Lights off, pack-up time!
A dam that will light homes and irrigate crop fields has also brought darkness and despair. Shishir Prashant lends a ear to the tales of woe of Tehri dwellers. Of nostalgia for what is lost, of broken promises,of helplessness.
November is the month of weddings in the Garhwal hills. But this year, the weddings will have to wait or be held elsewhere. A bigger uprootment is taking place as people are being forced to leave their homes and make way for the swelling Bhagirathi river.
It was a chilly night in October when the dam authorities shut down the T-2 diversion tunnel of the dam blocking the flow of Bhagirathi after a group of Congress leaders lost a legal battle over the vexed rehabilitation issue in the Nainital High Court. Following the closure, panic gripped the entire area as the water level of Bhagirathi began rising, inundating vast areas of the town and adjoining villages.
The people, mostly poor, had little choice but to bid goodbye to their homes. It was a very high price in the name of development. Turmoil and despair took over as people began dismantling their homes and carting away everything, including window frames, doors, tin sheds, etc. “No one should suffer such misery in their life,” says 70-year-old Balo Devi, who was left alone in Malideval village after her only son migrated to New Delhi for a job. He never came back. But Devi, a widow now, has no idea about her future plans. Although she had been given a piece of land in Pashulok area of Rishikesh, Devi is still reluctant to move out from her villager where she came as a bride at the age of 17.
“I lived all my life in this village. How can you uproot me from my own home,” asks Devi as tears trickle down from her wrinkled cheeks. Just at a stone’s throw, Rati Mala is also collecting her belongings. A bullock-cart is standing at her doorstep to load the belongings. “All the villagers in our area are dependent on each other. They want me to move to Rishikesh. It will be very tough for me to live there. I want to die here,” says Mala (74).
True, all these villagers, who come from a very close-knit community background, are being offered land by the administration in Rishikesh and Haridwar areas, leaving no choice for choosing their neighbors. A dark future lays ahead for these villagers.
Two centuries old
The historic Old Tehri, the former capital of Tehri kingdom, will be celebrating its 190th birthday on December 28. Ironically, by then the town will become a water body in the very Bhagirathi river on whose banks it was built by Maharajah Sudershan Shah of the Tehri dynasty in 1815. In just less than two centuries, the town is being wiped out of the map thanks to the construction of the 2400 MW Tehri project, Asia’s highest dam.
And it is not a question of just one town. Along with it, there are nearly 125 villages which are also fully or partially affected by the mega project that had already uprooted a population of more than 1.5 lakh in Tehri and its adjoining areas.
Malideval, Sarain, Paddiyar are some of those villages which would take a little less than one month before they are submerged by Bhagirathi reservoir. Very little help is coming from the administration which had issued a warning asking the villagers to leave the area.
Pratap Nagar having a population of 1.5 lakh is another block which will be cut off once the connecting bridges like Bhaldiyana get submerged. The area will now become nearly 80 to 100 Kms away from the district headquarters from the present distance of 20 Kms. Says Phool Singh Bist, the local MLA from Pratap Nagar: “The biggest tragedy is that the state government has not announced any plan to reconnect our block. Even if the construction work of new bridges starts today, it will take a very long time.”
Ditto is the case with some areas in Uttarkashi district, which are also likely to cut off from the Tehri-Gangotri Highway, a portion of which is getting submerged. “Not only the people of Tehri have suffered. People of Pratap Nagar and Uttarkashi district are also feeling the heat,” says Jot Singh Bist, a local Congress leader, who is fighting with his own government over the rehabilitation issue.
While the government claimed that most of the dam oustees have been rehabilitated on paper, hundreds of villagers are still waging their last battle over the vexed rehabilitation issue. “All those people you are talking about have already taken the compensation,” says an official of the Directorate of Rehabilitation.
Interestingly, the state government took no time in shutting down the T-2 diversion tunnel but is now dillydallying in announcing a new rehabilitation package for the people in Pratap Nagar and Uttarkashi areas. “Before the closure of the T-2 tunnel, the government should have announced a comprehensive package for the remaining rehabilitation work,” says Anil Joshi, a social activist.
But Chief Minister N D Tiwari says that it is the prerogative of the centre to announce the new package. “The dam is being built in the national interest. We are seeking Rs 314 crore for rehabilitation from the centre,” says Tiwari.
What remains above
With water level of Bhagirathi reservoir rising menacingly, one can now only see the historic Clock Tower, built in 1887 in memory of Queen Victoria as well as few remnants of Old Durbar, the seat of the Tehri kingdom. These are the only few remains of what have been left in the town. Old Tehri is indeed history now.
