural water springs in Lappo where a majority of families from Lippa village have agricultural land and apple orchards. The springs are the main source of irrigation. Evidence from existing projects like the 1,200 MW Karchham Wangtoo, indicates that underground tunnelling may disturb the hydrological processes and lead to the drying up of chashmas (springs).

Orchards have been painstakingly planted in the area [image by Prakash Bhandari]

The Kashang project is just one of many in Kinnaur which has led to the landscape being torn apart, pieces of its hollowed mountains sliding, cracking and quaking every other day. Little wonder that the people of the region welcomed the NGT judgment. For a people who have paid the cost of this “development”, without ever being considered as “decision makers” in the process of planning and impact assessment, the NGT judgment validated their connection with their landscape and culture.

Urni landslide near tunnel for 1,200 MW Karcham Wangtoo project [image by Sumit Mahar]

Prakash Bhandari is an environmental researcher-activist. Sumit Mahar documents environmental issues with his camera. Both are associated with Himdhara, Environment Research and Action Collective based in Himachal Pradesh.

This article first appeared on The Third Pole.