Blame it on the dam

Kharadi is the only part of the Yamuna valley to be affected by floods, and it’s all because of a dam

ByIshan Kukreti
Blame it on the dam
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Image by Ishan Kukreti

For Kitab Singh Rawat of Kharadi, a small town in Uttarkashi district of Uttarakhand, the National Green Tribunal’s (NGT) judgement on Srinagar Bandh Aapda Sangharsh Samiti vs Alaknanda Hydropower Co. Ltd is a ray of hope. On August 19, NGT disposed of the two-year-old case by holding the power project company responsible for the destruction in Srinagar, Uttarakhand during the floods of 2013. The Tribunal fined a compensation amount of Rs. 9.26 crore on Alaknanda Hydropower.

The judgement is a historical one. It recognises that dams – till now seen only as paving the road to development – can unleash destruction on a massive scale. Moreover, for people like Kitab Singh, whose 18-room hotel was washed away  during the 2013 floods, ‘God’s will’ is not good enough reason to make peace with the tragedy.

Srinagar is 200 kilometres from Kharadi. Before 2012, Kharadi was a busy little village, catering to pilgrims on their way to Yamunotri, 30 kilometres from Kharadi. Then came the floods of 2012 and 2013. The latter claimed the lives of more than 4,000 people, with Rudraprayag, Chamoli, Uttarkashi, Bageshwar and Pithoragarh being the worst-hit. In Kharadi, the hotels standing on National Highway 123 to Yamunotri, with the Yamuna flowing past at a distance, were mostly devastated by the river at full flow.

Image by Ishan Kukreti

“The cloud burst at Hanuman Chatti that triggered the 2013 flash floods discharged most of its water into the Ganga basin, leaving Yamuna valley relatively safer,” said Hemant Dhyani of Ganga Ahvan, a public forum for the conservation of Yamuna and Ganga in the Himalayan region. Dhyani was also a part of the Ravi Chopra committee, set up by the Supreme Court after 2013 floods to look into the cause of the floods.

Kharadi in the Yamuna valley technically shouldn’t have been affected. The Yamuna valley and Ganga Valley are separated by Hanuman Chatti. “There was no destruction in any other area of Yamuna valley apart from Kharadi,” Manoj Mishra of Yamuna Jiye Abhiyan. This is perhaps why Kharadi hasn’t received that much attention, but it was the only town that suffered this devastation with 50 buildings being washed away. Some explain it as bad luck. Utttarkashi’s Sub Divisional Magistrate, Raj Kumar Panday, a ‘public’ servant, said, “If the people choose to build houses in the riverbed, then willget washed away.” However, others believe there’s a more concrete, man-made reason for Kharadi’s misfortune.

Image by Ishan Kukreti

Lost livelihoods

Jagmohan Singh Chauhan had built his hotel in 2005. The two months of Char DhamYatra and two months of winter tourism were enough for him to earn up to Rs 6-7 lakh, and that was enough. In 2013, Chauhan’s hotel was washed away. He’s now unemployed. Like the other 50-odd hoteliers who suffered losses in the floods of 2012 and 2013, Chauhan has no other source of earning now.

Ravindar Singh, lost his four room cottage in the flood of 2012. He is currently working as a cook at one of few remaining local restaurants. For both of them, while the river may have robbed them of their livelihoods, their complaint is against something more concrete: Gangani Hydro Project (GSHP).

Image by Ishan Kukreti

Privately owned by Regency Power Group, which is based out of Paonta, Himachal Pradesh, the head of the GSHP is a kilometre from the erstwhile Kharadi market. The head of a dam diverts river water into the project water channel so that it can be taken to the power house of the project.

“In the floods of 2011,the diversion head of the dam was washed away,” said Chauhan. The diversion head was rebuilt, stronger and thicker than before by 2012. It obstructed the flow of Yamuna in the monsoon of that year, due to which the river changed its course.   

“The flood changed the hydro-morphology of Yamuna. The riverbed rose due to excessive siltation,” Bhim Singh Rawat of South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and Peoples said, adding that that the siltation blocked the channel of the dam, obstructing the water flow.”Gangani Power project was the reason for the devastation of Kharadi,” Dhyani said bluntly. “The SDM (Sub Divisional Magistrate) of Badkot, had even issued a notice to Regency Power Group to stop the work and appear before the district court.” said Dhyani.

General Manager (Finances) of Regency Power Group, Rajeev Walia, says the company did not receive any such notice.

Damages and dues

After the destruction, Kitab Singh filed a case against GSHP in Uttarkashi district court in 2014. However, the endeavour has remained fruitless so far. “The company has hired three high profile lawyers to fight the case, we can’t win against them,” he said.

Locals working at GSHP deny any role of the dam in the tragedy, but they do agree that the channels were blocked. “Yamuna brought a lot of debris with it when the flood came. A tree got stuck in the spillway,” one of the workers said. The blockage caused the river to change its course as a result of which it eroded the land below the market, causing the building to collapse.  

According to Walia, GSHP has done whatever it can to help Kharad. He claimed the company has given more money as donations to the locals of Kharadi than it has earned from selling the power generated to Uttarakhand Power Corporation Limited. When asked for details of these payments, he was unable to provide specifics.

Some compensation has been provided by the state government, but it’s woefully inadequate. Those who lost their hotels in 2012 (36 hotels) received a meagre rehabilitation sum of Rs 2 lakh to build houses. Those who suffered in 2013 (13 hotels) were given a rehabilitation sum of Rs 7 lakhs. However there is a catch: the money can only be used to construct a residential structure. “I already had a house, I wanted the money to reconstruct my hotel,” said Janak Singh, whose hotel was one of the 13 that were washed away in 2013.

Meanwhile, GSHP still stands, increasing power generation from 8 MW to 9.6 MW over the years, while in the place of the hotels that once provided a living to the locals is a deep curve in the land.  

For the hoteliers of Kharadi, the NGT’s decision to fine Alaknanda Hydropower is an acknowledgement that their anger against GSHP may finally hold up in a court of law. “We will go to NGT,” said Singh, with hope renewed that perhaps in the NGT, their sufferings make them more powerful than GSHP.

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