February 21, 2020
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Drown Town

Tehri is sinking. The fledgling state of Uttaranchal faces its first major crisis as the 200-year-old hill town stares at total submergence. Progress, in the shape of one of the highest dams in the world, here means erasure.

Drown Town
Drown Town
On its last breath, Tehri limps into another morning. It's a town that's in its death throes—panting, gasping; struggling yet to wheeze away an imminent death. Hoping to convalesce back to its earlier health, even though it inches towards its water grave with more finality each morning.

"The government has willed this to be Tehri's last winter," prophesies the town's environmentalist-saint Sunderlal Bahuguna, "But we are determined to fight till the finish, before they drown us out." His own house submerged by the rising Bhagirathi river earlier this month, Bahuguna now strategises Tehri's battle for survival from Purana Durbar, atop one of the town's higher reaches. Gaze lowered on the green waters shimmering in the warm winter sun around him, he makes a cold observation: "This is our water, being used to kill us, then being looted to grow cane in Meerut and flush Delhi's toilets."

Seething with similar anger, locals have been protesting vociferously against the Tehri dam, linked inextricably to the town's death, for over three decades. (As an 'environmental' movement, it grew out of the Chipko agitation of the '70s.) The activism became frenetic after the recent closure of the two diversion tunnels which has, in turn, seen water levels rise to consume the lower fringes of the city. Sixteen months and 60 meters away from completion, one of the highest dams in the world will drown Tehri town and adjoining villages by next monsoon. Uprooting 15,000 families for the larger 'good'.

Many have been fasting in protest at the town's ancient Shiv mandir, since the countdown to the dam's completion began about six months ago. Frustrated men and women, sloganeering youth who swear they'll drown rather than desert their town. "The way we are being pushed out, it doesn't seem like it's our own country," fulminates Kaushalya Pandey. "We don't seem to have a choice in the matter, we must leave and manage to rebuild lives with the pittance we've been paid as compensation." Fortysomething Alim Ahmed of ward No. 4, Tehri, is summoned to elaborate the argument: he's been paid Rs 46.50 as compensation for his share of his ancestral home. "They do some strange calculations, depending on how well their palms are greased," alleges 30-year-old Vivek Painuli, who went out of business after his stationery shop ran out of customers in the ghost town. "They have forgotten that we're still here. They are stripping away the infrastructure, apathetic to our needs."

Whichever side of the big-dam debate one is on, the plight of a people being forced out of their homes is heart-wrenching. The main bridge to the town was shut earlier this month; most schools, colleges and banks have already moved out; the court has been transferred and shops have been sealed or destroyed. Says Rekha Khanduri: "After they took away his school from here, my son has been travelling 58 km everyday to attend class 6 in New Tehri."

And as stories of unfair compensation, political conspiracies and frustrated lives abound, Tehri lives its last few mornings on its streets, in spirited defiance. New Year greeting cards stacked on charpoys are up for sale next to shops forced shut. Outlets selling material from abandoned houses do brisk business. Women knit as if in preparation for the next winter, wherever it's spent.

"Most families here have three generations of activists," says engineering student-turned-activist Samir Rithudi, 23. "We've a tradition of struggle, we won't give up." His father Jagdamba Rithudi is one of the petitioners against the dam in Supreme Court. He cites various reports to prove how unsafe the dam is. "They have constructed a reservoir in a seismic zone. One quake and water will spill over and destroy everything up to Bulandshahar."

Hyperbole perhaps. But understandable coming from someone about to lose his home. His land, once verdant and peaceful, ripped off its lushness. Noisy trucks and cranes stripping his hills, where birds once chirped, to ugly barrenness. Surely, people about to see the home they grew up in being submerged forever are allowed to be emotional. Says an overwrought resident: "They'll flood our town with water, then sarcastically point out that we didn't drown ourselves like we've been swearing to!"

Tehri's death will anyway mean killing its people, philosophises Bahuguna. He shudders momentarily despite the winter sun's warmth: "We only had jal, jungle, jameen (water, forests and land) and they've taken all three from us; they cut our forests first, robbed us of our water next and are now drowning our land..."

Today, the few brave and obdurate residents who live on in Tehri are drowning on dry land anyway.
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