"Keep Religion Out of River Movements": An Interview with Indian Activist Vimal Bhai

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Vimal Bhai is the Convener of Matu Jan Sangathan, a collective that has been advocating for rights of communities impacted by large hydropower projects and dams in India’s Himalayan state of Uttarakhand. He sat down with Bharat Lal Seth to talk about the historical injustices ten years after the commissioning of the Tehri Dam, and the Indian government’s apathy in spite of all the big talk of protecting rivers, particularly the Ganga.


How did you get involved in the anti-dam movement?

Vimal Bhai, a full time anti-dam activist. He loves to read poetry and dabbles in tribal art

Vimal Bhai, is a full time anti-dam activist. He loves to read poetry and dabbles in tribal art
International Rivers

I was a tobacco salesman in the early 1980s. During the 1984 massacre of the Sikhs in Delhi, I felt lifeless, like a tree uprooted. By then I knew I wanted to do social work, and soon after I ran away from home. I went to the Gandhi ashram in Gujarat, where in exchange for social services all I asked for was food and shelter. But I wasn’t embraced there. Somehow I found my way back home, where my mother insisted I stay until my elder brother got married.

Once he got married on February 24, 1987, I left home and found myself at the Gandhi Hindustani Sahitya Sabha, an NGO working on education and sustainable development. Here I learnt to spin and weave homespun cloth. In 1988 I met Sundarlal Bahuguna, a well-known environmentalist and leader of the celebrated Chipko movement. From him I understood that although as individuals we can keep spinning the wheel, there were numerous instances of gross injustice meted out to people. One such case was the Tehri Dam project on the headwaters of the Ganga, which would later displace thousands and ruin lives that coexisted with the river. I began to support the anti-Tehri Dam struggle, which later extended across the entire state of Uttarakhand, where several destructive hydropower projects are in various stages of planning and construction.


What does the Tehri Dam experience teach us, a decade since commissioning of the project?

In short, the experience has been woeful. More than a decade since commissioning, there are many aspects of rehabilitation and resettlement (R&R) that are yet to be completed. In 2003, the Supreme Court stipulated that six months prior to commissioning of the project all R&R work must be completed. But in 2005, water gushed into people’s homes during Diwali (Festival of Lights). Ten years on, in many resettlement colonies there is a lack of dependable water and electricity. Real estate sharks have divided the communities, while some areas have been built without a government school, hospital or post office as promised. Most farms have poor soil, and fields have not been fenced, so wild animals like the Nilgai (Asian antelope) ruin crops. All of this has been captured in our documentary film, Tehri 2015, which will be released next month.

Although the project received environmental clearance in 1990, many requirements as per this clearance letter were not implemented. The Tehri project, like many others, was ill conceived and poorly implemented. There have been so many cases of corruption that if we were to stack up these files they would be higher than the 260-meter-high dam. Instead, the people were labeled as greedy. Our friends in the left kept mum, given the initial Soviet involvement, but we continue our agitation till today. 


Do you identify any difference in the attitude of the present government vis-à-vis that in the previous decade?

The decade before May 2014, when the serving government came to power, I likened former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to a World Bank official seeking to advance the economic policy of liberalization, which he introduced as finance minister in 1991. In his cabinet, Jairam Ramesh, an erudite environment minister was a paper tiger; during his tenure hundreds of destructive projects were planned, and many given the green signal.

With the coming of Narendra Modi, the past 20 months and the campaigning prior to the elections involved a lot of talk of protecting “Mother Ganga.” The right wing party sought to entice the Hindu vote bank in the populous basin. Words such as nirmalta (purity) and aviralta (free flow) were bandied about. But nothing changed on the ground. Not only has there been no rethinking on destructive dams in the Himalayas, which many hoped and voted for, but also there has been a concerted attempt to hoodwink the courts into giving a go-ahead to hydropower projects that were paused due to the judicial moratorium issued after the 2013 Uttarakhand disaster. Meanwhile, independent scrutiny by court-appointed committees have simply been brushed aside and the hydropower industry, which experts say had a role in exacerbating the floods that killed many thousands, got away scot-free.

Recently, the government expressed interest in dredging lengthy stretches of the Ganga, building several barrages, and then using the river as a water highway. So now the exploitation is not restricted to the upper reaches; the manipulation of the riverine system is equally happening in the plains.


There is a view that anti-dam activists no longer have popular support. Is this true, and what difference do you see today from the late 1980s when you came to be involved in people’s movements?

It is made to look as if the Himalayan people support large dams. There is massive propaganda by the government that dams are the only way to develop. Everything, be it roads, electricity, water supply and other infrastructure are linked to dams; there is no talk of alternatives. But when you scratch the surface, you see the wisdom of people, many of whom can say with experience that they are not the recipients of intended benefits. Projects benefit the contractors and consultants, and ultimately big industry and people in far away large towns and cities.

Answering your second question, I’ve seen many changes in people’s movements over the past three decades. Firstly, there has been a massive “NGO-isation” of the movement. When I started social work, people worked for the benefit of society, and were known to possess certain qualities. Today there is an obsession with funding and money. For me it’s really quite simple: if there is less money then fewer pamphlets are printed. I’m not dissing the work of good NGOs who in various ways help to support grassroots mobilization. But back when I started, people stepped out to do work knowing that society would be there to support them. Nowadays there is less earnestness and spontaneity in social work.

I would also like to add that movements are being directed, often misled by people of faith and religion. Take for instance the Hindu saffron brigade. During the previous regime these groups were vociferously supporting the anti-dam movement, talking of river health and the spiritual need for free-flowing rivers. Where are these people today? They are silent now that the Hindu right wing, which continues to be hand-in-glove with the hydropower lobby, is in power. I feel this is dangerous, and we need to keep communal religious groups out of save the river movements. The movement must be guided by principles of justice and sound science.