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Remember those boxes of dry fruits that surface during Diwali? And in them that crunchy, slender, innocuous dry fruit known as the chilgoza or pine nut? Ever wondered where they come from? This week, I happened to meet Devi Gyan Negi, a farmer who harvests those delicious pine nuts from the trees that grow close to his home in the hills of Kinnaur in Himachal Pradesh. Negi has petitioned the National Green Tribunal (NGT) in Delhi, urging it to stop a slew of dams coming up on the Sutlej river, which will submerge his only source of livelihood. For this, every other week, he undertakes an arduous journey from his village that is at 10,000 ft up in the Himalayas down to the dusty plains of Delhi in the hope of redressal.

India’s pine nut industry is confined to a tiny portion in Kinnaur. Chilgoza is one of the most important cash crops for the people here. In the past, the Himachal Pradesh forest department had tried artificial regeneration of pine nuts by raising its seedlings in nurseries, but the results were poor; that’s why saving the trees that grow in the wild is important if this source of livelihood is to continue.

Pinus gerardiana, known as chilgoza, is a pine that is native to the north-western Himalayas from Afghanistan and Pakistan to India, growing at elevations between 1,800 metres and 3,350 metres. In India, it is only found in Kinnaur. Not just the beloved pine, hundreds of trees like deodar and dhoop will be felled for the dams being constructed to generate electricity.

What Negi doesn’t know is that his home state is giving a big push to the hydropower industry and its impact will be not just on the pine trees, but the entire ecology of the region. With that, Himachal Pradesh could well be the next Uttarakhand. The neighbouring hill state was witness to a sort of Himalayan tsunami due to heavy rainfall in 2012; it was the hundreds of dams under construction in Uttarakhand that were believed to have exacerbated the damage to life and property. Despite this, Himachal Pradesh is pushing for hydropower, according to SANDRP (South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People), with rivers like Ravi, Sutlej, Chenab, Beas and Yamuna being heavily dammed.

On the Sutlej, nine major hydel projects of 7,623 megawatts (MW) are already running along its 320km stretch, with about 21 more proposed. The same is the case with the Ravi, where about 30 projects are proposed to be built or are already functional. Each of the dams have left a massive footprint on the environment from the submergence of forests to diversion of rivers and heavy siltation.

In the controversial Luhri project on the Sutlej, for example, the diversion of water into a 38km tunnel has meant the absence of free flowing river in one stretch for almost 50km. That essentially means villages 50km downstream of the project will not have access to its water like they used to, factors never taken into consideration while preparing environmental impact assessment (EIA) reports.

The 130MW Kashang hydro project being developed by the Himachal Pradesh Power Corp. Ltd will impact not just Negi and his village, but submerge 119 hectares of prime forest in a region that has already seen much deforestation in the last 10 years.

Ritwick Dutta, an environment lawyer who is fighting on behalf of Negi and his village in NGT, found a string of violations and errors in the EIA report and process. For instance, he alleges that wildlife sanctuary Lippa Asrang exists at a distance of 1.5km and yet no permission was taken from the National Board for Wildlife despite the fact that environmental clearance granted to the project clearly mentions the need for obtaining this permission. Further, the forest advisory committee in 2010, while considering the project for clearance, had asked for information on the impact on aquatic flora and fauna, a seasonal river flow plan and details of muck disposal. Oddly enough, in the next meeting of the committee in 2011, the project was cleared without any of these details being provided. Furthermore, the Lippa village council had passed a resolution objecting to the dam and yet this was not considered even though the in-principle approval requires the consent of the people under the forest rights law of 2006.

Besides livelihoods of local people, the dams will have an unprecedented impact on local biodiversity. The area has more than 200 aromatic and medicinal plants, of which 70 are rare or threatened. Biologists working in the region have noted that the vegetation in this part of Kinnaur is slow growing and extremely sensitive to any interference. The Kashang project will submerge 119 hectares of forest, but cleverly, the project proponents have applied for forest clearance in three stages so as to present the case that only small pockets of forest are being cut down. The cumulative impact of seven dams coming up has not been considered.

Already, incidents of landslides, heavy siltation and drying up of local water sources are on the rise with the ongoing construction. Perhaps it’s time to ask the water resources minister, Uma Bharti, whether only the Ganga is worth saving. What of other rivers like the Ravi, Beas or Sutlej that are being heavily dammed? Will she turn her attention to these rivers as well? As for Negi, he can only hope the 2012 tragedy of Uttarakhand doesn’t befall his state.

Bahar Dutt is environment editor, NewsX TV station, and author of the book Green Wars: Dispatches from a Vanishing World.

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