A young boy is murdered simply for being at the wrong place at the wrong time—at a protest for electricity. But his death unearths an unimaginable irony of history and broken promises. Sameer Yasir investigates.
On January 2, Altaf Ahmad Sood, a student in 12th standard, was about to climb the slope to his Barnaid home in Boniyar, when he noticed a group of protesters sitting in front of National Hydro-electricity Power Corporation (NHPC) office gate. Almost 500 people had assembled from both sides of the gate, blocking the Jhelum Valley Road (JVR) highway that connects Srinagar with Muzaffarabad via Uri. They were protesting against frequent power cuts in the adjoining areas.
There was another small procession heading towards the same spot. Carrying his physics textbook, a notebook and two candles in his hand, Altaf was just passing through. He was back from his tuitions in Baramulla and was heading home. Within minutes, he found himself in the middle of a large procession. Instantly, five CISF jawans came out of the NHPC gate and fired indiscriminately at the protestors. Altaf was shot in the chest, twice. Two other men also received bullet injuries.
Niyaz Ahmad Khan, a shopkeeper, saw Altaf falling to the ground. He said the boy was not part of the protest. “He was walking on the road and was hit on his chest and died on the spot,” he said. “The protest was peaceful and the firing was deliberate.”
Tragically, the four room newly constructed mud and brick house of Bashir Ahmad Sood, Altaf’s father, has only one power lamp. It was installed ten days ago so that in the evenings Altaf could “study and become a doctor,” according to his wailing mother. The family lives in abject poverty.
The plain murder—as Chief Minister Omar Abdullah put it—came after “celebrations” for a peaceful 2011 that brought in nearly two million visitors to Kashmir. Systems in place panicked. Two ministers landed on the same day the murder took place, Omar flew in the next day. Home Secretary R P Singh and the CISF chief N R Das drove to the spot. All the five soldiers were rounded up, a murder case was registered, the weapons were seized and an enquiry is underway. Omar says he will leave no stone unturned in bringing justice to the Sood family.
Mehbooba Mufti—the leader of the state’s principal opposition—visited Altaf’s family and termed the murder part of a wider issue of misgovernance. JKLF leader Yasin Malik was perhaps the only politician of any sort who addressed a fairly good gathering at a place where even the chief minister was booed away.
Irony amidst tragedy
As reams of newsprint were consumed in reporting the tragedy and the follow up, it seemed almost everyone missed the great angle—the theatre of this murder. A procession seeking electricity was fired upon at a place that has introduced the hydropower energy to Kashmir. It continues to be the main power generation hub of Kashmir.
The spot is at a stone’s throw away from Mohra, Asia’s second oldest power station. Energy historians suggest the Kaveri Power scheme (1899 -1902) at Shivasamudram was Asia’s first hydropower facility. Initially, its basic purpose was to electrify Kolar Gold Fields, but later Mysore and eventually Bangalore were the beneficiaries. Although for a different purpose, Kashmir’s monarch Maharaja Ranbir Singh hired the same legendary engineer Major Dlain de Latbiniere who built the Mysore plant to set up Mohra. The aim was to provide power to the dredging plant near Doabagh (Sopore) – run by another foreigner named Fields—in order to prevent flooding in the valley.
Experts treat the project as an engineering feat of high order, considering the technical level of those days. Its 200-cusecs capacity water conductor comprised of a wooden flume running over mountain crags for 10.35 kms.
But setting up a power house when Kashmir was accessible by horse-carts was not an easy job. Labor forces came from Ladakh, Baltistan and Afghanistan; and the skilled ones from Punjab. Managing the huge labor force amid intermittent cholera attacks was a heady, capital intensive task. With the electromechanical components coming from General Electric of the United States and the huge wheels from Abner Doble also from the US, the project started generation in 1905 but was formally inaugurated in 1908. The electric current improved various cottage industries and lightened vast belts including Maharaja’s Srinagar palaces.
It was partial destruction of this power station on October 24, 1947 that conveyed to the palace in Srinagar the onslaught of raiders when supply was snapped. The Maharaja fled Kashmir the next morning.
But the fate of the heritage power house always remained hanging in the balance, even after it was repaired on January 30, 1948. A fierce flood literally bisected it on July 4, 1959. It was repaired again and while overseeing its resumption, Hungarian engineer Lojas Kapas died of an electric shock on May 22, 1961. In September 1961, it stopped and remained unused till parts of its rusted equipment were sold away as junk in 1974.
