India’s Tehri Dam: Stopping the Flow of Life?

This post originally appeared in Project Groundswell

“There’s no means to live here anymore,” said Mooni Devi, a 42-year-old farmer in the village of Sau Upu in the Tehri Valley. “What is left here now? What do we eat? They have made us all into beggars. All the good farmland is gone. We just do our work, what else is there for us to do?” Sitting with Mooni Devi, we heard first-hand how recent floods and the rise in the Tehri Dam reservoir level have impacted daily life.

At night the hillsides looked as though they were earthbound stars, little clusters of houses, villages and small towns subtly illuminating the dark night. Across the reservoir it was easy to see the lights of the dam in an orderly line. Sitting at the top of a mountain in the foothills of the Indian Himalayas, it was hard to imagine the valley without the expanse of water that had flooded over 100 villages and forced the relocation of over 100,000 people. It was strangely beautiful if you ignored the environmental, political and social costs associated with a dam project whose history began in the 1960s.

flood lines tehri dam

It seemed strange that only one boat made the journey across the reservoir on a regular basis and I didn’t see a single person at the banks of the reservoir interacting with the water. Maybe people were asked not to dip their feet and bodies in Delhi’s drinking water.

I am generally skeptical when it comes to modern notions of “progress” and “development” and the one-size-fits all assumptions that are used to justify many large-scale projects. But what about hydroelectricity, touted by many as a clean form of energy? It sounds like a good idea, in theory.

The long and complicated history of the Tehri Dam mirrors the windy and bumpy roads used to reach the dam site. It does not lend easy access for researchers or journalists.

Bhagwathi tehri dam

Historical Context: Slowly Stopping the Flow

The Tehri Dam was built to provide irrigation for farmers, generate 1000 MW of electricity, and to supply New Delhi with additional drinking water. Initial technical and financial assistance was provided by the Soviet Union, but after its collapse, the Indian government took over financing the project. A 1991 article in the Times of India said that “The involvement of a foreign government distorted the process of assessment of the environmental impact and influenced the environmental ministry to issue an unauthorized Press statement to meet the Soviet requirement.”

Proponents of the project claimed that it would create “integrated development of the Garhwal region, including construction of a new hill station, New Tehri Town with provision of all civic facilities; improved communication, education, health, tourism, development of horticulture, fisheries, and afforestation of the region.”

While perhaps an interesting concept in theory, I have to wonder how all of the subsistence farmers who depended on the land now flooded with water felt about all the promises.

An Environmental Nightmare

landslides tehri dam

The Tehri Dam has been criticized by a number of organizations for the environmental problems the dam will cause. Despite the high risk of dam failure by earthquakes, erosion of hillsides, the threat of rapid siltation and potential impact on fisheries and other fauna and flora, the dam was completed in 2006.

According to Dr. Vandana Shiva, dams are detrimental for a number of reasons, including the fact that “diversion of water from its natural course and natural irrigation zones to engineered ‘command’ areas leads to problems of water-logging and salinity.” “Diversion of water from its natural course prevents the river from recharging groundwater sources downstream.”

But one of the most concerning aspects of the project is the fact that the Tehri Dam was built in a very earthquake-prone region. According to KS Valdiya, Professor in the Department of Geology in Kumaon University. “The mountain on which the Tehri Dam is being built is criss-crossed with active geological faults” (The Statesmen, November 1991).

Kuroli villager tehri dam

Moving Downstream from Here

What is the solution to a dam that has already displaced thousands, flooded land, and makes little contributions to assuage any of the larger crises of the day such as climate change? A dam that also brings drinking water, some electricity and irrigation? (As an aside: recent evidence suggests that India’s dams are the source of 19% of India’s total greenhouse gas emissions. The reason is that organic material that decomposes in reservoirs is a large source of methane.)

As we walked across the bridge, we looked down to see fish in the water. Before we had a chance to ask about fishing, we saw a man in the back of a restaurant preparing fish. Documenting the floods and effects was tiring but perhaps, if the seismic shifts in the region can hold back for a bit longer there will be room for people to adapt and to interact with the water, and continue the flow of daily life in another way.

That is, at least until the dam’s projected life ends within the next 60 years and the people of Tehri Valley will be forced to adjust once more.

Tehri Valley: Four Years After the Dam from lakshmi eassey on Vimeo.

