There’s alarm among residents of Jammu’s Chenab valley, where work on a number of major hydropower projects have picked up pace since the abrogation of Article 370 on August 5, 2019. Thousands of trees have been felled during excavation work. Locals fear the projects will cause damage to biodiversity and trigger earthquakes in this high-risk seismic zone. On January 11, a high-intensity earthquake rocked the Chenab valley, and the tremors were felt across J&K. The epicentre was in Kishtwar district. “With some of India’s biggest power projects and dams being built along a 70-km stretch cutting across Kishtwar and Doda districts, we have become the world’s biggest water laboratory,” says Kishtwar district development council (DDC) member Zakir Bhat. “The power projects are coming up at the cost of people, who forfeit their resources without getting anything from the government. We should be part of all decision-making about how to harness this region’s water resources.”
A major tributary of the Indus, the Chenab flows into Kishtwar from Himachal Pradesh, and runs through four other J&K districts before entering Pakistan. Under the Indus Waters Treaty facilitated by the World Bank in 1960, India controls the Beas, the Ravi and the Sutlej, besides being allowed to use up to 20 per cent of the water of the Indus, the Jhelum and the Chenab for irrigation, transport and power generation. Article 370’s abrogation was followed by a major push for maximum exploitation of the three Pakistan-controlled rivers, with the Centre deciding to expedite work on the 1,000 MW Pakal Dul, 624 MW Kiru and 540 MW Kwar power projects in the Chenab valley. There are plans to begin work on the 550 MW phase-II of the Dul Hasti project. On January 20, the Union cabinet approved an investment of Rs 5,281.94 crore for the 850 MW Ratle hydroelectric project on the Chenab in Kishtwar. “Jammu and Kashmir will be benefited by getting free power worth Rs 5,289 crore and through the levy of water usage charges worth Rs 9,581 crore from Ratle hydroelectric project, during the project life cycle of 40 years,” reads an official communique.
Former J&K deputy CM Kavinder Gupta of the BJP says the nod to the Ratle project despite Pakistan’s objections shows that “PM Narendra Modi will do everything possible to raise the level of development”. However, local activist Shakir Siddique points out that then PM Manmohan Singh had also promised the locals one per cent of the power generated by the Pakal Dul project. “It is difficult to believe such promises. Also, these projects employ locals only as manual labourers,” he adds.
Coming up just 10 km away from Pakal Dul, Ratle is also separated by the same distance from Baglihar, a run-of-the-river power project on the Chenab in Ramban district. “What is the government up to?” asks Doda DDC member Asim Hashmi. “Locals have been asking the government to take their views into consideration, but no one is listening. The government should first give free electricity to the Chenab region and let us participate in decision-making regarding power firms that exploit our resources.”
By Naseer Ganai in Srinagar