Kashmir villages facing submergence as India plans Himalayan dam

The government says at least 52 villages, a total of 3,700 families, will likely lose homesteads to make way for Ujh multipurpose project.

An overview of Ujh river that flows through Kathua district, Indian-administered Kashmir [Al Jazeera]

Surrounded by lush green forests and fields of mustard, wheat and maize, Dungara is a small village in Indian-administered Kashmir’s Kathua district.

Most residents of Dungara, which falls in the disputed Himalayan region’s Jammu area, are farmers who grow fruit, rice, and mulberry trees to produce silk.

But their quaint village lifestyle is threatened by the Indian government’s plan to construct a large multipurpose project on Ujh, a tributary of the Ravi River which in turn pours into the Indus River.

The Ujh project, expected to produce 186 megawatts of electricity, would completely submerge Dungara and displace the villagers. It would also involve the cutting down of more than 330,000 trees, compounding the villagers’ anger.

A general view of the green fields in Dungara village which faces submergence once the dam is built [Al Jazeera]

Fears of displacement

A local non-profit, the Village Social Development and Welfare Committee, has launched a movement against the Ujh project.

“No one in the village supports the construction of this project,” NGO chairman and village head SP Sharma told Al Jazeera. “But no one is listening to us.”

The government says at least 52 villages, with a total of about 3,700 families, are likely to lose their homesteads due to the acquisition of land for dam construction and the subsequent area of submergence.

A boy stands outside a school in Dungara village which has seen little development since the dam was proposed [Al Jazeera]

The fear of displacement is more palpable among the women in the village.

“We are living a quite satisfied life here. We don’t want plots [of land] anywhere else,” 50-year-old Tripta Sharma told Al Jazeera, referring to the government’s proposal offering land elsewhere to compensate them.

She said villagers may lose their livelihoods if they are moved somewhere where they are unable to carry on farming.

“We don’t know if we will be able to keep our cows and buffaloes there. Before we think about ourselves we need to think of our livestock. The fear of relocation is taking a mental toll on us,” she said.

Tripti Sharma, right, outside her home in Dungara village, Indian-administered Kashmir [Al Jazeera]

Another woman, Rita Devi, the head of the local development body, told Al Jazeera the construction of the project will “jeopardise the future of their children”.

“The food people grow here is not only what feeds their belly but it is also their livelihood as they supply the vegetables and rice to other places as well,” Devi told Al Jazeera.

“If the dam is constructed, we know we will not be compensated enough,” she added, asserting that no compensation would be sufficient for them.

Besides, she said, “we can’t live forever on compensation”.

“Our new generations can also live here, eat and earn. We are worried about what will happen to us and our children once we are relocated.”

In its report, a forest advisory committee, a body that monitors projects involving the use of forest land for non-forest purposes, said the displaced families would be eligible to receive resettlement benefits, in addition to compensation of homestead plots and structures.

The committee also claims the project will open a large number of jobs to the local population during the construction. But the residents have little faith in these “promises on paper”.

“Our lives have come to a halt due to the dam. We want justice,” said resident Panna Lal.

The road leading to Dungara village in Kathua district, Indian-administered Kashmir [Al Jazeera]

‘Strategic importance’

For the government, the Ujh multipurpose project has strategic importance, allowing India to utilise the Ravi River’s water for the production of energy under the Indus Water Treaty signed between India and Pakistan in 1960.

The treaty divides the waters from six frontier rivers between the two nuclear-armed arch-rivals, who have fought three full-scale wars since 1947 when the Indian subcontinent was partitioned to form the two nations.

In recent years, India began ambitious irrigation plans and the construction of many dams, saying its use of upstream water is strictly in line with the treaty. Ujh was declared a national project by the government in 2008.

In its meeting on the Ujh project, the region’s forest advisory committee observed that the project is of “national importance, which provides geopolitical strategic advantage”.

