How one fish and many people saved a river
“Hark! What is that? What is that sound? It is laughter, bubbling up from the heart of the darkness. It is the sound of water! There is no doubt. The water of Muktadhara is free!”
As I stepped on the wooden slats across the joyously gurgling Tirthan River, I remembered Rabindranath Tagore’s lines from his first play, Muktadhara (Free-flowing). I was in the Himalayas to listen to the story of Tirthan, a Muktadhara in her own right! Tirthan is the rarest, possibly the only river valley in India to be declared as a “No-Go Valley” for hydropower or dam development, protected in perpetuity.
As the name suggests, River Tirthan, a tiny tributary of Beas in Kullu District of Himachal Pradesh is held sacred by the locals. Believers undertake an arduous pilgrimage to its glacial origins. As an undammed, free flowing river, Tirthan holds a defiant flag in the face of overtly dammed Himalayas and is sacred in more ways than one. This was a pilgrimage for us too.
Tirthan’s neighboring valley is Sainj. 800 MW Parbati Stage II and 520 MW Parbati Stage III projects in the valley have been causing repeated accidents here. Floods and collapses in 32 kms long tunnel of Parbati Stage II have led to deaths of more than 14 workers so far. Even as we reached Himachal, I saw a terrifying video where hundreds of workers were running for their lives out of the tunnel, when slush started filling it up suddenly. Both projects are unviable, loss-making and delayed. It is reported that delay of Parbati Stage II due to geological issues has costed the country 10,000 Crores and it is improbable that the project will ever be viable.[i] All this is just next to Tirthan Valley.
Indian Himalayas with bumper to bumper dams are fast moving towards being the most dam-dense region in the world.[ii] Beas Basin alone has 22 commissioned projects greater than 5 MW and 25 projects at various stages of completion. The basin is said to have a power potential of 4877.70 MW[iii] . Impacts of frenzied dam development in a fragile region manifest as increasing tragedies, deaths of workers and locals, drying up of water sources due to blasting, cracked houses, increased landslides, decreased agricultural production, deforestation, loss of biodiversity, loss of cultural integrity… list goes on.[iv] Hydropower is being aggressively pushed as the only green option. But is it? Are free flowing rivers of no value?
With many questions in mind, me and my photographer colleague Abhay Kanvinde were travelling to the tiny Tirthan valley at the foot of Great Himalayan National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
People from Maharashtra subconsciously assume that canals are dry and are not supposed to carry water. And so gushing, emerald waters of the Beas-Sutlej link canal looked surreal. Being taken in by canals felt like a betrayal of sorts. But we were in the Indus basin and small indiscretions were to be forgiven. However, the journey upstream Beas was not the Bollywood road I expected. In fact in parts, it was like travelling through Orc land. It was difficult to see the Beas at all, its banks strewn with mounds and mounds of debris from hydropower projects and four-laning of the Mandi-Pathankot Highway. Vehicles were honking and halting, air was filled with dust and the chaotic town of Mandi looked like it was about to swallow up Beas whole in buildings. But beyond the dust, cerulean waters gleamed. All along the way, Kachnar bloomed in delicate pink flushes.
After Pandoh Dam, left bank of Beas was lined with spectacular limestone cliffs. Towering waterfalls plunged directly into the river below, making it a fjord-like landscape. On the right bank, trucks loads of debris were being dumped directly into the Pandoh reservoir. The river was punctuated with boards, complete with skull and bone marks, “River is Dangerous.” “Stay off”. A short drive brought us to 120 MW Larji Hydropower Project. I was watching the serene river below with dread. This was the same stretch where 22 students had drowned in 2014 when water was suddenly released from the Larji Dam. The river looked innocent enough but bleached watermarks on the cliffsides warned that the levels could rise anytime. Mules, weary from carrying loads for the roadwork were standing still in the riverbed. They had not read the boards.
Larji village is at the confluence of Sainj and Tirthan Rivers. Here we turned right and entered the Tirthan valley at last. I’m not sure if it was the anticipation alone or if the air really was scented with apple blossoms. The river on the right, finally in view now, gurgled and splashed and was lined with pomegranate and apple orchards. It was as if the veil of dust was lifted and we had entered the Shire for the evening.
All the hotels and dhabas were River View or Tirthan view. Stone flour mills which ran on river flow, Gharats, could be spotted at almost each turn. As we entered the tiny hamlet of Gushaini, Pines made way for iconic Deodar forests. Trolleys to haul apples from houses perched high up in the hills crisscrossed the blue skies. There were stray promises of rhododendrons along winding roads. Twilight was upon us and the Himalayas stood sentinel against a blooming pink sky.
