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Kinnaur Hydropower Project: Tribal Lives, Environment on the Line, say Residents

On August 26, people gathered at Himachal Pradesh’ Kinnaur to protest against further hydropower development in the tribal-dominated region.

New Delhi: As Himachal Pradesh continues to remain in the grip of flash floods, accidents and landslides, communities on the ground are gearing up to launch fresh resistance in the face of a major push for hydropower projects being given by the government in the eco-sensitive region.

On August 26, women, youth and other sections of society gathered at the district headquarter of Kinnaur to protest against further hydropower development in the tribal-dominated region.

The public meeting and protest rally was organised in the district headquarter of Reckong Peo. Among the key demands of the protesters was a complete halt on any further hydropower development in the Sutlej Valley. They want that the proposed 804 mw Jangi Thopan Powari project be stalled. 

According to activists and local residents, the project would lead to construction of an 88-metre high dam above the deepest foundation level across river Satluj near Jangi village, and an underground powerhouse on the right bank upstream of Tehsil boundary (Kashang Nallah).

The proposed project also involves erecting a 12- kilometre-long tunnel.

In addition, the project proposed to take under its ambit over 200 ha (hectare area) of forest land and over 150 hectares is likely to submerge , adversely affecting the environment of Jangi, Akpa, Khadura, Thopan and Rarang villages in the Jangram Valley.

The project falls under seismic zone 4 and will also lead to a drastic change in the flow of the Sutlej river, fear local residents. According to magazine Down to Earth: “92 per cent of the river will either be flowing through tunnels or will be part of reservoirs. Such a cumulative scale of disturbance with the river’s natural state drastically impacted the life, livelihood and ecology in the Satluj basin.”

The project, which began a decade ago, is being run by SJVN Limited, a mini ratna, Category-I public sector company and the Himachal Pradesh Power Corporation Limited (HPPPCL). Its ambitious target is to generate 243 megawatts (MW) of hydropower, of which only stage 1 (65 MW) has been commissioned. Stage II and III (130 MW in total) and Stage IV (48 MW) are yet to be constructed.

One of the key reasons behind the local communities’ opposition is the risks that project will generate not only for the sensitive ecosystem of the area but also for the Kannaura tribal communities, which were previously engaged in shepherding and cattle-rearing but are now dependent on land for production of apples and dry fruits. 

While SJVN states that only six panchayats will come under the ambit of affected  areas, villagers point at the more far-reaching impact on their area, claiming that some panchayats located on the left side of Sutlej river were not taken into account. According to them, at least 10 panchayats will be affected.

Residents are more angry because they say that the consent of the Gram Sabha was not taken despite the fact that the proposed area of the project falls under the Fifth Schedule of the Constitution, meaning it is a protected zone. 

Speaking with NewsClick, Sunder Lal Negi, an activist, said: “This has been a historic fight for us. Prior to the August 26 protest, a monitoring committee of the project was created without the consent of the Gram Sabhas. This project did not take into consideration people’s rights and habitat. If the project goes ahead, the height of the project will be 48 metres at the least and will impact 12 km downstream, impacting the chilgoza (pine nut) production.”

Kinnaur has the largest chilgoza forests, covering an area of around 2,000 hectares. Negi said: “If this project goes ahead, we will be forced to migrate.” 

Local residents and activists feel that the government’s hydropower push is driving the Himalayan terrain toward a bigger environmental catastrophe.

A study carried out in Kinnaur between 2012 and 2016 found that the  push for hydropower projects in the name of clean energy had brought in rapid land-use changes that adversely impacted local terrestrial ecosystems and communities inhabiting them. 

Speaking with NewsClick, SVJNL's General Manager, Roshal Negi, stated: "We want to proceed ahead with this project on the basis of consensus and cooperation of the people of the region. We are a PSU of the government and we have been given a contract, all that we are trying to do here is to carry out an intensive study/investigation into the geology. We can't proceed if people are against hydropower now. But we need to do a study for 3.5 years that is key to our process." 

The residents are also critical about taxpayer money being spent on undertaking such studies whereas the sentiment on the ground has been made clear to the government time and again. 

Roshan Lal Negi of the Jangi Thopan Powari Sangharsh Samiti said: “We have had ample number of dialogues and have given several chances to the administration and the government over the years to rethink. This protest is to indicate that there is no scope for any more talks because the people of the region have had enough”.

Kinnaur is already producing more than 3,000 MW of power.

However, in the past few years, the region has seen several slope failures and landslides as well as other ecological impacts.

“Policy makers have dismissed these as ‘natural disasters’ despite all kinds of evidence –only to give a clean chit to hydropower projects’’, say activist, adding that the Jangi Thopan affected area is sitting on a pre-existing landslide called Khadura. 

As the international climate summit, COP26, nears, India’s hydropower potential is estimated at 145GW (giga watt) at 60% plant load factor. The country has set a target of 175GW of renewable power capacity by 2022, including 5GW from small hydropower. However, it is projects like these that expose the inherent contradictions in India’s transition toward a greener energy solution.

On the one hand, the government recognises the fragility of the sensitive Himalayan eco-system, while on the other it is pushing a stream of projects to fulfil India’s energy goal, leaving the local communities to bear the brunt and pay the price for this “unfair” transition.

Manshi Asher of Himdhara Environment research and Action Collective criticised the “neo-liberal development model”, saying that it was the race to the bottom, posing a threat to the ecology as well as to livelihoods of people.

“The promises made by this model have failed.

Governments are acting as ‘middlemen’ for big corporations and precious public resources are getting privatised to make the rich richer”, said activists.

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