Submerging A Culture

NHPC’s upcoming Kishanganga power project would displace hundreds, submerge homes and endanger the fragile ecology of Gurez Valley besides putting the culture and future of the Shin-Dard community at risk, finds Majid Maqbool

Gurez women belonging to the Dard Shin tribe taking loads of firewood home. Pics by Bilal Bahadur

The 330-MW Kishanganga Hydroelectric Power Project set up over Kishanganga (Neelam) river in Gurez, Bandipora will submerge at least three villages, displace hundreds and put many more at a greater risk of floods and inundation.

The Rs 3642.04 crore power project will displace 362 families and consume a total of 4280 Kanals (535 acres) of land.

The government and the National Hydel Power Company (NHPC) which is implementing the project are planning to settle the displaced families outside Gurez Valley.

“There is no land in Gurez where the affected families can be settled,” says Sub-District Magistrate Gurez, Mohammed Ashraf Hakak.

Besides displacing around 1000 people from their homes, region and culture, the project slated to be completed by 2017 is affecting the ecology of the scenic valley and livelihood of most of the local population.

The dam will submerge three villages – Badwon, Khopri and Kanzalwon.

“While 127 families in Badwon will lose their homes, the dam will render 13 families homeless in Khopri village. Around 105 families will lose their land in the three submerged villages,” officials not wishing to be named said. “The NHPC will also be acquiring 256 residential and other structures in Gurez,” they added.

As land in the mountainous valley is very limited, the NHPC authorities plan to settle the affected families outside Gurez, either at Mirgund, around 16 Kilometers from Srinagar or in Bandipora.

The authorities in Gurez say that NHPC is acquiring 200 Kanals of land outside Gurez, most probably in Bandipora or Mirgund, where the families will be rehabilitated.

Gurez is inhabited by Dard-Shin speaking people. Displacing them from Gurez will cut them off from their culture, livelihood and their roots. Many historians and anthropologists claim that the Dard-Shin people are a pure Aryan race. The local population is unhappy with the proposed move to relocate the displaced families outside Gurez Valley.

“Relocating people outside Gurez is an attempt to divide and rule the people of Gurez,” says the chairman of J&K Dardshin tribal minorities, Mir Hamidullah. He says that in order to preserve their culture and language, the people of Gurez should be provided land and rehabilitated in Gurez only.

“Shin language is the mother of Sanskrit. We are a people with our own history and relocating our people outside Gurez will hurt the community,” says Mir. The cultivable land in the area will be shrunk further by the dam creating worries for the local pouplation.

“This project will affect whatever little agricultural land is left in our village,” says Abdul Khaliq Ganie of Tarbal – the last village near LoC, about 20 kms from Gurez town. “We have been losing our cattle to the minefield areas every year, and now this project has added to our worries as this village remains cut off from the Kashmir valley for the most part of the year,” he adds.

One of the most beautiful places in Kashmir, Gurez is separated from the valley by north Kashmir mountain range that runs west of Zojila Pass. For more than six months Gurez remains cut off from the rest of the world. Until Jammu and Kashmir was divided between India and Pakistan, Gurez was part of the Gilgit state. The taxes would be paid at Drass, which is the only area on this side of the Line of Control which shares language, culture and customs with Gurez.

There is no life for around 70 kms – between Pethkote and Koragbal – on the 85-km Bandipore-Dawar road that passes through 11,672 feet high Razdan Pass. Army and Border Roads Organisation camps are situated at Tragbal, Razdan and Zadkhuri.

The compensation being offered to the people for their homes and land, the locals say, is too little.

“They are giving me one lakh rupees for one kanal of land, but how am I going to survive on this little amount along with my nine children,” says a resident of one of the affected villages in Gurez.

They are brave enough to cross the river but will never be able to cross a dam.

The NHPC has promised (under the new Relief and Rehabilitation plan) to pay Rs 5.57 lakh to the families whose houses will be affected by the project and construct a new house per household outside Gurez, civilian officials said. The powerhouse will be located in Kralpora village of Bandipora. Waters from a fast flowing Kishanganga – forming de-facto LoC from Teetwal to Gurez – would be stored at Gurez and diverted to Bandipora power station. The water will then go into the Bonar Madhumati and eventually into Wullar lake.

Pakistan is objecting to the water diversion part of the project as it believes the inter-tributary transfer is a violation of the Indus water sharing treaty. Pakistan is worried that the diversion will leave thousands of acres of its rice fields, fed by Kishanganga called Neelam on the other side, dry, and impact Mangla Dam and the viability of its upcoming Neelam-Jehlum power project.

Environmental experts say that the increase in water level of Kishanganga river will adversely affect the ecology of Gurez, submerging substantial plantation and affecting the agricultural land and wildlife. The dam will also affect the breeding cycle of trout fish, which is found in the Kishanganga river.

“There will be no breeding of trout fish because of this dam as they need running and fast water to breed,” says an official from the fisheries department.

The dam will further drop the temperatures in Gurez, which already has a longer winter, as the river will freeze because of the dam, some experts say. “There is a danger of floods too as the water level increases and this will affect other adjoining villages as well,” a government official said.

