This post originally appeared in Project Groundswell
“There’s no means to live here anymore,” said Mooni Devi, a 42-year-old farmer in the village of Sau Upu in the Tehri Valley. “What is left here now? What do we eat? They have made us all into beggars. All the good farmland is gone. We just do our work, what else is there for us to do?” Sitting with Mooni Devi, we heard first-hand how recent floods and the rise in the Tehri Dam reservoir level have impacted daily life.
At night the hillsides looked as though they were earthbound stars, little clusters of houses, villages and small towns subtly illuminating the dark night. Across the reservoir it was easy to see the lights of the dam in an orderly line. Sitting at the top of a mountain in the foothills of the Indian Himalayas, it was hard to imagine the valley without the expanse of water that had flooded over 100 villages and forced the relocation of over 100,000 people. It was strangely beautiful if you ignored the environmental, political and social costs associated with a dam project whose history began in the 1960s.
It seemed strange that only one boat made the journey across the reservoir on a regular basis and I didn’t see a single person at the banks of the reservoir interacting with the water. Maybe people were asked not to dip their feet and bodies in Delhi’s drinking water.
I am generally skeptical when it comes to modern notions of “progress” and “development” and the one-size-fits all assumptions that are used to justify many large-scale projects. But what about hydroelectricity, touted by many as a clean form of energy? It sounds like a good idea, in theory.
The long and complicated history of the Tehri Dam mirrors the windy and bumpy roads used to reach the dam site. It does not lend easy access for researchers or journalists.
Historical Context: Slowly Stopping the Flow
The Tehri Dam was built to provide irrigation for farmers, generate 1000 MW of electricity, and to supply New Delhi with additional drinking water. Initial technical and financial assistance was provided by the Soviet Union, but after its collapse, the Indian government took over financing the project. A 1991 article in the Times of India said that “The involvement of a foreign government distorted the process of assessment of the environmental impact and influenced the environmental ministry to issue an unauthorized Press statement to meet the Soviet requirement.”
Proponents of the project claimed that it would create “integrated development of the Garhwal region, including construction of a new hill station, New Tehri Town with provision of all civic facilities; improved communication, education, health, tourism, development of horticulture, fisheries, and afforestation of the region.”
While perhaps an interesting concept in theory, I have to wonder how all of the subsistence farmers who depended on the land now flooded with water felt about all the promises.
An Environmental Nightmare
The Tehri Dam has been criticized by a number of organizations for the environmental problems the dam will cause. Despite the high risk of dam failure by earthquakes, erosion of hillsides, the threat of rapid siltation and potential impact on fisheries and other fauna and flora, the dam was completed in 2006.
According to Dr. Vandana Shiva, dams are detrimental for a number of reasons, including the fact that “diversion of water from its natural course and natural irrigation zones to engineered ‘command’ areas leads to problems of water-logging and salinity.” “Diversion of water from its natural course prevents the river from recharging groundwater sources downstream.”
But one of the most concerning aspects of the project is the fact that the Tehri Dam was built in a very earthquake-prone region. According to KS Valdiya, Professor in the Department of Geology in Kumaon University. “The mountain on which the Tehri Dam is being built is criss-crossed with active geological faults” (The Statesmen, November 1991).
Moving Downstream from Here
What is the solution to a dam that has already displaced thousands, flooded land, and makes little contributions to assuage any of the larger crises of the day such as climate change? A dam that also brings drinking water, some electricity and irrigation? (As an aside: recent evidence suggests that India’s dams are the source of 19% of India’s total greenhouse gas emissions. The reason is that organic material that decomposes in reservoirs is a large source of methane.)
As we walked across the bridge, we looked down to see fish in the water. Before we had a chance to ask about fishing, we saw a man in the back of a restaurant preparing fish. Documenting the floods and effects was tiring but perhaps, if the seismic shifts in the region can hold back for a bit longer there will be room for people to adapt and to interact with the water, and continue the flow of daily life in another way.
That is, at least until the dam’s projected life ends within the next 60 years and the people of Tehri Valley will be forced to adjust once more.
-Vandana Shiva, Staying Alive: Women, Ecology and Survival in India, Zed Books, 1988, p. 186.
-Ignoring Reason, Inviting Disaster: Threat to the Ganga-Himalaya, Collection of articles published by friends of Chipko, 1992.
-Sunil K Roy, “Review of Tehri is Now Mandatory,” The Times of India, October 31, 1991.
-The Statesmen, November 1991.
-THDC Profile, Tehri Hydro Development Corporation Ltd. (A Joint Venture of Govt of India & Govt of UP), August 2001.