In the wake of massive floods and destruction in Himachal Pradesh’s Kinnaur region, locals and residents now demand a moratorium on big dam and hydel projects

Even as the national media poured all its attention to the recent Uttarakhand floods and devastation, a similar plight of people, if not of such a scale, went completely unnoticed and unreported in the picturesque Kinnaur region of Himachal Pradesh around the same time.

Unprecedented amounts of rainfall followed by snowfall on 15-17 June not only claimed several human lives as well as hundreds of livestock, orchards, agricultural lands, houses, schools and roads also suffered extensive damage.

Holding the various dam, large hydro-electric and road construction projects that dot the region responsible for the frequent landslides, rapid soil erosion and subsequently the deadly floods, a mega people’s conclave was held recently at Rekong Peo, the district headquarters of tribal Kinnaur district, where environment activists demanded immediate moratorium on such projects.

R.S. Negi, member of Kinnaur Jan Sangharsh Samiti — an outfit fighting for environmental issues, said that the number of human deaths could be more than the official figure of 25 since many unregistered migrant labourers were living in temporary shed in the project areas. Many shepherds were also reportedly missing.

“More than 12,000 hectares of apple and apricot orchards, the mainstay of economy in the tribal lands, 12,600 hectares of agricultural land, over 1,700 houses, including schools and more than 300 roads, mainly rural ones, suffered extensive damage,” claimed Mr. Negi. 

In this region, numerous landslides and massive soil erosion has impacted vast areas; this has been aggravated due to muck dumped on river banks by hydro projects and roads construction contractors. Many houses and even villages have become unsafe to live. “Unfortunately, the plight of more than 70,000 Kinnaur residents has not attracted government and media attention,” said Mr. Negi.

Guman Singh of Himalayan Niti Abhiyan demanded that the trans-Himalayas be considered a high-risk zone because of the potential of earthquakes, floods and landslides and it needed to be governed by a sensitive and conducive model of development. He demanded that the Union and State governments should stop construction of dams and hydro projects in the Sutlej basin.

Heavy vehicular inflow, entry of external population because of tourism, constructing dams over the Sutlej and construction of ongoing hydro-projects has essentially impacted local climate and aggravated the nature of erratic weather, he said.

Rainfall of 365 mm recorded in 48 hours, something which the cold arid desert zone does not experience in a year, is an alarming sign for upper reaches of the Satlej valley which comes under highly seismological active zone, said the activists.

The unusual weather patterns in Kinnaur should be signs enough to realise that the current model of development with unscientific constructions could only lead to future catastrophes, like the one seen in Uttarakhand.

More than 300 participants attended the peoples’ conclave, organised by Him Lok Jagriti Manch. The activists claimed that more than 3,000 MW of electricity is already being generated from Kinnaur district alone though the entire requirement of residents here is only 20-30 MW. The government, they claimed, is earning revenue of about Rs. 600-700 crore by selling power and should compensate the locals for their huge losses.

The activists demanded parity in relief and damages: they pointed out that death relief of Rs. 5 lakh each was given to the Uttarakhand victims compared to a paltry Rs. one lakh in Kinnaur.

The conclave participants demanded that roads and other infrastructure in the region should be built according to hill construction norms. The Forest Rights Act and the Panchayat (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act should be implemented in letter and spirit in the tribal region and villagers should be given land as an unconditional livelihood claim, they said.

Meanwhile, Himachal Pradesh Chief Minister Virbhadra Singh in a recent meeting with the National Disaster Management Authority team has put the losses at Rs. 2,522 crore due to excessive rains in the hill State in past two months. Kinnaur alone has suffered losses of more than Rs. 1,200 crore, he said.