Dams · Free flowing rivers · Photo Feature

In Photos: People of the Free-Flowing Tirthan

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:

Chunniji Rana was our Friend-Guide and Driver in the Valley. Born and brought-up in Gushaini Village of Tirthan valley, Chunni ji holds that tourism in the valley is because of its Rivers: Tirthan and Jibhi. He routinely takes researchers and scientists across the valley and has played a small role in protecting Tirthan. Photo: Abhay Kanvinde

Above and below: Ranjeev Bharti and his father, Dileram Shabab have been the fountainhead of protecting free-flowing character of Tirthan. The lodge they started on the banks of Tirthan is not only a place of stay, but a small university of sorts: educating people all over the world about the river and its people. Photo: Abhay Kanvinde

Villagers come to the Raju Guest House to help with chores. They all cross Tirthan on foot to reach the Lodge. Photo: Abhay Kanvinde

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

Guman Singh of the Himalaya Neeti Abhiyan in the town on Banjar. Gumanji too has played an important role in protecting Tirthan. He owns a small lodge on the banks of Tirthan. Guman Singhji is worried about the dense developments happening along the river. 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

Our trek guide Ludhian is from the Gushaini Village. He guides trekkers to the origin of Tirthan: at the Tirath Glacier. Here he relaxes at the HIppo point, at the entrance of Great Himalayan National Park Photo: Abhay Kanvinde
A cowherd waving at us as his cows graze on the banks of Tirthan Photo: Abhay Kanvinde
River Tirthan is worshiped at almost all its waterfalls 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

Vidya Devi shows us the wool she has collected from her sheep, which she will weave into shawls and carpets. 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

Tourists, one of the important mainstays of Tirthan Valley’s economy. Like us, they take home not only the beauty of the valley, but a sense of wonder about the people and the river Photo: Abhay Kanvinde
The photographer Abhay Kanvinde with Neela Devi’s Family

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, abhaykanvinde@gmail.com, Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/abhaykanvinde/

Text: Parineeta Dandekar, SANDRP

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