Few bridges and a sharp bend brought us to Rajiv Bharti’s Guest House, an iconic place in the Tirthan Valley, which can be reached only by crossing a slatted wooden bridge laid over Tirthan. When the glacial melt quickens in the afternoon, the slats are submerged by a joyous river. Raju Bharti’s name is synonymous with Tirthan. In a state where almost all river valleys large and small are deforested, dammed, tunneled, diverted and blasted, tiny Tirthan remains defiantly free flowing. And it is this character that is the lifeline of Tirthan and Jibhi valleys. How did that happen? In a state where private dam lobbies from far flung places build huge dams, where NHPC, SJVNL, NTPC, HPPCL, Beas Board are busy building gigantic, unviable projects, paying no heed to local protests or the evident damage, how was it that the Tirthan continued to flow?
Raju Bharti Guesthouse: First Angling homestay in Tirthan Valley
The guest house looked as if it was getting ready for a prom. Its wooded front was covered with immodestly effusive yellow mountain roses. Cherry blossoms in the front garden had just faded, but lilac wisteria covered the residential quarters. Four shaggy dogs and several cats sprawled across the courtyard. Beyond the flowers, vines and walnut trees, the guest house, an orchard really, is exceedingly simple. And at 2000 Rs. Per person including three meals a day, it is reasonable for a budget traveler. It is also the fountainhead of many happenings that affected Tirthan. Anglers and travelers: Indian and foreign have come here since 1995 and have come to love the river. The family has spent years and many a hard earned rupee in the fight to save Tirthan.
I was wanting to meet Raju Bharti for long. He is 68 and works from early morning to evenings. Early next morning, Mr. Bharti, slim and straight backed was sprinting along the apple orchards. I was breathless just keeping up. When he heard that we were here for Tirthan, he beamed and brought us a neatly-bound edition outlining the legal fight which lead to the High Court passing an order to protect Tirthan from any small or large dams.
The fight is an interesting case study in understanding how many hands and hearts it takes to protect even a tiny river like Tirthan. And just how much luck.
Tirthan Valley: Of Trout and Tragopan
Tirthan emerges from Hanskund Glacial Lake, at the Tirath peak in the heart of the Great Himalayan National Park at an elevation of approximately 4800 mts. It flows for about 50.7 kms before forming a trijunction with Sainj and Beas near Larji.[v] Its main tributaries include Mani nala, Koki khad, Jibhi khad, Maahlra nala and Palachan khad. The valley is 685.25 sq. kms.[vi] It takes 8 to 9 days to trek to the origin of Tirthan from Gushaini village and most of the trek is along the river and inside the GNHP. Raju Bharti’s father Late. Dileram Shabab, an ex MLA and a legend in the Tirthan valley, was instrumental in constituting the Great Himalayan National Park (764 sq kms) in 1984, Tirthan Wildlife Sanctuary (~60 sq kms) and Sainj Wildlife Sanctuary (90 sq. kms). Today, GNHP is a Unesco World Heritage Site within the Himalayan Biodiversity Hotspot and protects headwaters of four valleys parallelly running east to west: Tirthan, Sainj, Parvati and Jiva Nal, all tributaries of the Beas.[vii] The tiny valley of Tirthan has 33 mammalian species including 8 Schedule I species, 123 bird species with 6 Schedule I species, 84 kinds of butterflies, 29 species of herpetofauna, 18 species of fish and extremely high biodiversity values including the endangered Western Tragopan and Musk Deer.
The cold, glacial waters and dense forests on the banks of Tirthan and its tributaries meant rich fisheries always. Guman Singh from the Himalaya Neeti Abhiyan told us that Rainbow trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss) were introduced in the Tirthan valley by the British in somewhere close to 1903. Snow trout (Schizothorax richardsonii) is native to Himalayan waters and is also found here. With the introduction, a Notification was also passed in 1925 to protect and conserve the Trout in Tirthan Valley.
For almost 120 years now, Trout has been an important peg in the story of Tirthan.
Nine dams, One sacred valley
In 2002, locals came to know that there were plans of setting up 9 hydel projects in the Tirthan valley. Some local panchayats had given NOCs to these projects without understanding what these dams meant. These projects were to be partly subsidized by the German organization GTZ. Through the Indian Bureau of Energy Efficiency, GTZ finances private renewable energy projects in Himachal Pradesh funding up to 30% of their set up costs.[viii] The grant from GTZ is dependent on an Environmental Impact Assessment, which is not legally mandated for projects below 25 MW and hence never done in India due to blunders of EIA Notification 2006. When a GTZ official who had lived on the banks of Tirthan in the guest house saw the application, he immediately called Mr. Bharti and told him that this does not bode well for the river. Villagers were informed and mobilized rapidly. No further land deals were made. Conflict was simmering. From here on, no land sales happened.