The project will also have consequences for the wildlife of Gurez. Animals like bear, musk deer and snow leopard found in the mountainous region, will be affected by the project, environmentalists say.

Meanwhile, the work on the power project continues on both the sides at Gurez and Bandipora. The work on the tunnel has been taken up simultaneously from both the Gurez side as well as from the Bandipora end of the tunnel. One and half kilometer of tunnel work has been completed so far on the Gurez side, while around two and a half kilometer work has been completed from the Bandipora end of the tunnel.

The Hindustan Construction Corporation (HCC) has been allotted with the EPA contract by NHPC for implementing the project. An amount of Rs. 269.96 crore has been sent until March 2010, sources in the hydel power major said.

Conceived in 1996, the work on the project began in 2007. HCC is constructing a 37-meter-high rock-filled dam, and a 23.50 km headrace tunnel to take water to three turbines of 110 MWs each for generating 1350 million units of energy in a 90 percent dependable year.

The work on the tunnel continues even during winters when Gurez remains cut off from for around eight months. The HCC, last winter, spent one crore rupees on the helicopter service to reach the dam site in Gurez.

While the dam displaces people evoking resentment among the local population, the project executing agency HCC has been accused of discriminating against Kashmiri engineers and employees.

“Engineers from Kashmir who raise genuine concerns about employees and the project work are sidelined, denied promotion and forced to resign,” a Kashmiri engineer working for the HCC at the project, wishing anonymity said. The engineers allege that HCC has made workers federation on its own to prevent formation of any workers union by the Kashmiri employees.

“There are some people from HCC who are based in Jammu and Udhampur and they take bribes to employ workers from Kashmir for the project,” the local engineers allege. In Bandipora project site mostly Kashmiris are employed as helpers by the HCC authorities. “New engineers are not recruited for the Bandipora site by the HCC and even after the interview, they don’t employ local engineers,” said another Kashmiri engineer wishing not to be named.

HCC authorities, they alleged, are forcing families in the affected villages to vacate their houses and land even before providing them compensation.

“The affected families are asking the HCC authorities to provide compensation before they vacate their lands,” said a Kashmiri engineer working for HCC site in Bandipora. “People of Kralpora, which is the most affected village, were recently beaten up by the HCC authorities for protesting and demanding land compensation,” he added.

This hill attributed by Haba Khatoon for unknown reasons will be part of the dam

The HCC and NHPC authorities working on the dam site in Gurez refused to talk about the project.

Recently Irrigation and Flood Control Minister Taj Mohi-ud-Din in a seminar at Srinagar, said, albeit in a different context: “NHPC is behaving like the East India Company. It is exploiting the water resources of poor states. Their attitude is arrogant and they are contemptuous towards law of the land.”
Local laborers alleged that they are paid less than the workers brought from outside the state to work at the dam site.

“NHPC did not employ the people from the villages that will be submerged because of the dam. They should have been given preference, but the project authorities brought employees from outside the valley,” says a government official.

The region with its unique history is littered with a material of archaeological interest. Archaeologists believe that there are many sites in Gurez which have inscriptions in Kharoshthi, Brahmi, Hebrew, and Tibetan. Experts believe that the archaeological investigation of Gurez valley is sure to reveal further insights into the history of Dard people and the general history of Kashmir.

Significantly Gurez valley falls along the section of ancient Silk Route, which connected Kashmir valley with Gilgit and Kashgar. Archaeological surveys in valleys north of Gurez valley along the silk route, particularly in Chilas have uncovered hundreds of inscriptions recorded in stone.

The project will also affect the silk route, which has traditionally been one of the main routes to Central Asia. One of the three villages that will be affected by the project is Kanzalwan, which is believed to be an archaeological site of historic importance. The last council of Buddhism is said to have been held in this village, and further down the stream, the ruins of ancient Sharda University are preserved along the Neelum river.

The displacement because of the power project will mostly hit people who are entirely dependent on agriculture and allied activities for their livelihood. The displaced families with government jobs, even after their relocation outside Gurez, can make their ends meet as their government jobs will remain intact. “Those families whose livelihood is entirely dependent on agriculture will be affected more as they have to look for other avenues of employment after their land compensation is exhausted,” says a government official in Gurez.

1 COMMENT

  1. I find it saddening that my hometown, the epitome of natural beautify is under water now. I don’t remember much about it, since I wasn’t born there and I’ve only visited it twice in the entirety of my life, that too when I was a child. I don’t have many memories of it, most of them are hazy . But I still somehow remember how it felt, how it felt to be surrounded by people who speak the language as I do… I was surprised that they speak the language that I speak even at the local shops. I haven’t come across many people who speak Shina in the rest of Kashmir . I was fascinated, I knew this was home. And now all of that is gone. The small place, even though it was technologically backward , the place I knew as my hometown is gone. I wish my people had done more to protect it, instead of just giving our little hometown away just like that to be submerged under water. I have lost that sense of belonging now. I feel as if I don’t belong anywhere in this world.

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