Under threat

A proposed dam is set to change the landscape in the Pindar ghati--host to the last free flowing tributary of the Alaknanda. Bharat Lal Seth explores the scenic beauty of the region and its people

By Bharat Lal Seth
Published: Wednesday 06 July 2011

From Haridwar we started our road trip for the Pindar ghati well before the break of dawn to avoid the dreaded afternoon heat that summers inflict on the plains in north India.

This lesser known valley has the distinction of playing host to the last tributary of the Alaknanda whose flow is yet to be impeded, a status it is in danger of losing if the state government has its way. Presently, the clearance paperwork for a 35-metre dam on the Pindar river and a corresponding 252 megawatt hydel project, which will render a 22km stretch to a trickle, is doing the rounds in the environment ministry.

So as the sun rose we began to ascend the land of seven prayags (confluence of rivers), the cool mountain air affirming that we had made good time. There is a bifurcation at Devprayaag, the first confluence enroute where the Alaknanada and Bhagirathi mellifluously form the Ganga. Several vehicles drive along the Bhagirathi river towards Uttarkashi and the Gangotri glacier. We took the alternate path towards Rudraprayag, the meeting point of the Mandakini and the Alaknanda.

  Mahipat Singh, former captain in the army from Devsari village, calls the Pindar valley a money-order economy. Each village, he says, has martyrs and most of the men have served or are in service. “The undemocratic process of forcing this project on the people of the valley has undermined our sensibility. Even the British didn't do what they are doing,” he says.  
As we approached the confluence, a massive landslide had led to a bumper to bumper line of cars insinuosuly stretching the five-kilometre road, snaking across the hills as far as one could see. After a three hour wait, we made a quick decision to tail a car whose driver seemed confident of a 30 km bypass route, shouting out to anyone who cared to follow. This kutcha route, with steep gradients that would have Lance Armstrong gasping for air, took us over six hours to conquer. So much for our early morning advantage and our drivers penchant for speed. The day was lost to the roads.

The next morning we heard that the landslide hit route had still not opened. Inwardly glad that we had followed the madcap driver up the treacherous bypass we made an early start towards our final destination.

While every twist and turn of the valley is worthy of a picture, there is an abundance of trees right down to the waterline of the river Pindar. There were no tourists on the day; to my knowledge there were no visible guest houses, signs of home stays with only a forest rest house hidden somewhere. Apart from camping and nature enthusiasts, only a few cars that double up as shared taxi's carrying locals ply the route. The Environment Minister I am told is yet to visit the valley, a trip I highly recommend.

The Pindar river originates from the Pindari glacier and flows northwards (a rarity amongst Indian rivers) to meet river Kail at Deval, what the locals call the pratham sangam or the first confluence. It is believed that the “hidden” Saraswati along with two other water sources meet the two rivers at this confluence. Hence the pilgrimage site is named Panch Mahaprayag; it is the only confluence in the country where the waters of five rivers meet. The confluence has a Brahma kapaal shila, a sacred stone, from where the death rites of the departed or pind daan is performed. Hence the name Pindar.

The Pindar valley is beautiful, and as are the people who inhabit it. The women seem more endearing with age. They all wear gold jewellery and heavy earrings that make their pinnas (auricle of the ear) sag and render pin holes the size of peep holes. Some even wear the size and weight a city girl would save for her wedding. They work their fields wearing such adornments.

As a stereotype, the men seem the tipple sort. With few employment opportunities a large majority serve in the Indian Armed Forces. Those fortunate to return with pensions, spend their days swapping stories and smokes. They are a reserved lot in the afternoon and their evenings are best described by the saying, “surya-ast pahadi mast”.

The women are calm, composed and seemingly more articulate. This I figure when I sit down and have an extended chat with a group of women from Chepdu village. Their feelings about the proposed project is best encapsulated in the slogan: “Pindar ko aviral behne do, hamme surakhshit rehne do” (Let the Pindar flow, let our livelihood remain secure).

One of the strong voices is that of Bimla Joshi, 55, who has lived half her years as a widow. Her husband died during service in the Indian army when she was pregnant with one of her two boys. Even 28 years after his death her eyes well up when she talks of her husband. She feels she has done him proud. Each year on June 6 a mela is held in his honour. But not this year. Joshi cancelled the event when the dam building company, the Satluj Jal Vidyut Nigam, decided to front the cost (Rs three lakh) of tenting and entertainment. The company officials say they were approached by the villagers. But either way, Joshi is adamant the company is trying to factionalise and that she will never allow the company to capitalise on the name of her husband.

Those in opposition to the dam were beginning to lose hope as the project paperwork, after a farcical public hearing process in January earlier this year, allowed for the completion of formalities. Joshi's refusal has now given fresh impetus to the struggle. They are prepared for a protracted struggle against a state government that at every opportunity seems to have plans to divert river water in the state through tunnels and for hydropower generation. Roughly a third of Alaknanda and Bhagirathi river is diverted in to tunnels for electricity generation.

One gets a feeling that the locals feel insulted when they are told that they are opposing the dam because they do not want development. They too need electricity. But at what cost, they ask. They are opposing the large dam and its displacement, but seem open to smaller hydel projects. There is consensus that the government is yet to get it right on the issue of resettlement and rehabilitation. The process is not participative, transparent, neither accountable. The public hearings are farcical.

  The rich herbal wealth of the region is also well known but not yet been tapped. “This can generate employment and supply to the ayurvedic and herbal health product market. Tourism and tourism-based industries are yet to be explored. This would be far more permanent and less damaging than employment from dam and hydel projects,” says Bhairav Dutt of village Poorna.  
Pushkar Singh, pradhan of Khel gram sabha, says, “We are not one of those directly affected, but are totally against the project since our beloved Pindar will no longer gush.” The rich herbal wealth of the region is also well known but not yet been tapped. “This can generate employment and supply to the ayurvedic and herbal health product market. Tourism and tourism-based industries are yet to be explored. This would be far more permanent and less damaging than employment from dam and hydel projects,” said Bhairav Dutt of village Poorna. Activists from Matu Peoples Organisation and Bhu Swami Sangharsh Samiti have approached and given their collective representation in writing to the environment ministry. In April the ministry sought clarifications from the dam building company to ensure that all studies are conducted to lessen the environmental impact of the project. The company is yet to complete the added tasks.

So as one drives back to the heat of the plains I cannot help but think why projects need to be re-considered, and their impacts lessened. Why is the government not sensitive to this in the first place? While activists can be equally rabid, the government’s ineptness and failure or refusal to be more participative has created such mistrust and fundamental ideology.

Although ideologies remain as rigid as ever with environmental engineers seeking to develop India's water resources, activists are against many such projects demanding free flowing rivers. Neither is willing to give an inch. Any development of India's water resources would change the biodiversity and have socio-economic and possibly cultural impacts on downstream users. But if water is needed for drinking, irrigation, industrial use, or electricity generation, it is also needed for preserving certain ecosystem services. That’s the next story I'm researching.

For us in Delhi, opportunities along the Pindar abound. We can buy a 200 sq metre plot in the valley; adopt a pahadi child; start an eco-tourism or village homestay venture; start temple tours for high-end tourists; float an adventure sports company; or even tap in to the rich herbal wealth of the region. Move fast.

Read full story: Pindar’s last gush



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