In 2004, Swastik Companies Private Limited, one of the dam builders filed a petition in Shimla High Court that their Sale Deeds were not being registered. When groups in Tirthan knew about this, they intervened and stated that the sale deeds were not registered as they were fraudulently gotten signed by the villagers. Groups like Indian Fish Conservancy (Himachal Angling Association) stated that project will affect trout, the mainstay of Tirthan’s tourism economy. 300 anglers visited the valley annually for angling, about 18 lakhs were made annually by trout farms, EIA is fraudulent which states among other things that there are no fish in Tirthan and Palchan Nallahs.
Interveners strongly stated that dams are not being built on nallahs, as stated in the EIA, but rivers, that silt accumulation is harmful for fish, water passing through weir will affect the entire lifecycle of Trout. In 2004, Dileram Shabab in his representation said that Tirthan is a trout country protected by 1925 and 1976 Notifications for conservation. In 1976, Tirthan valley was also earmarked for in situ conservation of trout by the Himachal Fisheries Department. Surprisingly, it was the Himachal Wildlife Department which stated that the project will affect 250 Gharats and over 30 Hydrams (local lift irrigation device) in the valley.
Interveners stated that nine bumper to bumper projects will lead to drying up of a total of 30 kms of Tirthan River and Palchan Khad. Dams were spaced at 2 to 8 kms from each other, but there was no river between their impact zones.
In a move that highlighted the pride of the community, offer of the petitioner to give 3 times the market rate was seen as a bribe and strongly rejected. Communities, gram panchayats, temple committees, deuta (specific Gods) committees sent in overwhelming representations against the projects. Women gathered in large numbers and were specifically concerned that riverside grazing lands of their cattle will be affected. The projects were located hardly 8 kms from GNHP boundary and 5 km from Tirthan Wildlife Sanctuary boundaries.
Fisheries Experts and Warden, Fisheries, HP submitted a report that Tirthan is the best breeding and feeding grounds for trout and needs to be protected.
Looking at all the submissions, the HP Cabinet in 2004 decided not to take up any projects in Tirthan Valley.
Again in 2005, the Department of Non-Conventional Energy issued a show cause notice to a 3 MW SHP proposed in the Palchan Khad, a tributary of Tirthan. Notably, the notice highlighted 1925 and 1976 Notifications banning any development which would adversely impact trout and other fisheries in Tirthan and its catchments.
The show cause notice is a surprising document which not only lists the various impacts of the proposed SHP but states in no uncertain terms:
- “There is an actual of the impact in the neighboring Sainj watershed where large hydropower development like the Parbati Hydropower Project and several small hydel projects have destroyed the tenuous and very delicate link between natural resources and local population. The area is full of dust and grime causing a number of diseases in the area.” It also lists increased pressure on the Devta culture and rituals of the region which are not appreciated by the outsiders.
- That the proponents did not disclose the ecological richness of the proposed site nor that it forms the part of GNHP corridor.
- Dynamite blasting will affect the aquifer and cause draining and during up of streambeds.
- Possibilities of increased landslides and other erosion which you (petitioner) incorrectly claim as not applicable, but they have occurred in Sainj.
- Increasing debri dumping in streambeds will cause blockages
- Show Cause Notice proved that water availability calculations of the project were bloated and the figures for 50% discharge between two projects of the same basin vary by half.
- It firmly stated that the projects will lead to entire drying up of the rivulet.
- It also states that Wildlife 1972 Act provisions do not only apply for protected areas but all land where wildlife exists.
This Show-cause notice, a government document needs to be used as a template for all planned and under-construction projects in the Himalayas. It should be specifically used by the Expert Appraisal Committee of the MoEF and CC which seems to have forgotten that these are the issues to be raised while sanctioning huge bumper to bumper projects in Himalayas.
This remarkable notice was signed by Mr. J.P. Negi, IAS, Principal Secretary (Horticulture, Pollution Control & Non-Conventional Energy & MPP & Power) who held many offices during his tenure. Rajiv Bharti ji talks about him with a voice hushed with respect. Mr. Negi spent his last days in Banjaar, Tirthan valley, on the banks to the river he helped protect. Originally from Kinnaur, a region which is witnessing unmitigated hydropower development and impacts currently, he told Rajiv Bharti once, “तीर्थन को हम हानी नही पोहोचने देंगे. किंनौरे ने एक बार केह दिया तो केह दिया.” One wishes that Kinnaur had such a forthright protector today.
