Comrade Atul Sati, CPIML State Committee member and leader of sustained agitations in the Chamoli region against a disastrous “development” model, was among the first to report from ground zero of the latest disaster. Below is his first anguished report.
Between 9 am and 10 am on 7 February 2021 a glacier with debris rolled down to Raini village situated 20 km from Joshimath at the confluence of Dhauli and Rishiganga rivers, immersing the Rishiganga Power Project in the river and taking with it 30 workers working at the site. Some workers were able to flee and save themselves. One of them, Kuldeep Patwal who works on the machines, told us that when they saw the huge cloud of dust rolling towards them they fled. As we are hill people, he said, we were able to run up the hill, but others who were from the plains could not climb up abd got caught in the debris abd carried away by the river.
A local villager grazing his goats near the river was also carried away with his goats, as were two police personnel doing security duty. Two other security men managed to run and save themselves. The bridge at Raini that connects the border area with the rest of India was also washed away though it was 30 ft above the river level. As far as eye can see there is nothing but debris in Raini and the River Rishiganga. The washing away of this bridge has cut off road access to the soldiers stationed at the China border a well as to the village population on the other side, and soon there will arise the problem of supplying provisions to them.
Rishiganga flowed on full of debris to Dhauli Ganga, destroying nearby buildings and temples, and proceeded towards Tapovan where another hydel project is under construction. This is the 530 megawatt Tapovan Vishnugarh project. The barrage site of this project has also been reduced now to a heap of debris. Some workers were working in a tunnel here and are trapped inside. Efforts to rescue them are on. Some workers were working on the barrage site. They are either missing or have been washed away. The total number is currently said to be 150.
At Tapovan also nothing but debris can be seen in place of the Dhauli Ganga. The debris has risen about 20 ft above the river level. The bridge on the river Dhauli Ganga connecting Tapovan with Bhangyul village has been washed away.
In 2013 also the Kafar Dam of the Tapovan Project was washed away. The Rishiganga Power Project was also washed away once in 2013 and was re-started only one year ago. During construction indiscriminate blasting and cutting of forests was done despite consistent pleas and warnings by common people which remained unheeded in the clamour for 'development'.
Ten days ago I was here and saw the blue-white Rishiganga flowing quietly. Today she lies lifeless smothered by debris.
CPIML’s Garhwal Secretary and State Committee Member
The latest disaster in Uttarakhand has once again raised questions about the indiscriminate construction of hydel projects ignoring geographical conditions, scientific studies and opposition by local citizens.
A week has passed since the horrific disaster on 7 February in the Joshimath region in Uttarakhand. During these 7 days the BJP governments at the Centre and in Uttarakhand have been eulogized for their speed and efficiency. Hearing these eulogies it appears that this is indeed the double-engine promised by Modi Ji. Alas, the reality is that even after 7 days reaching the 35 people trapped in a tunnel remains a far cry. Moreover, other people missing from the barrage site have still not been traced.
Two days ago Uttarakhand Governor Baby Rani Maurya visited the tunnel in Tapovan where 35 people are trapped. When a family member of one of the trapped persons requested the Governor that 10 JCBs be deployed for removing debris from the tunnel, she replied, where will 10 JCBs come from? She then said that the machines are on their way from Mumbai and Himachal Pradesh. The Governor is the constitutional head of the State. She must have visited Badrinath. But she seems unaware, and no competent officer was around to tell her, that the Joshimath region is rife with hydel projects and the number of JCBs and loading machines here is more even than the number of spades, pickaxes and shovels!
Similarly, the managed media glorification of the Delhi-Dehradun double-engine government is in its place but the ground reality of the double-engine's snail's pace is also in its place. It is a different matter that eulogies cannot save lives and with every passing second this snail's pace reduces the possibility of finding alive the people trapped in the tunnel.
These 7 days have also clarified priorities. Local people as well as people from various parts of the country who have reached Joshimath want the missing persons to be found as soon as possible. But the ruling powers want that whatever else happens, there should be no talk about the hydel projects and their shortcomings. Uttarakhand Chief Minister Trivendra Rawat tweeted the day after the disaster on 8 February, "Let not this disaster be turned into a reason for propaganda against development". Union Energy Minister RK Singh has stated his intention to re-start the Tapovan-Vishnugad project as soon as possible.
Taken together, it is clear from the above two statements that the governmental machinery is not prepared to learn any lesson from a tragedy which has left 200 people missing even after one week. The governments are not willing even to review the reasons why disaster safety measures were not put in place despite the horrific disaster of 2013.
Raini village is known nationally as well as internationally for the Chipko movement and its leader Gaura Devi. This is where the 13 megawatt project was situated on the River Rishiganga, which has been completely washed away. The Nanda Devi biosphere reserve is located in this region, which has been declared a protected area by UNESCO. Due to biosphere reserve restrictions, the local people are forbidden even from picking up a stick of wood or grass from this area. But in an area with such restrictions, large scale tree felling and dynamite blasting has been done for construction of hydel projects despite opposition from local residents.
