Environment

Stories From Renuka Valley as It Languishes in the Shadow of an Unbuilt Dam

Himachal Pradesh is hurrying to build a dam in Renuka Valley that will benefit three regions quarrelling with each other about the water. Meanwhile, the valley’s peasants look lost about their future.

Credit: Sumit Mahar

Credit: Sumit Mahar

April 15 is celebrated every year as Himachal Day. It was on this day that Himachal Pradesh was declared a Union territory separate from the Punjab Hill States in 1948. Several peasant struggles against bonded labour in the hills led to the emergence of a vision of an autonomous identity for the region, centred around the social and economic development of the hill-people in the pre-Independence period. The Sirmaur region of the state was one centre of these struggles. We recorded the prevailing narrative in the lives of peasants of the Renuka Valley in this region.

Giri river upstream of Dadahu town. Credit: Sumit Mahar

Giri river upstream of Dadahu town. Credit: Sumit Mahar

Madan Singh, now over 50, was a loud, robust, hands-in-the-soil sort of man. Until a few years ago, his face was alive, almost the colour of the earth itself. Now it seems vulnerable, as if somebody pulled the proverbial carpet from under his feet and he is now mid-air, unsure of where he’s going to land. And he is one among a few hundred others his age who seem to share this state: of living in a sultry mid-Himalayan valley.

Madan Singh, a resident of Lana Bhalta village. Credit: Sumit Mahar

Madan Singh, a resident of Lana Bhalta village. Credit: Sumit Mahar

A river named Giri carved out this valley millions of years ago to make its way and meet the Yamuna, a part of the Ganga river basin. This region of Sirmaur is well known for its production of ginger. According to official records, the cultivated area in the district is over 70,000 hectares, which was about 78% of the total cultivated area when checked a few years ago. And Sirmaur alone produced 83% of the state’s total ginger output. A few years ago, about 78% of the area in Sirmaur was under ginger, producing 83% of Himachal Pradesh’s total output. However, while cash crops like ginger, garlic, tomatoes and peas are common, subsistence agriculture dominates. Maize and wheat are the major produce; and livestock rearing also forms an important component of what is largely an agrarian rural economy.

Peasants take three crops a year in this fertile valley. Credit: Sumit Mahar

Peasants take three crops a year in this fertile valley. Credit: Sumit Mahar

For the last few decades, plans have been hatched and re-hatched to build the 148-metre-high Renuka dam on the Giri to reserve water and so quench the thirst of the bottomless pit called Delhi. And in the last few years, the Himachal Pradesh government has taken a lead to ensure that these plans materialise by initiating land acquisition proceedings for the dam. It was declared a ‘national’ project in 2009.

It isn’t clear how urgently Delhi will need, or needs, water from the unbuilt dam. However, that the Himachal government is in a hurry became certain when it slapped the ‘urgency clause’ under the Land Acquisition Act (1894) to acquire fertile agricultural land in the dam’s submergence area. It is spread out over 3,000 acres.

A layout of the Renuka Dam project near the Himachal Hydropower Corporation Limited's office, Dadahu. Credit: Sumit Mahar

A layout of the Renuka Dam project near the Himachal Hydropower Corporation Limited’s office, Dadahu. Credit: Sumit Mahar

Madan Singh submits, “We are used to being ruled by the rajas (kings) and being begars (bonded labour). The rajas of today want us to give up the land for the dam. How can we say no?” Those about to be displaced tried to resist. Through courts and petitions, through rallies and chakka jams (road blocks), through meetings with party heads – all to draw attention to the fact that this was prime farming land, that there were actually 10-times more trees in the 2,200 acres of forests being diverted for the project than the 1.5 lakh counted officially. And then there was the fast-diminishing population of the endemic mahseer fish, which lives in the Giri and nowhere else.

