Indian villagers protest Tehri Dam construction, 2001-2002

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Timing
Time Period:  
Time period notes: 
While several actions took place in the mid-1990s, this consistent campaign did not begin until 2000.
July
2000
to
March
2002
Location and Goals
Country: 
India
Location City/State/Province: 
Tehri, Uttar Pradesh
Location Description: 
Himalayan foothills
Goals: 
To force the government to halt construction of a dam on the Bhagirati River that would flood the town of Tehri.
 

In 1990, the Indian government and Tehri Hydro Power Corporation began planning to dam the Bhagirati River at the Himalayan foothill town of Tehri in Uttar Pradesh. Plans indicated that it would be the fourth largest dam in the world. Damming the river at this particular location would lead to flooding of the town and the displacement of up to ten thousand of its residents. Scientists also protested the construction of the dam because of its proximity to the central Himalayan Seismic Gap. According to leading scientists, an earthquake from the gap could easily destroy the dam and kill up to 500,000 people. Furthermore, the Bhagirati is sacred in Himalayan culture, therefore damming the river would be an affront to this sacredness.

In 1990, village campaigners organized as Tehri Bandh Virodhi Sangharsh Samiti filed an official petition to India’s Environmental Appraisal Committee, which went to India’s Supreme Court. Attorney Shri P.S. Poti appeared in court to argue that the dam’s catastrophic potential was far too great, and its potential hydro-power too relatively small to justify construction. The case continued for the next ten years.

Sundarlal Bahuguna of the Chipko Andolan movement (an environmental cause that literally translates as “tree-hugging”; See Indians embrace trees (Chipko) to stop logging activity, 1971-1974) moved to the edge of the river in a home that would be flooded by the dam. In 1995, He went on a forty-nine-day hunger strike to rally protesters against the construction of the dam. He ended the strike only when Prime Minister H.D. Deve Gowda promised to appoint a special committee to consider the potential ecological consequences of the dam. However, the committee did not seem sufficient to Bahuguna, so he travelled to Raj Ghat, a memorial to Mahatma Gandhi, and went on another fast, this time for seventy-four days. Protests quieted down along with talk of the dam project for several years.

In July 2000, the group Vishwu Hindu Parishad began a campaign to force the government to cease the construction of the Tehri dam. The group’s president, Ashok Singhal, initially appealed to the local government to deny Tehri Hydrpower Corporation the right to begin construction. When his request was rejected, he began using the slogan “Ganga aviral bahati tahe”, which translates roughly as “Let the Ganga (river) flow unhindered eternally”.

In December 2000, hundreds of locals joined peaceful demonstrations, or dharna, in the streets the Tehri submergence area. They used traditional dharna methods of sitting outside the perpetrators doorway, or in this case sitting outside the construction site, without moving or taking food. Some protesters stayed in for more than a month. On 6 January 2001, police forcibly removed the protesters, beating hundreds and arresting twenty-four.

At this point, Sunderlal Bahuguna joined the new campaign and led another hunger strike, which began on 9 December 2000. Several local families also participated in the fast. They were specifically protesting not only the dam, but also the government’s failure to provide compensation or rehabilitation to people scheduled to be displaced by the dam’s construction. Several weeks after the fast began, on 23 December 2000, the Information and Public Relations Department released advertisements in national newspapers following an announcement that engineers would be closing pressure relief tunnels and progressing with construction of the dam. The ads claimed that the project was actually a “new chapter in development”, stressing that the increased use of hydropower was a step towards modernity.

The Tehri Hydropower Corporation scheduled the closure of the tunnels for March 2001, and demanded that residents leave their homes before then so that flooding of the Tehri region could begin. In response, VHP president Ashok Singhal threatened a fast. Meanwhile, in January 2001 in the nearby village of Bhagirathi, the Matu campaign organized protests against the dam. There, protesters stopped the progress of two trucks moving earth in order to continue work. They would not allow the trucks to continue down the road. In response, police stormed the campaigners with batons in a lathi charge on the orders of the Deputy Superintendent of Police and the Sub-Divisional Magistrate of Uttar Pradesh. Twenty-four protesters were arrested, including eleven women. The beatings continued after the protests ceased, as police entered homes and beat more than a hundred people, including several children.

On 31 March 2001, activists protested the government’s failure to relocate people displaced by the dam project. They began a sit-in at the main site of construction. They forced construction to halt for three weeks. Before dawn on 22 April, after an announcement from the High Court that the project should continue, police arrested fifty campaigners from the sit-in. Protesters were dispersed among several different prisons. Two days later, they arrested Sagerlal Bahuguna, who began yet another hunger strike while detained. After his condition began to deteriorate, the government declared a new committee would be formed, and this time it would be comprised of representatives selected by both the government and campaigners from a pool of government nominees.

In June 2001, locals in Tehri protested in the streets when corruption charges were brought up against the Tehri Hydro Development Corporation for their attempts to delay the inspection of the Central Bureau of Investigation.

On 4 August 2001, more than a hundred women went out into the forests outside Tehri, called Advaniin. They protested in the woods, which were full of famous trees that were important in the Chipko-Andolan movement of the 1970s. These trees were endangered by the dam project as they stood in grounds set to be cleared for the construction of transmission lines by the Power Grid Corporation.

On 15 October 2001, the national forest department began distributing land titles that would allow deforestation for the dam project. They licensed clearing on land that had been protecting since the Chipko movement in the Haridwar forest. Locals protested this decision not in the forest, but in the streets of the so-called submergence area in Tehri, which would soon be flooded by the reservoir.

In March 2002 the appointed committee declared that construction of the dam would be safe and should continue. By 2004, Phase I of construction was complete and soon large sections of Tehri were underwater. Sunderlal Bahuguna’s original home was submerged and he relocated to a new residence higher up the river’s bank. Since that time several ecological disasters related to the dam devastated Tehri.

Research Notes
Influences: 

The Tehri dam protests were influenced by India's Chipko Andolan movement (See Indians embrace trees (Chipko) to stop logging activity, 1971-1974)(1). The protests also influenced other dam protests in the Himalayas, especially in the Sikkim region (1).

Sources: 
Ram Dutt Tripathi, "India goes ahead with Tehri dam". BBC News Online. Lucknow. 08 September 2001. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/south_asia/1699418.stm

Manisha Aryal, "Dams: The Vocabulary of Protest". Himal Southasian. July 1995. http://www.himalmag.com/component/content/article/2919-dams-the-vocabulary-of-protest.html

Tom Turner, "Tehri Dam failure could destroy architecture and landscape". The Garden and Landscape Guide. 02 July 2012. http://www.gardenvisit.com/blog/2012/07/02/tehri-dam/

J. P. Shukla, "Damming the Protests". The Hindu. 29 April 2001. http://www.hindu.com/2001/04/29/stories/05291349.htm

"VHP sees Tehri dam as a threat to Hinduism". Times of India News Service, Uttarakhand Solidarity Network. 14 July 2000. http://uttarakhand.org/2000/07/vhp-sees-tehri-dam-as-a-threat-to-hinduism/

T.K. Rajalakshmi, "Trouble in Tehri". Frontline News. 2002. http://www.frontline.in/navigation/?type=static&page=flonnet&rdurl=fl1901/19010330.htm

Shekhar Pathak, "Tehri: Is it Curtains?". India Environment Portal. "http://www.indiaenvironmentportal.org.in/opinion/tehri-it-curtains"

Name of researcher, and date dd/mm/yyyy: 
Lydia Bailey, 21/04/2013