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Uttrakhand: Helang Incident Snowballs Into Major Controversy

Seema Sharma |
Women in the state are considered a frontrunner in protecting its trees, forest and natural resources, so their harassment for exercising traditional rights has been taken seriously by many.
Uttrakhand: Helang Incident Snowballs Into Major Controversy

On July 24, a number of social, environmental and political bodies are going to protest at Helang village in the Chamoli district of Uttarakhand. An incident of misbehaviour with two women has snowballed into a big issue, which bares the deplorable condition of hill dwellers and the surrounding ecology of the state.

The fodder heaps tied on the backs of these two local women were forcibly taken away by a few local police and security personnel of the CISF, who are deputed to guard a hydro project structure site under construction in the vicinity. The women shed tears on being harassed and were taken to a local police station where after waiting for long hours, a case was registered against them for disturbing the peace. Women were being barred from cutting fodder from the sole pasture land of the village, which has been acquired by the Tehri Hydro Development Corporation as a muck dumping site for the Vishnugad Pipalkoti (444 MW) project, which is in the making for the last 15 years.

The video of the incident went viral on the Harela festival day when the entire state celebrates greenery through plantations. Women in the state are considered a frontrunner in protecting its trees, forest and natural resources, so their harassment for exercising traditional rights was taken seriously by many groups.

Atul Sati, a local activist, told NewsClick, “Women in Uttarakhand are called Matrshakti (mother power) who fought for statehood and led agitation like Chipko movement to protect the forest, land and water. It is intolerable to see them harassed at the behest of an outsider company for exercising their traditional rights of collecting fodder.”

Mandodari Devi, one of these two women, said, "We were prevented from collecting fodder from the dumping site, which is perched right above the Alaknanda river. Any torrential river will be good enough to sweep the hundreds of tons of debris excavated from the construction site into the river and create a flood-like situation."

She said that THDC had also assured a public facility centre. However, nothing is likely to happen due to the instability of the site.

Helang village is situated above the confluence of the Kalpganga and Alaknanda rivers. The tunnel of the mega Tapovan Vishnugad (520 MW) hydropower project lies in the village, which is the end point of this project. As and when this project is completed, the water of the Dhauli Ganga river used by this project will ooze out from this tunnel. This water will then enter another tunnel at some distance, which belongs to THDC's Vishnugad Pipalkoti hydropower project.

“All the norms such as redressing public grievances regarding the project during a mandatory public hearing before starting the project were reduced to a farce by THDC. Local people had been opposing the selection of village land as a muck dumping site. Still, THDC played divisive politics and managed to influence some powerful local contractors and got the sarpanch and village pradhan to their side, who approved a proposal to build a playground on the muck dumping site. This was nothing but a ploy to silence the agitating villagers,” Sati said.

Chamoli police, in its tweet, explained: ‘It was on the nod given by the Gram Sabha and endorsed by Gram Pradhan and Sarpanch, that a playground is being constructed for the children of Helang village. However, some 23 families are hampering the process of their vested interest. The police intervened at the request of the district administration.’

District administration gave the same logic to the chairperson of the State woman commission Kusum Kandwal for the flared-up incident. Kandwal has directed the district administration not to misbehave with any woman in the village in future.

Various organisations are up in arms and all set to protest against the incident. General secretary of RSS-affiliate Bhartiya Kisan Sangh Anup Semwal cautioned, saying that if local people continue to be harassed this way, then migration from villages would further intensify.

State president of Mahila Congress, Jyoti Rautela, condemned the incident and said the women of Uttarakhand collect fodder for their cattle to help their families earn a livelihood.

She said that on the one hand, the state government has set up a rhetoric of the Ghasyari (Grass fodder collector) Kalyan scheme, and on the other hand, it is snatching the fodder from the hands of the Ghasyaris. Rautela said that the chief minister Pushkar Singh Dhami should seek an apology for the incident, and the state government should take punitive action against those involved in the incident.

“Lot of our precious land which belonged to forest, pastures, panchayat and other purposes has already been handed over to the companies in the name of hydropower plants, but even then, these companies are planning to grab more land from the villagers. It has created a big crisis of fodder and firewood for the villagers, and the Helang incident is the result of this crisis,” she said.

Sati was of the view that villagers should no longer trust the false promises of these giant companies who use local resources to milch money and share nothing with the local people. “The local people suffer the harmful environmental consequences of these projects. These project proponents make false promises to locals to take their consent for the project but hardly fulfil them. "

He referred to a couple of such instances. "In order to assuage people's concerns who were agitating for a long time, JP company had assured people of Chayi village in Chamoli district of bringing development to the village through a new playground, hospital, school etc. in lieu of using their natural resources. The assurance was given in the presence of district administration officials, but it has been 15 years of completion of their project, and nothing was done on the ground for the villagers," he said.

“National Thermal Power Corporation in 2010 had given the word in the presence of the then union minister Sushil Kumar Shinde, of facilitating insurance of those living in 250-metre area around hydro project tunnel, but this agreement made on paper has not been enforced till date,” he added.

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