The project envisages the construction of a concrete face rockfill dam, with an installed capacity to produce 186 megawatts of power and an 11.5km (7-mile) barrage downstream of the dam.

The government says the project, which was given environmental clearance in December last year, will irrigate 31,380 hectares (77,542 acres) of land, besides providing 18.92 million cubic metres of drinking water to the residents in the Himalayan region every year.

But the villagers have a primary concern: they were never consulted.

Jitender Singh Badwal, a lawyer and resident of the neighbouring village of Dodwara, fears the site is not suitable for a dam.

“There is no natural water, there is no glacier, there is no natural suitable environment for the construction of the dam. But all this is being done due to political pressure,” he told Al Jazeera.

“We were never taken on board, though my village also comes under submergence.”

Women walking through fields in Kishenpur village, Kathua, Indian-administered Kashmir [Al Jazeera]

Kathua district’s Deputy Commissioner Rahul Yadav told Al Jazeera that “while the project has got forest clearance, the government will listen to the people’s issues as well”.

“The land acquisition has not started yet. There will be a public meeting by an independent committee where people can share their issues,” he said.

‘Environmental destruction’

Climate and environmental experts have warned that the Ujh multipurpose project can have immense environmental costs.

The website of India’s environmental ministry says a whopping 338,317 trees are set to be felled for the project, adding to the anxiety and fear in Dungara village.

In February this year, two Himalayan dam projects were destroyed by a deadly flash flood triggered by a glacial burst in Uttarakhand state, killing more than 100 people and an equal number of people feared missing.

“We fear more now that the same tragedy could be repeated here,” said Naresh, a villager.

Environmental activist Raja Muzaffar Bhat told Al Jazeera “we are moving towards environmental destruction”.

“We have already lost thousands of trees in such projects. How many more can we afford?” he asked, adding that India is a signatory to the Paris climate deal, a global treaty where the countries have pledged to strengthen steps to combat climate change.

Bhat pointed out that while hydropower is considered a clean energy source, projects such as Ujh involve the sacrifice of many trees.

“And no one is looking at that aspect,” he said.

The proposed site of the construction of the Ujh multipurpose project [Al Jazeera]

Anmol Ohri, an activist with non-profit Climate Front India, feels the Ujh project is also aimed at scoring a political victory in the disputed region.

In August 2019, New Delhi scrapped Indian-administered Kashmir’s semi-autonomous status and turned the Muslim-majority region into a federally-controlled territory.

“In this region, the intention is not to focus on sustainable development… They (government) have a huge pressure to show results,” Ohri said, adding that many projects in the region may pose threats to the environment.

“They (government) have given sweeping environmental clearances to these projects… The government is pushing these projects in a hurry.”

Himanshu Thakkar of the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People (SANDPR) told Al Jazeera that a lack of credible environmental assessment of multipurpose projects is a “pan-India problem”.

“They have to go through environmental assessments and environmental appraisals, but in reality, very little credible assessment happens. Public hearing is a sham in these projects,” he said.

Thakkar added that the people displaced by such projects are rarely asked for their consent and that there is no real recompense for them.

Compensation based on outdated data?

The governing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) defends the project, claiming it would bring development to the area.

“There are always people who oppose things,” BJP spokesman Ashok Koul told Al Jazeera.

Koul, who is based in Indian-administered Kashmir, said developmental activities such as the Ujh project will take Kathua to “new heights of development”.

“There are some belts where there is no drinking or irrigation water. This (dam) will make the area green,” he said, adding that those who will be displaced will get “proper government compensation according to rules”.

But the residents allege the data used by the government to assess the compensation for the affected villagers have not been updated.

“The displacement figures and the government’s plan of rehabilitation are based on 2011 census figures, which is unacceptable to us. The government must go for a new census and get the correct data,” 58-year-old Mahinder Kumar, a farmer with two sons, told Al Jazeera.

“We know we cannot fight the government since they have made up their mind, but we must get fair compensation,” he said, adding: “But we know no one will listen to us.”

Source: Al Jazeera