The sangam (confluence) of Chandra and Bhaga river at Tandi village in Lahaul valley is an auspicious mark “on the map of Buddhist and Hindu sacred geography”.i For the Himalayan yogis of the past, this sangam signified the “sacred triangle of the Mother of all Buddhas, from which all the phenomena originate”ii; whereas the economic logic of our times have reduced this living entity “into hydrologic data, cash flow statements, political will and truckloads of concrete.” iii Cast in this dominant vision is the state of Himachal Pradesh that wants to lead the hydropower race in the Himalayas- as a laboratory of renewable energy production. The hydropower extraction frontier here is expanding into the remote territories of the state, rather aggressively. The 130 kms of relatively undammed Chandrabhaga or Chenab river meandering through the districts of Lahaul-Spiti and Chamba of Himachal is a crucial coordinate on the energy map of this “hydropower state of the country” where close to fifty hydropower projects are proposed in a cascade, with majority allotted in Lahaul valley.iv But how are these grand visions of a hydropower future coming to life, as they “proliferate across different physical and human geographies” of Himachal? v
In the neighboring district of Kinnaur, multiple evidences outpour of a hydropower narrative marked with material and human loss. When you ask a Lahaula on the incentives of mega hydroprojects for the valley, “Kinnaur ki haalat dekho” (look at the situation in Kinnaur) is a common expression. Critical articulations such as these are telling of the real time implications of hydropower development in the fragile ecosystem of Kinnaur. The Kinnaur hydro tragedy reiterates the failure of hydropower technology to capture the common imagination in Kinnaur and Lahaul as a benign source of energy. Much that has been documented, both written and visual in the case of Kinnaur, illustrates how and why hydropower has produced more risks than opportunities for people living in and around various project sitesvi. Cracks in houses, sliding mountains, loss of apple fields, destroyed roads and a virtually dry Satluj basin testifies the hydro damage. But despite vivid realities of displacement, faulty rehabilitation, socio-religious and cultural loss, that hydropower is the technology of the future is a widespread belief. This dominant trust in hydropower as a green source of energy that will mainly drive state’s economy in the future speaks volumes about development aspirations of citizens of an emerging Himachal Pradesh. In fact, in the case of Lahaul valley, those going to be affected by mega hydroprojects like 300 MW Jispa hydropower project proposed in Tod valley have strongly critiqued displacement of their livelihoods, but not hydropower development per se in the larger scheme of politics and economy of the state. In one of the public meetings against Jispa dam in 2015, one of the representatives of Jispa dam Sangarsh Samiti while strongly speaking against displacement, put forth the view of building hydroprojects in uninhabited areas of Lahaul. There definitely is an unfailing consensus on undesirability of mega hydroprojects for Lahaul’s economic development, however support for small, mini and micro hydroprojects has been voiced by locals in various community meetings organised inside and outside of Lahaul. Austin Lord, an anthropologist studying hydropower politics in context of the emergent socio economic landscape of Nepal, asks questions that resonate with the evolving hydropower scenario of Himachal:
“But how do these imagined hydroscapes become real? How do flows and interventions that support hydropower development interact with watersheds, local livelihoods and other future making projects?”
The landscape of Tod Valley in Lahaul could have deformed in a manner similar to Kinnaur, had people from the project affected areas of the proposed 300 MW Jispa hydroproject caved into political pressure. For the inhabitants of twelve villages of Tod valley, it wasn’t acceptable to be uprooted from their territory in the name of ‘national interest’.vii People from the affected areas lived in a state of anxiety for almost seven years, their lives marked by uncertainty. The response of central government in Delhi and the state government in Shimla to people’s struggle was unknown. Until September this year. Quite unexpectedly, the Himachal Pradesh Power Corporation Limited (the state company executing the project) decided to put the project on hold. For the company, the temporary suspension of the project at an initial investigation stage meant not only a wastage of its resources invested so far but unmindful rejection of a project which would have “ushered development” in the valley. viii
Filming Lahaul has not just actively participated in this important people’s struggle, but also visually documented it. For us, it’s important to understand what is at stake for those going to be displaced by the project; how are they negotiating these ‘insecure times in their everyday lives; ways in which project affected people make sense of a hydropower future in making; why certain future projects promise more opportunity than others, in case of Lahaul, tourism over hydropower development?
Given these reasons, last winter we found ourselves documenting Puna festival in Jispa village, one of the main affected villages of the 300 MW Jispa project. Puna is celebrated seven days after Losar, the local new year, when Jispa villagers gather for community prayers and feasting. Traditional songs are sung all night long in praise of family and village protector deities for prosperity in the year ahead. As we unpacked meanings implied in community’s vision of prosperity, our conversation with the youngsters (mostly men) inevitably led to a heated debate on Jispa dam inflicted insecurity and anxiety. “Dam se hum bahut insecure feel karte hain“(We feel very insecure because of the dam) remarked Tenzin, a guy in his 30s. For the younger lot in Jispa, a tourism based economy is the answer to development woes of Jispa, and Lahaul as a whole. The old and young of Jispa are eagerly awaiting the completion of ‘Lahaul’s lifeline’- the under construction 9 km Rohtang tunnel, a Ministry of Defence project that will provide year round connectivity and pave way for tourism opportunities.
In Jispa, we witnessed that socio religious and cultural dislocation in the name of development will not be blindly accepted. Through this video of Puna festivities in Jispa, we see a small but a vital fragment of a lived reality of an expanding hydropower frontier in the trans Himalayas. Many lessons drawn and strategies devised keeping in mind the hydropower reality in Kinnaur. This is visible in the fact that clear threat of displacement to livelihoods in Tod valley has been effectively translated into an opportunity to claim rights in top down decision making processes. What future direction will the movement against 300 MW Jispa take is unknown, but at this given point of time in their struggle, it’s a moment of victory for Jispa dam Sangarsh Samiti- all the men and women of Tod valley who strongly backed this unique people’s struggle against hydropower in Lahaul.
i Drew, Georgina (2016) “Beyond Contradiction: Sacred-Profane Waters and the Dialectics of Everyday Religion,” HIMALAYA, the Journal of the Association for Nepal and Himalayan Studies: Vol. 36: No. 2, Article 11.
ii Garsha, Heartland of the Dakinis: A mirror into Lahaul. Sacred time and space, Young Drukpa Association, 2011.
iii Lord, Austin (2014) “Making a ‘Hydropower Nation’: Subjectivity, Mobility, and Work in the Nepalese Hydroscape,” Himalaya, the Journal of the Association for Nepal and Himalayan Studies: Vol. 34: No. 2, Article 13.
v Lord, Austin (2014) “Making a ‘Hydropower Nation’: Subjectivity, Mobility, and Work in the Nepalese Hydroscape,” Himalaya, the Journal of the Association for Nepal and Himalayan Studies: Vol. 34: No. 2, Article 13.
vii Changing the Colours of Chenab, Narratives on hydropower development from Lahaul valley, Himdhara, June 2015.