The project proponent failed to provide convincing response to this show cause notice. Negi’s decision expanded the ban to eight other hydel companies which had been given MOU’s along the Tirthan.
In the High Court, submissions from varied stakeholders like Forest Department, Wildlife Department, Fisheries Department, HIMURJA etc., were requested. Almost all submissions were for protecting Tirthan. Several Gram panchayats, organizations like Fish and Wildlife Conservancy, SAHARA also chipped in.
In 2006, the High Court ruled that Tirthan was a No-Go river for hydropower projects and was to remain free of any future small or large dam development. Some scholars point out that the High Court based its decision solely on the biodiversity values of Tirthan and its proximity to Great Himalayan National Park and overlooked the livelihood and cultural values. However, as one can see in environment litigation across the country, strongest legal peg is used for decision-making in the real time and it keeps changing with the context. [ix]
In some senses, there are bigger protests than Tirthan today in the Himalayas: in Himachal itself, Assam-Arunachal Pradesh, Sikkim, Uttarakhand, Meghalaya, Manipur. But no river has been declared as a no-go for fish or any other reason. Some of the reasons behind Tirthan’s victory seem to be that Trout protection notifications were in place, the proposed projects were small, they did not include powerful or state/national players, proponents had limited capital, the interveners were comparatively well off, they had the connections and the wherewithal to put in a lone fight. It will be naïve to ignore this. And yet, the ban could not have come in place without strategic cooperation of many stakeholders. Fortis Fortuna Adiuvat, Fortune Favors the Bold.
Almost all interveners faced tremendous pressure, had to spend money out of their pockets. Once, Dileram Shabab came to his son with a box of tea bags which came as a gift from the developers. Under the tea bags were wads of cash. Shabab took a look at Gandhiji’s photograph on the wall. He smiled to his son, “How can I accept this? What will he feel?”
Neighboring Dammed counterparts: Sainj and Parbati Valleys
We also visited the neighboring Sainj valley to see NHPC’s Parbati Stage II and III projects. Parbati III depends on the water diverted by Parbati Stage II project. But Stage II is still not complete and not likely to be in near future. Around the dates we visited, 100 workers of Stage II had run away for their lives due to leakages inside the tunnel which also submerged the machinery. Parbati Stage II has a shockingly dubious record of worker safety.
Parbati II project involves a tunnel 32 kms long in the heart of the Dhauladhar ranges to transfer waters from Parbati Basin into Sainj Basin just upstream of the Parbati III reservoir. Innumerable tragedies have marred Parbati II project. More than 14 workers and engineers have lost their lives being trapped, buried alive, flooded and drowned inside the tunnels. The saga continues till date[x]. The machines inside have been damaged, flooded, have caught fire[xi]. Tunnel boring is still not complete. Tunnel Boring Machine repeatedly gets stuck inside the mountains over and over for years.
The last 800 meters of the tunnel is causing panic due to leaks and repeated tunnel wall collapses. NHPC officials whom I talked with, dismissed these shocking happenings by saying that these are geological surprises and that there are several “water reservoirs” inside the mountains. Do the workers have to lose their lives for these surprises? Imagine being a tunnel worker in the belly of the Himalayas for Parbati II project of NHPC.
When I met NHPC officials about the Sainj and Parbati projects, they accepted the worker deaths and casualties in a matter of fact way. The entrance of Parbati III Office is swarming with irate local workers. Officials tell me about the locals “Always want more than they are being given”. How many locals are employed in the Parbati III project, I ask. 256 is the answer of which 36 are security guards. Remember this number 256. More than 14 workers have been killed by Parbati II so far.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi dedicated the 4X130 MW Parbati III to the nation in 2016.[xii] The project is still not viable as it was planned to receive water from Parbati Stage II. So Stage II caused deaths of several workers and its delay has costed more than 10,000 Crores to the country, is still incomplete with no clear timeline on the horizon and Stage III is still loss making. Add to this the cracks on houses, dried up drinking water sources, dusty orchards and irate, unemployed affected population. Sounds green or sustainable?
