Rebuilding This Himalayan Village Would Prove India Is Serious About its Environmental Commitments

The living history and heritage that is Haat was sentenced to oblivion with the sanctioning of the World Bank-funded Vishnugad-Pipalkoti hydroelectric project in 2007.

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There is an underlying current of devotion, an instinctive sense of the sacred, in us Indians, even today, with all our Western baggage. Perhaps it flows with less encumbrance in those living in rural areas.

This brings us to the Himalayan village of Haat, on the banks of the Alaknanda, established over 1,000 years ago by Adi Shankaracharya himself. Graced with several temples, the main shrine is of Laxmi-Narayan, built at that time for those pilgrims unable to make the entire journey up to Badrinath. The sannyasin brought priests from Bengal to settle down here and perform the worship. Till a decade ago, Sanskrit was taught in the village pathshala. Today, generations of unbroken tradition later, the villagers proudly state that all the village land and property actually belong to Laxmi-Narayan.

However, the living history and heritage that is Haat was sentenced to oblivion with the sanctioning of the World Bank-funded Vishnugad-Pipalkoti hydroelectric project in 2007. The entire village was marked for involuntary displacement. At the time, left with little choice, lured by the Rs 10 lakh compensation package and convinced that the project was for the national good, the villagers acquiesced. An agreement was drawn up by the constructing company (Tehri Hydroelectric Development Corporation Ltd or THDCL) with the then pradhaan and six-seven village signatories, without any formal gram sabha resolution. The agreement left them to relocate on their own. The company washed its hands of all other responsibility. The village community had no legal aid to help them go through critical documents and interpret their rights.

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A decade ago the villagers started moving out, scattering themselves in nearby areas. Since then, they have not had a normal life. All community living, joint village activities and traditional practices have simply ceased to be.

Our national rehabilitation policy primarily requires that shifting of communities should be en masse to ensure social well-being. It requires that the quality of life of the ousted should be better than before; it states that displacement should only take place as a last option; and that a transparent and fair interaction between the two parties, with proper grievance redressal mechanisms, is desirable.

Haat village after construction began for the hydroelectric project. Photo: Special arrangement

The fathomless distance between paper and fact is one the uneducated and unsuspecting villagers of Haat are still mapping today. Haat was a village with a bounteous natural water supply flowing straight to their houses, ceaselessly, since centuries. Today the two clusters of families that settled in nearby Daswana and Eldwana areas have water pumped by the company, for one hour in the morning and one in the evening.  This water first passes through storage tanks that are reportedly never cleaned. Their decades-old traditional houses of slate roofing and earthquake resilient masonry, weather-friendly and aesthetically charming, have been long broken by the company bulldozers; the villagers rebuilt with cement and concrete. These new houses are cold in winter and hot in summer, collapse in slabs killing people in earthquakes, and ugly to behold.

Their temples lie locked, with no living arrangements for a priest. About 80 people have received temporary employment with the company, of these barely 10 are permanent. Their independent means of livelihood like masonry, dairy, weaving and agriculture have all been lost. Today, as they ruefully admit, they are fully dependent on the company for their living.

The villagers have protested in the last years and demanded their rights, but the company has effectively smothered all such opposition by making every employee mandatorily sign an affidavit stating that neither they nor any family members would participate in protests; if found guilty they would stand to lose their jobs.

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The village has been divided into factions, and a general despair prevails. Many have lost faith in finding justice; others feel that having lost their village, speaking up will only result in the additional loss of their jobs. Some village employees have also been turned into informants for the company and take mobile recordings and photos of gram sabha meetings, exposing villagers who dare voice dissent.

It has also been reported that during any community puja or festival, the company holds back its employees on some pretext or another. In its efforts to prevent the village from uniting, the company has interfered in village affairs; the self-respect and dignity of the free and generous ‘pahadi’ spirit, of a closely-knit proud community, has been crushed.

Sixteen houses of those who refused all compensation were bulldozed to rubble, one bright morning last month. The fact that the construction of this HEP is yet under consideration in the Supreme Court made no difference. Protests across valleys from Uttarkashi, Lakhwar, Tehri, Mandakini to Pancheshwar against HEP’s are falling on deaf ears.  The warning of scientists, internationally and here, are also being ignored, despite viable alternatives for electricity available today.

While we were gratified to hear the prime minister quote the Surya Upanishad in far-off Glasgow, in his push for solar power, and more than delighted to hear of ‘harmony with nature’ and ‘climate resilient infrastructure’, a little implementation back home wouldn’t hurt either. Instead of HEPs, we could have solar-powered villages, since each and every Himalayan village is sun facing; the Chardhaam pariyojna that has destabilised the steep valleys of the Himalayas could be sized down to suit the hilly terrain; solar fencing of land for orchards to grow walnuts, chestnuts, plum, malta and kiwis could be spread across the villages for green employment and a high income; rice dehusking machines that do not polish off the redness of the nutrient rich mountain rice could save hours of hard hand-pounding labour done solely by the women. As a youngster pointed out to the world leaders, mere ‘blah, blah’ is getting us nowhere.

Electric bulbs cannot light up the inner darkness that a heartless and cultureless existence immerses us in. What are we to do with a progress that impoverishes our souls and minds? Through unsung jewels like Haat, it is India that thrives. Restoring Haat, assisting the villagers to rebuild what has so casually and unwittingly been lost, is entirely achievable and in fact the only sane and honest solution if our words on world platforms are to mean anything at all. Meanwhile, make no mistake, to uninhibitedly destroy and call it ‘development’ has deluded neither planet nor conscience.

Priyadarshini Patel is head member of Ganga Ahvaan, a citizen forum working towards the conservation of the Ganga and the Himalayas.