Post flood, the station was replaced in 1966. Two generator sets of 4500 KWs having 50 cycles frequency per second replaced four smaller ones with 25 cycles frequency and the station was housed at a new spot, around 400 ft upstream of the old one. Its installed capacity jumped from 3.2 MW to 9 MW. Another flood in September 1992 damaged a portion of the project, and since then it is defunct.
Attempts at Revival
Half-hearted efforts to revive the plant failed consistently. Initial estimates suggested investment of Rs 4.30 crores for its renovation, but the gubernatorial regime preoccupied with the “proxy war” looked the other way. Later, a Swedish company named ABB that built NHPC’s Uri-1 wanted to restore it, but the government was not interested. It was identified for the private sector but was never actually given.
In 2006, the Power Development Corporation (PDC) that owns the project wanted to revive it. Back then, the revival cost Rs 68 crores. Another option was to give it to an independent power producer and it was notified. Three IPPs were interested in taking it over and reviving it. But nothing happened. Now the government is planning to examine its revival. “If it is feasible, we will give it a thought,” one officer said.
But the Boniyar-Uri belt cannot claim to be the home of this heritage alone. It still is the power house of Kashmir. PDC owned Lower Jhelum Project that has an installed capacity of 105 MWs in three units was commissioned in 1978, not far away from the spot where Altaf died. The project is now not in a position to generate much, and is awaiting additional investments for and upgrade, and replacement of some parts of the machinery.
Uri-I with an installed capacity of 480-MWs is operational since January 1997. And Uri –II, also owned by the NHPC – though a formal agreement is yet to be signed with the state government, with an installed capacity of 240 MWs had its dam filled last summer. It will get into production as early as possible.
This is the place where Altaf was killed when he was passing through. He did not demand power, and perhaps he might not require it as well. His family was the proud owner of a recently installed lamp!
The entire belt is in shock. The murder has added a new chapter to the apparently uneasy relationship that Kashmiri society has had with NHPC. The energy and the use or misuse of the state’s power resources by NHPC is at the heart of public discourse in Kashmir. It is part of the new economic narrative that the society is keen to write. The killing could add urgency in settling issues that are feeding the propaganda that the corporation is Kashmir’s East India Company, according to Congress minister Taj Mohi-ud-Din.
Kashmir has had a bad history of power issues snowballing into political issues, and actually translating into law and order issues. It was a similar issue in June 1988 that triggered a fierce agitation in Srinagar. As Dr Farooq Abdullah announced a hike in the tariff, the boys were out on roads. The agitation was initiated by the trade, and then the people took over. Between June 10 and 16, five people were killed in police firing and scores were injured. BSF was called out and for many weeks, arrests and chases were the routine.
It accelerated the onset of militancy. The agitation ended the so called ‘double-Farooq’ accord between assassinated cleric Mirwaiz Moulana Mohammad Farooq and Dr Farooq Abdullah. Awami Action Committee was one of the allies of the NC and Congress that was ruling the state. The crisis came to a level that they were publicly throwing accusations at one another. As tensions eased on the streets, they buried the hatchet. Then, militancy overtook the politics and the situation changed dramatically.
The people in power are aware of the luggage that history has thrown up on the energy front. Taj Mohi-ud-Din, the PHE minister, who represents the belt in the assembly for the second consecutive term, immediately rushed to the village. It was his persuasion that was instrumental in requesting locals to take Altaf’s corpse away from the main crossing of the road for the burial.
Taj is one of the most hyperactive ministers who wants to convert the uneasy relationship of the state with the NHPC to a more professional and symbiotic one. “Their demands were not unjustifiable,” Taj told Kashmir Life in Boniyar. “We have been saying this for many years, that these people should be provided electricity uninterrupted.” The incident has helped him to fast forward his argument that the state government should stake claim for return of the Salal and Uri power projects from NHPC, albeit at the depreciated value. He has already piloted a new law that makes NHPC to pay the state water usage charges. Though it is a self-afflicting exercise – because the NHPC is about to increase its sale price per unit for most of north India – but the minister has taken an initiative. The flip-flops, however, remain a part of the policy making.
NHPC generates power and sells to the state’s power department, directly or through the Northern Grid. It is not a distributor. But in Boniyar and 25 other villages surrounding it, the NHPC provides power. The tariff, however, is collected by the power department. At one point of time when the NHPC suggested the consumers should pay the tariff to the NHPC, the powder department objected to it, saying the entire distribution network belongs to them.
