Nearly 180 miles northeast of Jammu, the winter capital of Indian-administered Kashmir, lies Kishtwar district. Popularly known for its production of saffron and sapphire mining, the mountainous region is one of the main districts in the Chenab river valley.
Located in the middle and outer Himalayan range, Kishtwar is surrounded by dense forests and sky rise deodar trees with the gushing Chenab river dissecting dozens of deep and narrow valleys, making it a prime spot for hydroelectric production.
For long, the Chenab river, which further flows through four other districts in Kashmir and then ends up in the plains of Punjab in Pakistan, has been at the centre of a water “war” between the two nuclear-armed nations.
Under the 1960 Indus Waters Treaty, the three eastern rivers have been allocated to India, while the control of three western rivers, including Chenab, has been given to Pakistan. The treaty allows India to build dams upstream without disrupting the water flow to Pakistan.
Within 50 miles radius of the Kishtwar district, the Indian government is currently constructing 7 new dams with a joint capacity of 5190 MW.
Most of these projects have been fast-tracked as a result of the latest political developments in the region. But their associated human and environmental costs have largely missed the public scrutiny.
Isher Das was 21 when, in 1983, the Indian government commissioned the 390 MW Dul Hasti Dam, some 7 miles down the hill from the main Kishtwar town. He used to live in Lower Arzi village, which lies within 200 meters upstream of the Dul Hasti dam site. Back then, National Hydroelectric Power Corporation (NHPC) —a hydropower generation company that was constructing the dam— acquired a major part of his family land. The family says they never received the compensation.
It took them 37 years to make the company acknowledge that their land was acquired and they were entitled to compensation. Almost 4 decades that Mr. Das’s son Vinay Kumar Dhar spent running from pillar to post, along with other 30 families. They were compensated with around 1,350,000 rupees (some $18,000) for the land, but not their houses, in 2017.
However, their joy was to be short-lived. Little did they know that the government was planning to build a powerhouse site next to their village for Pakal Dul, another 1000 MW dam.
The remaining agricultural land was acquired for the new project and the newly constructed house also developed cracks due to the regular blasting of the surrounding mountains to construct tunnels and installation of a concrete batching plant in the vicinity.
“We had no option but to leave that house and take a bank loan to build another one,” Vinay said.
His family history is reason enough to be wary. Vinay is afraid that his family might have to migrate again as the government continues to build new dams in the region. Along with his family, nearly 20,000 people will be directly affected as a result of the construction of 7 new dams in the region.
Nearly 8 miles upstream of Dul Hasti Dam lies Pathar Nikki village which is the construction site of the 560 MW Keru Hydropower project. The dam displaced more than 100 families.
Abdul Qayoom, a primary school teacher who teaches maths and science to children up to 8th grade, is among the affected. He was forced to vacate his house and give up the land for the construction of Kiru Dam leaving him with no option but to rent another house in Kishtwar town.
He was paid a compensation of 70 lakhs ($99,000) for a house and a 7-acre land patch, but when he moved to the town, he found out that the amount was not even sufficient to buy a piece of land, let alone to build a house.
“When I look back, I realize that myself and other villagers made a big mistake by letting them take over our village,” Mr. Qayoom said.
Environmental activists and experts have raised serious concerns over what they call rampant construction of “bumper to bumper” dams (dams that are built contiguously on the same river bed). Dams, they say, are a threat to the delicate ecology of the region, including forests, flora and fauna. The activists believe that it will have grave implications for the region in both the short and the long run.
“Simply put, this is murder for the region and the river. They are wiping out the river,” said Vimal Bhai, an environmental activist.
Himanshu Thakkar, the coordinator of the South Asia Network of Dams, Rivers and People says that Kashmir already has enough hydroelectric projects to take care of the local needs.
Earthquakes are also a concern. Considering the high seismicity in the region, Prof. G M Bhat, a geologist and earthquake researcher in Jammu University has been flagging the issue of constructing dams with the government, but to no avail.
A 2018 study conducted by seismologists from the Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research in the Indian state of Karnataka revealed that an earthquake of a magnitude of 8.5 or more is overdue in these parts of the Himalayas.
“A majority of these dams are either on the fault lines or around the fault lines. Water percolation as a result of their construction will go into the fractures inducing and triggering the earthquake,” Mr Bhat added.
For Vinay, the construction of dams in the region didn’t only take away his land and house but also damaged his relationship with nature.
“Our green fields, fresh air, rainfall, fresh water, all have been affected,” he says.
“We were linked to nature but these dams have thrown us far from it,” he concludes.