A protest by locals and members of environmental organisations in Renuka Valley, September 2010. Credit: Sumit Mahar

A protest by locals and members of environmental organisations in Renuka Valley, September 2010. Credit: Sumit Mahar

The state government, keen to build the dam as well as fill up its drying coffers, has seen no sense in the pleas. It appealed to the Supreme Court to expedite the release of funds so that land acquisition could be completed posthaste. Never mind that the Centre, which is funding this project, continues to be tightfisted with the 6,000 crore rupees being asked for. The Central Water Commission has given only a conditional techno-economic clearance for the project way, back in 2000. The final detailed project report has yet to be prepared. Delhi, Haryana and Rajasthan, who will share the waters of the Renuka Dam according to the Upper Yamunna basin agreement (1994), are yet to resolve their conflicts over water distribution. Meanwhile, Delhi continues to allow effluents, industrial sewage, land mafia and saints to abuse the Yamuna within its own neighbourhood.

From amidst all this uncertainty, on the ground, the land acquisition has continued. Only some ten villages are left to be paid off (the compensation money). In an area that has not seen a large cash economy, the money has been a great incentive for many. The landed class in the affected region, who have alternate lands and livelihoods, feel that they have it good. According to the documents drawn up by the Himachal Pradesh Power Corporation Limited’s – the executing agency and project proponent – there are 149 families that will lose homesteads and be rendered landless by the dam. Some 135 hectares of land has to be purchased for these families that will be displaced. So far, only 35 hectares has been found. Moreover, these resettlement sites are unacceptable to the displaced families because of their location. And till date, no new sites appear to have been identified.

Babu Ram, a tenant farmer. Credit: Sumit Mahar

Babu Ram, a tenant farmer. Credit: Sumit Mahar

Adhiya and batai, both share-cropping systems, are common in the area. Apart from Dalit families, there are Nepalis who migrated decades ago and have been tilling the land. Baburam is one of many tenants who has been cultivating and living off the land belonging to another. However, unlike most others, he has official documents to indicate he has been a tenant on five bighas since the 1960s. He also has a civil court order that declared him the land’s owner. However, he has never received a land-acquisition notice. The compensation amount of Rs 23 lakh for his land was awarded to the ‘owner’ despite Baburam having approached the land acquisition officer with all the requisite paperwork, through a lawyer.

Lata Devi cutting grass for her cattle. Credit: Sumit Mahar

Lata Devi cutting grass for her cattle. Credit: Sumit Mahar

Many of those who work the earth for survival without a legal ownership are women. As families’ nurturers, the women have their own narrative of loss. Unlike the men, the women do not see good prospects for themselves or their children in a cash-for-land scenario. The security and sovereignty of food and shelter that farms and forests once provided now stand threatened. The few lakh rupees in the bank accounts of the family’s male members of the family seem ephemeral.

Over the cackle of young boys and men speaking of speeding motorbikes bought with the cash, a mother shudders. She reminds her son gently of recent road accidents she has seen in the news. She has no clue that her older son, who barely managed to complete his class XII, is already dreaming of buying an Audi. But unlike the scenes in Noida or Gurgaon, where SUVs dot four-lane highways, the roads here offer no such space.

To cross the Giri and get to the village on the other side, people use a traditional jhoola, or a cable car, pushed manually. Credit: Sumit Mahar

To cross the Giri and get to the village on the other side, people use a traditional jhoola, or a cable car, pushed manually. Credit: Sumit Mahar

It is a common sight to see young boys who have grown up in this terrain execute effortless pull-ups on the ropeway cables. They are starry-eyed about the promise the future holds for them. But now, they partially inhabit a world that they do not seem to be cut out for.

Dam or no dam, for now, families are hard at work, preparing the land for planting tomatoes. The ready-to-harvest golden wheat crop glows in the sun. Irrigation channels are being cleared and women are weeding the fields of garlic. Far away, on the riverbed of the Giri, a group of villagers perform last rites for a departed soul. On the side is a silent, drifting river, a living entity, a person with legal rights that has no one to speak on her behalf. Not the state that granted her that right and which now tries to pry it away. Not the peasants who live on her banks. They won their legal and constitutional rights as citizens many decades ago but are still far from exercising them for themselves.

Last rites being performed on the bank of the Giri. Credit: Sumit Mahar

Last rites being performed on the bank of the Giri. Credit: Sumit Mahar

Manshi Asher and Sumit Mahar are members of Himdhara, an environmental research and action collective, Himachal Pradesh.