But this issue lacked an impact on the local society for a long time. “We usually would get power round the clock especially during summer,” a resident of Guntmulla, also covered by the NHPC supplies, said.
“But we did see a change since last summer, there were frequent stoppages in the supplies and whenever we approached the NHPC they said – ‘go to the state government’ and it became a routine.”
The change in attitude, Mushtaq says, was in response to the state government efforts of levying water usage charge. “There was a clear disconnect and one could feel it,” he said.
But NHPC has miserably failed in creating goodwill in Kashmir society especially in the areas where it operates. Altaf’s death has brought to the fore the undercurrents which always persisted between Uri residents and NHPC for decades now. In October 2010, when Uri lawmaker and minister PHE Taj Mohi-ud-Din piloted the law that set up State Water Resources Regulatory Authority (SWRRA) for managing water resources and raising revenue against its usage, he said the law was not just about minting money.
Taj pointed just one instance. Most of the dams that the NHPC’s projects have in J&K, Taj said have an inbuilt automatic mechanism of flushing part of the storage to manage silt load. “But there are no alarm systems installed,” he said. Referring to the Uri-1 dam, Taj said: “Usually the alarm system should be applicable at places that are deserted but there is habitation for 26 kms on both the banks and this automatic discharge has killed 25 people so far,” he said. “These include a family of one of their officers who were taking pictures in the middle of the nearly-dry river when the gates flushed the silt.” NHPC, he accused, has not acted on the simple request that they should attach their systems with an alarm mechanism to save lives.
Locals have been crying over the “discrimination” that is meted to them at the hands of the NHPC. “They (NHPC) say they have the provisions for doing many things under the corporate social responsibility, but they end up taking away whatever they can,” commented a student after the chief minister’s cavalcade left the village.
Salim Ahmad Khan is a resident of Boniyar whose land came under the project. “When our land was acquired for the project, the NHPC officers said the project will benefit the area by way of power supplies, and jobs,” he said. “They had also promised us various community welfare schemes in areas like education, healthcare, poverty eradication, and women welfare but nothing happened. But nothing happened beyond the long fences and tight guards of the installations that came up at our lands.”
Post rehabilitation of the affected population, all the power producers spend at least one percent of their generation on local community development. NHPC is also doing a lot of CSR work in other states including Himachal. But nothing has happened on this front in J&K, especially the Boniyar belt where it is exactly based. Locals openly say they feel cheated.
Altaf’s death has now thrown up two challenges for the government that has just started its second half time rule. Firstly, how will the government bring the accused to justice in the telling murder case? Secondly, how fast can the government work in convincing the central government that it has compelling urgency to settle the “outstanding issues” with the NPHC?
Chief Minister Omar has already publicly announced his intentions. His home commissioner has already stated that the CISF lacks a cover under AFSPA because it is not part of the counter-insurgency grid. But efforts are already there to torpedo the claim. CISF has already stated that they received direction as early as September that in case of an emergency, they should take “any step” to safeguard the security of an installation threatened by mobs without waiting for the police. They told the Home Secretary R P Singh and their director general R N Das that the mob was sitting at the gate for three hours and police was unable to manage them. They initially fired in the air and later below the waist. The Home Ministry is not willing to buy the theory that CISF is not covered by AFSPA. CISF is reportedly conducting its internal investigations.
The police have arrested all the five accused and took two more for questioning. But they have refused to buy the CISF theory. They say 50 to 80 rounds had been fired by the CISF personnel.
Given the opposition claims that the government has failed to even investigate one single case of over 120 civilian killings in 2010, Chief Minister Omar Abdullah may have to display some extraordinary powers to keep his word of getting the Sood family justice.
The second challenge might be all the more difficult. The government has set up SWARRA and the NHPC is paying the water usage that is kept in a separate account on court orders. But getting NHPC to return the projects is not an easy task. The two projects that the state government is interested to own now are the main sources of bread and butter to NHPC. The government will have to convince the civil society on various issues, including the lack of ownership rights with the NHPC for the projects it operates, and the willingness on part of the corporation to sell it. The last statement that came from NHPC was it does not foresee selling any of its assets.
Apart from statements, the government has not done anything practical that could display it wants business. It even allowed NHPC to play with deadlines that the government set under the new law. The only practical development that had happened on the energy front involving NHPC was when the last coalition government formally sought the transfer of Salal by sending a letter. Nothing much happened in the follow-ups, barring high voltage statements.