Living high up in the Himalayas in a land of snowcapped peaks and alpine meadows, pollution should not be a concern for people in Gurez valley in India’s Jammu and Kashmir state.
But a hydroelectric dam coming up on the Kishanganga river has not just put a question mark on their future but has also left villagers struggling for clean water and battling health problems.
Life as they knew it is changing rapidly for the people in Gurez, which falls on the Line of Control (LoC), the de facto fenced border separating the Indian and Pakistani controlled parts of Kashmir. The 330 megawatt Kishanganga Hydroelectric Power Project (KHEP) being constructed by India has already dislocated more than 1,200 people from at least six villages in the sparsely populated valley – also home to the Himalayan black bear and the snow leopard among other rare wildlife.
The project is being executed by India’s National Hydroelectric Power Corporation (NHPC) at a cost of around US$560 million through the Hindustan Construction Company (HCC).
Pakistan is also constructing a massive power project on the Kishanganga river on its side of Kashmir.
Abdul Majeed Bhat, who represents the affected villagers of Kralpora Chakh in Indian Kashmir, says his village has been turned into a dumping site.
“All the waste generated during the construction work is being dumped into the water sources in the area,” Bhat told thethirdpole.net.
According to the president of the Kishanganga Land Owners’ Association (KLOA), massive construction has also created roadblocks, making access to usable water resources further away difficult, if not impossible.
Pollution spreads disease
“For the last two years, we have been observing that our village has been witnessing diseases which were so far unknown or rarely reported,” Bhat said.
Villagers say skin rashes, irritation in the eyes and frequent stomach upsets are some of the problems they have been facing.
Following sustained protests by villagers in 2012, the hydrology department of National Institute of Technology (NIT) conducted tests in the area and said pollution had caused chemical disturbance in the water around the project site.
The tests revealed high concentration of dissolved solids and unsafe alkaline levels in the water. “The polluted water can neither be used for the human consumption nor for washing purposes,” the report cautioned.
Chief medical officer, Bandipora, Ghulam Mohammad Dar, said water quality in the area was not so bad as to cause any epidemic. “Whenever we hear of any health problems, we send rapid response teams to the area,” he said and added that no unusual diseases have been reported from the area.
In 2012 an environmental impact assessment (EIA) carried out by Delhi University’s Centre for Inter-Disciplinary Studies of Mountain and Hill Environment (CISMHE) warned that the dam, apart from causing heavy pollution in the area, would endanger several Himalayan plant and animal species.
The EIA concluded that the heavy deployment of labour and construction activity was disturbing and fragmenting ecological habitats in the area.
“The impact on water quality is expected to rise from disposal of excavated material into the river channel. The muck will essentially come from the road-building activity, tunneling and other excavation works,” the report had projected.
And that is exactly what is happening, says Bhat, adding that the villagers have approached the authorities several times but to no avail. Meanwhile, protests have been escalating.
In December last year, the district administration in Bandipora district, where the project is being executed, had to impose restrictions on the movement of civilians following massive protests.
Compensation is also an issue. “We were not even provided the fair compensation for the land which the project developers took away from us,” said Bhat, who represents 222 families in the area.
“They did not give us even half the price of our land. So, we had to take this issue to the court where from we are expecting justice,” he added. The case has been filed in the Jammu and Kashmir High Court.
“I believe the project has not only disturbed the local environment, ecology and agriculture-based employment, but is bound to disturb the social fabric and our mountain culture,” said Ghulam Mohammad Najar, an elderly villager.
“Some of the local youth, who are working in the Kishanganga project are presently earning an average monthly salary of Rs.10,000-15,000 (about US$165-250). I wonder how they will react when their employment comes to an abrupt end once the project is completed,” he said.
Suhail Masoodi, a researcher from the China Agricultural University, agrees. “It is very important to deconstruct this notion of employment creation by the NHPC. The fact that hydroelectricity projects don’t need much labour force to run negates the notion that these projects can create employment. On the contrary… they are being dispossessed, displaced and their traditional livelihoods are being snatched.”
What is missing is a holistic approach to solve the problems of people in the area. “For example, nothing is being done for the forest catchment area treatment, fisheries and agriculture all of which have got badly affected by the project,” said Tariq Ahmad, a local environmental activist.
NHPC officials refused to respond to these allegations in detail. “Many things are being attributed to us which are quite wrong,” NHPC chief engineer Umar Khalid said and then cut the phone when thethirdpole.net contacted him.