A big lake is forming around the ruins as bewildered residents of Old Tehri gather at surrounding hills to pay last tributes to their town. “We can only mourn for our dying town,” said a despairing Shashi Chamoli, a mother of three, whose house has already sunk into the deep waters of Bhagirathi. And others, who had been settled in and around Dehra Dun, are pouring out their grief by taking out candle-light marches.
Gone with the town are some of the precious things, which had been very close to the hearts of these people. “You will not be able to savour the taste of singori mithai, which used to be sold wrapped in green leaves. I will miss singori. It was the tastiest sweets of Garhwal region,” remembers octogenarian Chinta Mani Kala, who remained posted in the town for four years since 1963 as a foreman of a government school.
The famous “Tehri nathh” a nose ring, will also be a thing of the past. “There were nearly 10 to 15 goldsmiths, who used to make this unique gold ornament much in demand from women,” said Ranjit Rawat, an old timer. “Tehri nathh was a symbol of richness. Heavier the nathh, the richer you are seen as,” says Hindi writer Vidya Sagar Nautiyal, who also penned a story “Sona” based on this yellow ornament.
Some of the old temples like Chhota Badrinath have also submerged. “Those who could not travel to Badrinath temple in Chamoli used to offer prayers in Chhota Badrinath temple,” said Kala while narrating his fond memories of the town.
It was Old Tehri town where Swami Ram Tirth is believed to have obtained enlightenment on the banks of Bhagirathi. Once a nerve centre of the economic activities of the Garhwal region, Old Tehri was a favourite market place for nearby villagers from the nearby districts. “Old Tehri was also a hub of utensil-makers, especially of luminous brass,” says Rajiv Bahuguna, a journalist, who grew up in the town at times playing flute on the banks of the eternally-flowing Bhagirathi.
Off with the beard
One of the saddest persons is none other than renowned environmentalist Sunderlal Bahuguna, who has shaved off his beard to mourn to what he called “the death of Bhagirathi.” “They have stopped Bhagirathi at Tehri to fill the reservoir. So the river is dead,” proclaims Bahuguna, who had launched several movements against the Tehri dam on environmental grounds. Bahuguna and his wife Bimla were among the last persons, who reluctantly left Old Tehri two years ago.
Most of the people, who were rehabilitated elsewhere, still grumble about the inadequate civic amenities in the places where they reside now. “We were robbed of our homes. But in return, we got nothing,” says Virendra Dutt Saklani, who had settled down in New Tehri perched on the top of a steep hill overlooking the Old Tehri town. Cold winds every evening make life miserable for these settlers in New Tehri where there is an acute paucity of basic amenities like drinking water.
Several irregularities in the rehabilitation process came to light. “Those who were influential got the maximum. But for the poor people, compensation was a minuscule one,” says Shoorvir Singh Sajwan, a local leader.
For nearly 100 families who settled on the outskirts of Dehra Dun, pangs of dislocation continue. These dam oustees residing in Athoorwala and Bhaniawala areas are facing their second dislocation in less than 20 years. Out of the frying-pan, they are literally into the fire again. These people were given land in these two areas in lieu of their homes in Tehri but the expansion of JollyGrant airport is threatening to uproot them one more time. “Nowhere else you will see people uprooted twice in their life-time,” laments Surya Kant Dhasmana, Uttaranchal State NCP President.
Power and irrigation
The dam will be ready for commissioning in March-April next year, which the project authorities believe would usher in prosperity in the northern region.
“Besides, producing 2400 MW of power, this project will also provide water for irrigation and drinking purposes for the people of Uttar Pradesh and Delhi,” says S C Shukla, General Manager THDC, the implementing agency of the dam.
Yes, Tehri project may be providing electricity and drinking water to people elsewhere in the country but at whose cost? Is that what development means? Moreover, do we really need big dams? While this debate continues, the moot question is who cares about the woes of the dam oustees.
Forecast that came true?
Going by historical records, Old Tehri may have witnessed several upheavals before the present submergence. The uprising against the Tehri kingdom in the 1940s is one big event that rattled the town as well as its rulers.
But the biggest upheaval came when the centre gave its final nod to build the dam that eventually sounded a death-knell for the historic town. King Sudershan Shah, who set up the town in 1815, knew at that time that this town would not survive too long. It is believed that when King Sudershan was laying the foundation stone of the town, he was warned by royal astrologers of an impending peril. They told the king that that Tehri would not survive for more than 200 years.
And today, the foretelling by the soothsayers has become a reality.