Monday, July 23, 2012

A march, a crawl

The wind was strong enough to drown out the feeble sounds of a group walking up to the tiny market in Rekong Peo. They had probably ‘marched’ to the Kinnaur district headquarters and were now returning — a few placards, a few men and women tiredly protesting the Karcham Wangtoo hydroelectric project, reminding the administration of broken promises, and so on.

I was surprised to see them. Last I heard of protests against this hydel power project was in 2007. It seemed to be a bit of a minor election issue, and when the former chief minister’s wife had tried to address an election rally, she had been interrupted by aggressive protestors, I was told. But that was then. Now, five years later, I had just driven past the massive walls supporting the proposed 1,000 MW project by Jaypee, a private firm. This private firm did not own the river Sutlej, whose waters were being dammed. But the government helped by granting permission and providing environmental clearances.
In any case, they don’t call it damming any more. They call it a ‘run of the river’ project. Anyone who has seen a river before-project and after-project knows that it doesn’t quite run. Crawling is more like it.
But even so, it really is too late to go about shouting slogans. In 2011, there were media stories about how the project was ready to generate electricity. How much electricity, and for whom, and towards what purpose — this was not told, nor was the question raised.
Besides, even the United Nations (Framework for Convention on Climate Change) has reportedly registered this project under its ‘Clean Development Mechanism’ list. There is some documentary evidence of waste disposal downstream of the Karcham Wangtoo project. Surrounding villages report that 26 % of water sources in the area had dried up by 2009. But never mind. The project appears to be adhering to some guidelines, which makes it better than several others.
Although this is a private project, the state of Himachal Pradesh will benefit through royalties — it earns and can sell a percentage of the power generated. It is a separate matter that this is already a ‘power surplus’ state, and is reportedly struggling to find buyers elsewhere. There aren’t enough takers.
But there they were, still bearing banners, still going round and round that tiny town in the Himalayas. And I thought to myself, what keeps them going? How do they find the strength in the face of so much thwarting, so much evidence that nobody really cares?
Then, I heard about Tongam Rina. The journalist who works at Arunachal Times was shot at when she stepped out of the office. She survived, but we don’t know if her spine is damaged, and how badly. We also don’t know why she was shot. What is known is that Rina is the vice president of Siang People’s Forum, a group that is opposing the Lower Siang Dam. There are about 150 dams planned or proposed in Arunachal Pradesh. A Global Post reporter who had met Rina has written about how she was offered a cash bribe to stop her crusade against the dams. The report also mentions that while the state gave the green signal to more and more dams, the personal wealth of our elected representatives leaped and bounded skyward.
Possibly, the attack on Rina has nothing to do with hydel projects. It could be personal vendetta. And possibly, our representatives’ hearts are as clean as the energy they promise us. It’s possible, of course. As for Karcham-Wangtoo, I suppose those dogged protestors will eventually get tired. 
First published here

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