The other project which has been destroyed by the recent avalanche of water is the 530 megawatt Tapovan-Vishnugad project under construction by NTPC. People protested against this project from the time it started in 2003-04. The protests were so strong that the inauguration program of the project had to be cancelled 2 or 3 times. Finally the then Chief Minister ND Tiwari had the project inaugurated at the hands of Union Minister PM Sayeed in Dehradun 300 km from Joshimath. According to CPIML State Committee member Atul Sati, who has consistently led protests against the project since its inception, the construction of the project has wilfully ignored scientific studies on Joshimath's geographic conditions and turned a blind eye to geological complexities.
For this project, a 12 km long tunnel was to have been dug to take the river water from the Tapovan barrage site below Joshimath city to the power house site in Animath. In 2011 the digging of the tunnel by a tunnel boring machine (TBM) was started from the power house side. After a short distance the digging operations caused a huge cascade of water to spout, and the machine got stuck in that place. That waterfall is still running at that spot. Initially we were told that the water was flowing at 600 litres per second; later we were told that the flow speed has reduced to 200 litres per second. Thus, a geological water-source was unscientifically meddled with and hundreds of litres of water per second are being allowed to flow away wasted. For the last one decade no one has seen fit to worry about this. Currently the tunnel was being dug from the barrage side and is now completely filled with debris from the 7 February disaster.
Despite repeated natural disasters, the ruling powers are neither bothered neither about nature nor about lives lost due to these disasters. When the CM tweets about ‘not turning the disaster into a propaganda against development’ and the Union Energy Minister emphasises the need to re-start the project instead of rescuing the trapped workers, it is clear that the destruction of nature and human lives are not important to them. The profit gained through the project is the only thing that matters to them.
Below is the text of the letter written to the Inspector In-Charge, Kotwali Joshimath, District Chamoli. This letter was sent by registered post to Joshimath Thana because the Thana in-charge was away in disaster-affected Tapovan and the Deputy Inspector who was present in the Thana expressed his inability to accept this letter in the absence of the in-charge.
A disastrous flood occurred at Rishiganga in Joshimath on 7 February 2021, due to which the Rishiganga Hydel Project in Raini was washed away and workers and local residents became victims of the disaster.
Sir, it took this horrific flood 15 to 20 minutes to reach from Raini to the barrage of the Tapovan-Vishnugad Project being constructed by NTPC at Tapovan. In emergency conditions, this time is sufficient to give the necessary warning and save people’s lives.
However, it is extremely unfortunate that the project construction company in Tapovan NTPC had made no arrangements to handle such an emergency. Indeed, there was not even a siren or hooter to give warning of danger. There were no ladders or ropes at the barrage site that could have been used by people to save themselves. There were also no emergency safety arrangements or oxygen supply inside the tunnel. If such arrangements had been in place, the lives of workers and other staff could have been saved and the Uttarakhand government need not have spent huge amounts on search operations. Uttarakhand suffered a huge natural disaster in 2013 also in which the Vishnuprayag Project barrage in the Joshimath region was totally destroyed. In Tapovan itself NTPC's Kafar Dam has been washed away twice earlier.
Not making emergency arrangements or installing an early warning system despite the earlier disasters is grave negligence on the part of NTPC for which workers and other staff have paid the price with their lives. It is a serious crime not to have made safety arrangements despite knowing from previous experience that this would cost lives of workers. The special committee constituted by the honourable High Court after the 2013 disaster had also directed early warning systems and other safety measures to be arranged, but the honourable High Court's orders were blatantly flouted.
Keeping the above facts in mind, we request that a case under the relevant sections (304 IPC) be registered against the Tapovan-Vishnugad Project construction company NTPC for the crime of causing the death of workers.
State Committee member, CPIML
Garhwal Secretary, CPIML
Following the devastating floods of 2013 in Uttarakhand, the Supreme Court of India formed a committee which in April 2014 recommended scrapping of at least 23 hydropower projects to save the ecologically sensitive and fragile mountainous region. Yet, the projects have continued unabated – leaving a series of disasters in their wake.
