River Tirthan, a tributary of the Beas in Himachal Pradesh is one of the rarest rivers in India. Not because it is teeming with trout, not because the tiny valley is home to nearly 100 species of butterflies, not because it has several functioning water mills running with flow of the river, but because it is protected by the Himachal Legislature as a perpetually free-flowing river: A No-Go River for Hydropower and other dam projects. Read about how it came to pass here: Muktadhara Tirthan (https://sandrp.in/2022/06/15/muktadhara-tirthan/)
While we calculate the costs and benefits of building dams, we do not enter into similar discussions when it comes to a free-flowing river. How does a free-flowing river touch the lives of its people? Does it provide them with services, with succor, with hope? What are the tangible or intangible benefits people get from free flowing rivers?
At the cusp of spring this year, photographer Abhay Kanvinde spent some time with the people of Tirthan Valley. Here are some of his impressions:
School friends fishing on a small rivulet reaching the Tirthan. The rivulet gets inflows from a Trout Farm and on lucky days, the kids catch a swift-swimming trout! Photo: Abhay Kanvinde
Village Meeting in Ropa on way to the entrance of Great Himalayan National Park. Village Pradhan Ankush Lat told us about the role Ropa village played in the court case to protect Tirthan. All villagers sent in submissions, women took part in demonstrations. Today, they are worried that rampant road development is blocking the river and leading to dust which affects the yield of crops in Ropa. The women were most active in the meeting. Photos: Abhay Kanvinde
Upstream along the Tirthan, small tea houses dot the trekking routes. Bholaram ji’s son owns such a small tea house in the midst of apple orchards. Bhola Ram ji plays with his grandson Devansh, while reminiscing about his life. He remembers the floods and droughts of Tirthan, tells us about leopards and Himalayan Tahrs he has seen. He takes one look at his photo in Abhay’s camera and wonders, “Arre, mai to buddha ho gaya!” (“Goodness, I’ve grown old!”) Photo: Abhay Kanvinde
On the banks of Jibhi Khad ( Jibhi River, a tributary of Tirthan), Dilbari Devi works on her loom, weaving rich patterns in wool and cotton. The wool comes from her sheep which she and her Daughter-in-Law Usha Devi graze with grass grown on the banks of Jibhi Khad Photo: Abhay Kanvinde
House of the matriarch Bholu Devi. Bholu Devi is just 94 and inspects us from her balcony. She wants to know where we are from and what we are up to. Her son Bahadur Singh tells us that the entire family depends of river tourism. He owns a river lodge on the banks of Jibhi Khad ( a tributary of Tirthan), his brother does the same. They graze a few cattle and sheep. Angling, rafting and camping on the banks of river keeps his business afloat. Photo: Abhay Kanvinde
Home of Neela Devi (Matriarch) and Vidya Devi ( Daughter in Law), with the kids Sweety, Kiran and Munni. We had come to Vidya to buy a woolen shawl she made but Neela Devi was shocked at the price quoted and despite our protests, lowered it! All the grazing fodder comes of the banks of the Jibhi Khad. Photo: Abhay Kanvinde
We were fortunate to witness the anchor which helped protect Tirthan: Angling and Trout Fish! Final Angling Competition for the “Free River Saviour Dileram Shabab Trophy” took place in the Jibhi-Tirthan Valley. All enthusiastic anglers from the valley and beyond took part in the competition. This was catch-and-release practice where the trout is measured, weighed and released back in the river after being caught. Photo: Abhay Kanvinde
Anglers and Judges in Tirthan Valley Photo: Abhay Kanvide
This is not to say that everything is perfect in Tirthan valley. Too many hotels are being built on the riverbanks, construction debris finds its way into the rivers, sewage treatment is limited… the list goes on. But as compared to the neighboring valley of Sainj which is riddled with mega hydropower projects, Tirthan and Jibhi valley hold on to something special: their autonomy. Tirthan valley people take initiative in protecting the forests, grazing lands and rivers, they are not “displaced or project affected people” stuck in the cycle of protests, fights and negotiations. The River in turn provides so much to them, including employment.
Perhaps the free-flowing quality of their rivers has rubbed off on the people of the Tirthan Valley too!
All Photos: Abhay Kanvinde, email@example.com, Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/abhaykanvinde/
Text: Parineeta Dandekar, SANDRP
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