-Vandana Shiva, Staying Alive: Women, Ecology and Survival in India, Zed Books, 1988, p. 186.
-Ignoring Reason, Inviting Disaster: Threat to the Ganga-Himalaya, Collection of articles published by friends of Chipko, 1992.
-Sunil K Roy, “Review of Tehri is Now Mandatory,” The Times of India, October 31, 1991.
-The Statesmen, November 1991.
-THDC Profile, Tehri Hydro Development Corporation Ltd. (A Joint Venture of Govt of India & Govt of UP), August 2001.

Engendering Performance: Indian Women Performers in Search of an Identity

This review originally appeared in Elevate Difference

In its very fragmentariness, Engendering Performance: Indian Women Performers in Search of an Identity serves as an alternative to the traditional scholarly textbook. Engendering Performance seems best utilized as a jumping off point for conversations, further studies and exchanges of the kind found in classrooms of higher education. The authors have purposefully refrained from offering an all encompassing meta narrative in exploring the role and position of gender and women in defining identity through theatre and dance.

In their introduction, the authors note that the concept for the book was developed as they designed a curriculum for the study of the performing arts for The School of Arts and Aesthetics at Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi in 2000. The book was born out of a desire to take a critical look at identity and body politics, dipping into a plethora of fields, including history, economics, cultural studies, ethnography, and feminist criticism to pose questions regarding the role of the actress-dancer in colonial and national culture as well as to analyze performance. The book aims to examine the meanings of performative gestures, as well as aesthetic historical codes, in other words, to debunk what history has taught and written with regard to theatre and dance, keeping gender in mind. The authors aim to simultaneously exist outside of prescribed disciplines, while interacting with them. In doing so, Engendering Performance reclaims the voice of the actress, moving against the general concept that the male actor is the voice and the actress is left at the margins.

While I do not come from a background of scholarly writings on theatre and dance, and I may have been lost at certain points when it came to the various topics and theatre- and dance-specific jargon, overall I found the text to be a worthwhile introduction to some of the continual questions and issues that arise within a new field, or a series of interrelated subjects. The book is divided into two sections, the first focusing on “The Story of the Actress” and the second entitled “Of The Woman Dancer.” Each chapter is a different look at aspects of these professions and identities.

The first chapter begins with an examination of the structures and spaces of theatres, while the second chapter discusses the challenge of public and private lives especially in the duality and the roles the actress must play.The authors discuss the custom of prostitutes as actresses, among other issues of space and identity. One chapter also looks at the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA) which was initially formed as the cultural branch of the Communist Party, bringing theatre into politics while expanding the role and scope of the actress’ identity. Section two focuses primarily on dance and begins with a critical look at the ancient text of Natya Sastra, called the 5th Veda and seen as a performer’s rule-book. The authors pose questions such as “Who benefits from Natyasastra being the rule-book of gender and class/caste behaviour?” The following chapter takes a closer look at the body and the growing role of the body as a tool for a woman to “speak and write and communicate her-story as opposed to the common history.” In the last chapter, “Tale of Professional Woman Dancer in Folk Traditions in India: Commodification of Dance and the Traditional Dancing Women,” the text looks at the distinct rural and urban identities and the many levels of marginalization.

The final conclusion, instead of serving as a comprehensive overview, is a discussion with Samik Bandyopadhyay, a Kolkata-based critic of art, theatre and film.The intention of “disturbing the dominant narrative” seems to have been achieved, albeit in a fragmented way, which is acknowledged in the final discussion. Bandyopadhyay acknowledges the limitations of such a text; he says, and I agree, that this is an ongoing process. Connecting practice to theory and transcending fixed categories or genres, Engendering Performance takes a step and moves those seeming to encroach on this space, in order to create a new genre of performance studies based on the varied experiences within India.

Seeds of Change

I found Dr. Vandana Shiva’s first book, or rather I found a Xerox copy of her first book, taped together and lovely highlighted with notes (published in 1988), on a shelf in the corner of the library of the Bija Vidyapith categorized as “miscellaneous.” After reading it, I am not sure how else I would categorize it to fit into the neat distinctions of subject matter society reduces interdisciplinary work to. Even her book refused a reductionist reading that would limit it as “ecology”, “water” or “feminism.” It seemed to fit better when looked at holistically.

