Equality in Dissent

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Some three or four years back I travelled to the Alaknanda River Basin in Uttarakhand. At the time I was working as a journalist and writing a story on the Pinder River, the last free-flowing tributary of the mighty Alaknanda. The story assumed importance as the free flow of the river was imperiled; the state government had drawn up plans to build a 35-metre-high dam to impede and divert water to generate hydropower. I recall one woman, Bimla Joshi, whose mettle brought people together in opposing the project and demanding their statutory rights. But before I say more about Bimla, I’ll share some contextual information culled from project documents I studied at the time.

Women carrying pitchers of Pinder river water, protesting against the project in 2011

Women carrying pitchers of Pinder River water, protesting against the Devsari project in 2011
Photo courtesy of: Matu Jan Sanghathan

The proposed 252-megawatt Devsari hydropower project would “officially” affect 491 families from 16 villages in the Pinder valley, while the backwaters of the dam would possibly inundate agricultural land and homes of 26 families. Some locals were opposed to the project, knowing that the dam was sited in a seismic zone, and that digging tunnels through the mountain, as well as holding back a huge volume of water, could exacerbate disasters in a landslide-prone area that often isolates the 20,000 residents of the valley and prevents transportation of food and other supplies for weeks. The project proponent and state government were hell bent on expediting the project, circumventing statutory laws and procedures along the way.

Bimla, from Chepdu Village, I recall wore elongated gold earrings – most women of Chepdu work in their fields adorned in jewelry – and showed steely resolve that a dam must not obstruct the river, their lifeline she believed. I wish I had photographs to show, but I lost those to a hard disk crash. Anyhow, the same year, in 2011, she cancelled a mela (annual fair) that was held every June in the valley in memory of her husband, an army man who was posthumously awarded the Ashok Chakra. The project proponent offered to support the fair by footing the cost, estimated at Rs 3 lakhs (approximately $5,000 usd). But Bimla refused. Her refusal was a spark to light the people’s ire.

Some powerful men, including village pradhans (heads), as is often the case in such projects, got work as local contractors and jobs for their kin, which bought their loyalties. It was women like Bimla who stood their ground. The women of Chepdu were headstrong; no private builder of a dam, which would reduce the river’s 22-km stretch in the valley to a mere trickle, would be allowed into their lives. They gave weight to their belief, opinion and insight when up against a powerful state machinery along with the untrustworthy men of the valley who sought to sell the village commons for their personal fortunes. The sidelining and oppression of women, often made voiceless, can and has lead to many social and environmental injustices in India. Bimla and the women of Chepdu bravely averted, if even temporarily, one more injustice through equality in dissent.

As I write this blog, the project continues to be held up in the Courts after the Uttarakhand flood disaster of 2013, which resulted in a judicial-imposed moratorium on further dam construction in the entire state. Bimla and the resolve of others in the valley will give further credence to alternatives to destructive large dams in the upper reaches of fragile Himalayan riverine ecosystem.

This blog was originally published at Gender Matters-India, an initiative of the Centre for Social Research