Parbati III Project releases environmental flows in a most peculiar manner, like fountains in front of casinos of Bellagio, Las Vegas. There is no chance that such a release will help anything remotely ecological. HPPCL’s 100 MW Sainj Hydropower Project in the upstream has a fish ladder which has never been used by fish. The dam operators take me to the ladder and tell me that they have seen fish banging their heads against the dam wall, but they cannot use the ladder for upstream breeding migrations. They tell me about a small hydel projects downstream which took the entire flow of a small khad, leaving two villages thirsty. The villagers had to stop the project to get back their water.
Value of a Free-flowing River, of an undammed valley
In Tirthan, the tourism economy creates direct employment for more than 2000 people. There are over 300 homestays in Jibhi and Tirthan valleys. Each property employs on an average 4-5 people. This is direct employment through home stays. Youth are also employed as trek guides, birdwatching guides, angling guides, they drive taxis, sell home produce to tourists. They do not have to swarm at the gates of a hydropower company to protest for their legitimate needs.
Most of the home stays rear trout in small tanks taking water from the river. These are used for guests, homes and some for the market. The valleys have productive orchards of apples, cherries, pears and apricot. The orchards are not laden with dust like in Kinnaur or Luhri due to blasting for hydropower projects. Even after devastating floods in 2005, Tirthan valley still holds dozens of working gharats. Some gharats are modified to generate electricity. Till recently, Lady Willingdon Hospital in Jibhi was lit up by a 5 KW Gharat along the Jibhi Khad, Gharat in Tung sub basin lights up several houses. [xiii]
“Tirthan, Trout and Tourism”
We were lucky to attend the 6th All India Trout Annual Angling Competition in Jibhi sub basin of Tirthan. The trophy is aptly named as “Free Rivers Saviour Dilaram Shabab Running Trophy.” The Trophy also had Prof. G.D Agarwal’s name engraved on it. It was fitting as Prof. Agarwal laid down his life in his quest to ensure that dammed Upper Ganga Basin gets at least some flow from the hydropower dams and new Projects are cancelled. President of Himalayan Angling Association Mr. K.B. Ralhan discussed the threats to trout with us and in his public address said that free flowing nature of Tirthan valley and the dense riparian zone was the reason the valley was saved from destruction. He urged the anglers, Sub Divisional Magistrate of Banjar and Pradhans of Jibhi that no projects should be allowed in this valley in the future. Assistant Director of Fisheries, Mandi Division accepted that fish ladder for Larji Hydropower project is non-functional and is “not a fish ladder but a fish trap”. He also accepted that hydropower development has made aquatic deserts of rich rivers and that Fisheries Department needs to put in more efforts to protect the diversity as well as the economic impetus created by tourism. He proclaimed that the three T’s for Fisheries Department were Trout, Tirthan and Tourism and that they will strive to protect this.
We met with several catch and release anglers and their guides who had a wealth of knowledge about the rivers and riverine biodiversity. It was indeed a meaningful and joyful competition.
And what do tourists take back from the Tirthan Valley? Throughout our visits, we saw hundreds of people reveling in the Tirthan basin rivers. The sort of unbridled joy a flowing river conjures: Middle aged aunties hitched up their salwars and waded through knee-deep water with glee, kids shrieked in delight and young people did what young people do everywhere: take about a thousand selfies with the river.
Story of Tirthan is a mixed bag. One free flowing river does not absolve the state from the reality that all other rivers are dammed many times over, the process has not been accountable and transparent, local concerns are not accounted for, EIAs are dishonest, public hearings are a sham, implementation is shoddy, monitoring or compliance is non-existent, water sources are drying up, muck dumped into rivers is making them into ticking time bombs, fish ladders are a joke, environmental flows are for namesake and disasters have multiplied.
All the other projects: from the protests at Kinnaur to blasting at Luhri need to be respected and looked at according to their own merits. One Tirthan is too tiny to absolve the state of all these impacts. We need more Tirthans.
In the meantime, Tirthan and its tributaries flow on, steadfastly showing the world that hydropower is not the only way for green development. Sustainability and dams do not go together. Local concerns are not inconveniences. The chugging train of development runs on many tracks and wheels. Including free flowing rivers. That is how the Tirthan flows. As a true मुक्तधारा.
Text: Parineeta Dandekar, SANDRP email@example.com
Photographs: Abhay Kanvinde, firstname.lastname@example.org
[viii] Ref Adam Payne
J Mark Baker et al, https://www.jstor.org/stable/24479555
J Mark Baker, The Socio-Ecological Effects of Small Hydropower Development in Himachal Pradesh https://sandrp.in/2014/06/08/the-socio-ecological-effects-of-small-hydropower-development-in-himachal-pradesh/