For 15 days in January, hundreds of men, women and children marched across river valleys of India’s Uttarakhand state to raise awareness about government plans to build dams. The government intends to build 220 large, medium and small dams in the upper reaches of the Ganges River basin, the country’s holiest of rivers. Organizers say the scheme will transform the sacred Ganges into a plumbing system with all of the life engineered out of it.
“Our lakes and rivers, even the sacred Ganga, are in a rapidly deteriorating state. Our lives, work and cultures are threatened. If things go on unchecked, the continued existence of many villages is in question,” said Dr. Ravi Chopra of the Uttarakhand Nadi Bachao Abhiyan. Most of the upper reaches of the Ganga will dry out with the extensive damming, critics argue.
Collectively, marchers visited 150 villages in 14 river valleys, including the Alaknanda valley where they met with villagers protesting the Kotli-Bhel hydropower project. Four people in Maletha village launched a fast-unto-death on January 15 to stop construction of the dam. On the eighth day of the fast, a state government minister met with protesters and promised that construction would be halted so the government could review the project with the participation of local people.
In Uttarkashi, activists held a rally urging the state government to stop the construction of dams on the Bhagirathi River. They argued that the government should first ensure that communities affected by an existing dam are adequately compensated.
Villagers in Chayeen village are already facing impacts due to dam-related construction. “Our village has been devastated by subsidence due to the tunnel for the Vishnuprayag hydroelectric project,” said Geeta Bagasi. “The administration turned a deaf ear to warnings by the villagers that construction of a tunnel in this mountain was a hazard.” Land subsidence destroyed the homes of 30 families in her village, and another 100 families are at risk.
The statewide actions are part of a larger effort to gather information, mobilize communities and put pressure on the government. Activists complain that environmental impact assessments for the projects were hastily prepared and incomplete.
“We are not campaigning against hydropower generation in Uttarakhand,” said Chopra. “We believe, however, that there are better ways to generate hydropower that pose less of a threat to people’s lives and livelihoods.”
The protests culminated in a statewide meeting to share findings and discuss future strategies. Campaigners presented the state’s Chief Minister with a petition calling for a moratorium on dam construction until a comprehensive hydropower policy is developed in cooperation with dam-affected people. The Chief Minister told the press that the government would review the state hydropower policy.