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Kinnaur: Shongtong-Karcham hydro-power project controversy, explained

In the Kinnaur tribal district of Himachal Pradesh, residents are demanding a halt to hydroelectric projects, deviating from the usual

By groundreportdesk
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Kinnaur: Shongtong-Karcham hydro-power project controversy, explained

In the Kinnaur tribal district of Himachal Pradesh, residents are demanding a halt to hydroelectric projects, deviating from the usual calls for development. Concerned about the impact on their vital resources, the people of Kinnaur have started a movement to safeguard their water, forests and land.

According to the report of The Bastion, Residents are protesting unfulfilled promises and the negative impacts of the Shongtong-Karcham Hydropower Project. They are calling for a complete halt to any future hydroelectric development in the region.

Himachal Pradesh Power Corporation Limited (HPPCL) owns the project, which has suffered from delays and cost overruns. These issues have raised concerns among local residents regarding unfulfilled promises of benefits. The campaign against the project has gained momentum over the past two years and has now expanded to other parts of the region.

Shongtong-Karcham Project

The Shongtong-Karcham Project is a run-of-river hydropower project with a capacity of 402 MW. The project is under construction on the Sutlej river in the Kinnaur district, known for its significant hydroelectric potential. Kinnaur alone expects to contribute 3,041 MW to the region's overall hydroelectric capacity. However, controversy surrounds the project, with locals claiming that promises made to them in exchange for their support have not been kept.

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As the demand for energy exceeds the supply in India, the need for further development of hydroelectric plants has intensified. The 450MW Shongtong Karcham hydropower project, located in the northern region of the country, has the potential to provide clean and renewable energy to more than 800,000 homes. Initiated as part of the Clean Energy Development program, it aims to actively contribute to sustainable energy generation.

Affected villages surrounding the Shongtong-Karcham Project have raised concerns about non-compliance with the terms of their agreements with HPPCL. Many promises remain pending, such as the construction of a cable car between the villages of Mebar and Ralli and compensation for crop damage due to construction activities.

Villagers also complain of insufficient employment opportunities and late payments for those who received employment. The discontent has led to a broader movement against future hydroelectric projects in the district.

Environmental concerns

The project has faced criticism for its environmental impact, including landslides and road collapses in the region. However, the validity period of the project's environmental clearances has been extended through amendments in India's Environmental Assessment Act. This has raised questions about the adequacy of environmental safeguards and the impact on local communities and ecosystems.

According to the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) report, a staggering 82.4% of the land required for the project was forested. This vast expanse, designated for construction, included manure dumps scattered across the landscape.

The EIA emphasized avoiding dumping along the river, recognizing its ecological sensitivity. However, recent revelations have demonstrated the stark disparity between the EIA recommendations and the actual reality on the ground.

Ongoing protests by locals in the Kinnaur district have now turned into a demand for a complete freeze on all future hydroelectric projects. Residents argue that unless the locals in an area express their support for a project, it should not go ahead. They cite the negative experiences and broken promises of the Shongtong-Karcham Project as reasons for their opposition.

Kinnaur's Shongtong-Karcham hydroelectric project has been embroiled in contentious controversy, as highlighted in the Environmental Justice Atlas report. The environmental impacts of the project have been extensive, raising concerns in several respects.

Visible environmental impacts include air pollution, loss of biodiversity (both wildlife and agrodiversity), food insecurity due to crop damage, degradation of landscape and aesthetic quality, noise pollution, soil erosion, deforestation, contamination of surface waters resulting in decreased water quality, contamination or depletion of groundwater, large-scale alteration of hydrological and geological systems, and reduction of ecological and hydrological connectivity.

Permission to dump mud along Satluj river

During the construction of the project, a petition filed by the Government of India in the Himachal Pradesh High Court in 2013 called for the immediate suspension of the project. The allegation cited the project's proximity to an Indian Army ammunition depot, critical to national security due to its location near the Indus-Tibet border.

The court ruled in favour of the petition and required the relocation of the depot to Akpa, a town located approximately 30 kilometers up the Satluj River. However, the fact that the authorities have not implemented this court order for the last seven years raises questions about their commitment to comply.

In 2019, an alarming revelation came to light. The construction company in charge of the project asked the commanding officer of the ammunition depot for permission to dump mud along the Satluj river. Allegations arose that the commanding officer, in collusion with the construction company, authorized the dumping of manure on land that did not rightfully belong to them.

The land was supposed to be returned to the local community, as they were the rightful owners before it was acquired. Rather than use designated landfills covering approximately 50 hectares, the company intended to exploit the proximity of the river for convenience.

Misleading report about the manure dump

To further complicate matters, allegations surfaced that the forestry department actively contributed to a misleading report on the manure dump. Conflicting reports emerged, with one claiming the absence of trees in the area, while another stating that the felling of 339 trees, including a significant number of rare Chilgoza trees, was necessary to make room for the manure dump.

Chilgoza, known scientifically as Pinus gerardiana, stands as a Near Threatened species discovered in the northwestern Himalayas. Revered by Kinnaur's tribal communities for generations, these trees bear nutritious fruit and carry great cultural significance. Sadly, they now face relentless destruction in the name of creating space for manure disposal.

Despite mounting opposition, Himachal Pradesh Chief Minister Sukhvinder Singh Sukhu has urged the completion of the Shongtong hydropower project by July 2025. The government aims to harness the state's hydro and renewable energy potential and has designated Himachal Pradesh a "green state" by 2026. However, the demands and concerns of local communities are increasingly prominent in public discourse.

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