The June 2005 issue of Liberation carried a report on the protests against the Tapovad-Vishnugad project. The report makes it clear that if people’s concerns about the project had been heeded at the outset, the latest tragedy could have been prevented. The report noted:
“‘Run of the river’ projects like the Tapovan Vishnugad Hydro-electric project of the NTPC in Joshimath were once presented as an alternative to the notorious Big Dams – but these are proving to be equally anti-people. Under this project of 520 megawatts, a twelve-kilometre long tunnel, cutting through the mountain, starting from Tapovan, will pass underground through thirteen villages and Joshimath town. Most of the local inhabitants of the affected villages will be displaced from their lands. And most importantly, this project is a danger for the very existence of this seismic, landslide-prone region. According to a high-power Committee constituted in 1976, under the Chairmanship of the then Commissioner of Garhwal Region, Mahesh Chand Mishra, “Joshimath is inhabited on an old landslide…it is a heap of sand and stones, so it was not a fit place even for establishing a township”. The risks involved in digging such a tunnel beneath this fragile ‘heap of sand and stones’ can be imagined. What makes it doubly dangerous is that, already, construction of the Vishnuprayag Hydroelectric Project just below Joshimath town is underway. And because of the project-related blasts, all water resources in neighbouring villages have dried up and around 4000 sheep are dead.”
In October 2005, Liberation interviewed Comrade Atul Sati. He said:
“During the agitation for a separate state, I recall that we raised the slogan: “Pahad ki jawani, pahad ka pani, pahad ke kaam nahin aa raha” (pointing out that the hills’ resources – its water, its youth – were being exploited and the hill people themselves were deprived of these resources). But now, in the new state too, Uttarakhand’s precious rivers are being handed on a platter on contract to private companies whose only priority is graft, quick loot and quick profit.
Uttarakhand’s electricity needs can be met with small projects (of one or two megawatts) on the ghats, which would not endanger the hill ecosystems and inhabitations, and by which, more power could be generated with less cost. In Uttarakhand, simple panchakki generators were commonly used to generate 1 to 3 megawatts of power, for a very low cost. Today, it is clear that Uttarakhand simply doesn’t need huge amounts of power to be generated from the 93 proposed projects. The purpose of these projects is to generate power for the rest of the country (Tehri water, for instance, is to go to Sonia Vihar in Delhi ) – a totally unsustainable proposition because they can rapidly destroy the very rivers that are Uttarakhand’s precious resources!
Asked about the experience of other projects that had already been completed, Comrade Atul, in 2005, replied:
At Dharchula, after completion of a run-of-the-river Project, the tunnel developed a rift when water was released and a village of 300 families was destroyed. At Maneri Bhali, part of the Tehri Project, 14 villages have been affected by drought, since the river has drained off into the tunnel. It is not enough for technology to be the ‘latest’; the real test: does it suit the specific needs of this region? The people at Dharchula asked the authorities, how come a rift developed in the tunnel? The NHPC Director admitted on record that though the technology used is the most modern available, it didn’t work because the region is landslide prone! Remember that the entire Chamoli region (where these projects are located) is a seismic zone, prone to landslides.
We contacted one of the geologists on the WAPCOS EIA panel and asked him what was the likely fallout of blasts. He replied that Tunnel Boring Technology would be used to avoid blasts. But, off the record, he admitted that in case of very hard cliffs, blasts would inevitably be needed. The 1976 Mishra Report clearly warned against any blasts, pointing out that the land here shifts daily by 0.002 millimetres. Also note that the cliffs are part of the Himalayas – the youngest mountain range – full of layers of sedimentary rocks. If you dig one layer, another replaces it. Blasting and digging tunnels here will endanger the very existence of these mountains, and with them, the people who inhabit them.
A report in December 2013 in The Hindu on protests by villagers against the Lata-Tapovan project quotes Comrade Atul explaining that deposits of debris from road and project construction near the Dhauliganga river would “elevate the level of the riverbed and result in flash floods during the next monsoon.”
In the wake of the 2013 flood disaster, an article in the 2013 July issue of Liberation by Radhika Krishnan titled ‘Uttarakhand’s Himalayan Tragedy’, offered a detailed critique of the development paradigm being adopted in the hills – a paradigm that was designed to cause disasters. The article ended with these observations:
“The Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) had warned three years ago that the spate of more than 200 hydropower projects in the state could be catastrophic in the event of a flash flood. But, such reports have rarely had an impact on the state’s aggressive promotion of its model of ‘development’. And as Engels puts it, nature takes its revenge on us.
“Moreover, it is impossible to ignore the ominous role of climate change in this disaster. Several experts have correctly located the Uttarakhand catastrophe in the depressingly long list of ‘extreme’ climate events with their links to climate change.
“The Uttarakhand disaster is indeed an ominous reminder to us. It is important not to see this disaster merely as an administrative failure, as the mainstream political ‘opposition’ in Uttarakhand as well as in Delhi is trying to do. The likes of BJP, deeply committed as they are to the ‘development’ paradigm in Uttarakhand – the paradigm of unregulated tourism, of big dams and unfettered mining, of construction of roads, bridges and townships everywhere in the fragile hills – are equally implicated in this disaster. It is high time that we wake up to the need of an entirely new model of development, in the hill regions, and also the rest of the country.”
In 2013, the Congress was in power in Uttarakhand. Our observations then, hold true now when the BJP is in power instead.