To look at Dr. Vandana Shiva’s work holistically is precisely why I chose to spend time at Bija Vidyapith. After taking a class (categorized as International Intercultural Studies) called Resistance to Monoculure, I was momentarily swept away by the complex simplicity of how I understood Dr. Shiva’s theories and beliefs. I felt as though I had in essence “drank the kool aid” but I was still a bit unclear as to what it meant practically.

In Dr. Shiva’s first book, Staying Alive: Women, Ecology and Survival in India she looks at the deeper meanings of femininity. As Rajni Kothari of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies  summarizes in her foreword: “It is not just a question of women. It is a much larger issue of a new technological basis of economic and cultural exploitation which is crying for a new spirit of democratic resistance against what is undoubtedly considered a changed (transnationalized, corporate, computerized, militarized and televised) model of capitalist growth and integration.” From taking the reader through rethinking GDP, to indigenous knowledge of forests to a discussion of the violence of the green revolution and the fallacy of High Yield Varieties (HYV) seeds, her first book ihelps to lay the theoretical foundation upon which Navdanya (founded in 1987) and her following nine books were built.

Her main point, throughout the book is that those facing the greatest threats, meaning women, peasants and tribals, also have what is needed for survival, “they have the knowledge of what it means to be victims of progress, to be the ones who bear the cost and burdens” and they have the “holistic and ecological knowledge of what the production and protection of life is about.”

As she argues in her final chapter, “The dominant paradigm of knowledge has become a threat to life itself.” What then is the solution? Bija Vidyapith (Seed University) or Biodiversity Farm is part of it. As she recalls how it started in a recent publication, The Story of Seed, “We saw what was happening, and we had to do something.”

Located in the Doon Valley, the organic farm revived land that had been desertified by more than two decades of use as a eucalyptus plantation. It is now home to more than twelve hundred varieties of plants, which includes 500 rice varities, 75 wheat varieties among others. The farm also contains a soil lab, seed farm, and quarters for volunteers, guests and classes.

Presently, the residents include an amalgamation of staff, volunteers, interns and academics pursuing Phd and graduate research from the US, Canada, Portugal, Germany and India. Just this weekend, a group of 50 students from Delhi will be coming for a weekend workshop.

Instead of stopping at theory, Dr. Shiva has shown that it is possible to have a holistic, rather than reductionist approach. She has helped to illuminate what Navdanya is all about – protecting the diversity of life. The farm is a living and breathing reminder, not that another world is possible, but that another way of looking at the world is possible.

Lakshmi Eassey, is currently living in Residence at Bija Vidyapith (Seed University), working on a project interviewing women farmers. In this review, she looks at Dr. Shiva’s first book, Staying Alive: Women, Ecology and Survival in India and the foundation of Bija Vidyapith.

Ode to the Delhi Metro

This post originally appeared in Project Groundswell

My fear of Delhi began sometime in the wee hours of the morning a few years ago when I was stuck in a freshly puked-in waiting room near the airport. This fear continued the day I stepped off a plane from the tranquility of Ladakh (a mountainous province in the north) into a mad rush of men offering me a taxi. I cried and retreated back into the airport to regain my composure. But this time, accompanied by friends and a new metro system, Delhi was different.

“Wow, this is like China” and “this is exactly like Singapore” were just some of the comments I heard. With the new metro, I now have a slight idea where I am in relation to everything else and could approximate my travel times to different stations. And as a lone female, I feel slightly more safe in the metro compared to the bus, perhaps because I knew exactly how long I will have to bear standing next to the smelly man next to me.

A metro system in the world’s eighth largest city was long overdue. Begun in 1998, the Dehli Metro now has 6 lines covering 153 km. Daily ridership is over 1.4 million people, helping to ease the Delhi’s notoriously clogged streets.

delhi metroWomen riders on the Delhi Metro. Photo by flickr user Carol Mitchell

The Metro has recently reached Gurgaon, a suburb of Delhi. According to locals, it used to take at least an hour and a half to reach Delhi. Now, the journey takes half an hour.  The metro has air-conditioning and the lines aren’t too long at most stations.

Riders of other metro systems in Europe would be livid if they saw how riders of the Delhi Metro do not wait for passengers to get off before they begin getting on, but perhaps this too shall come with time.

I have traveled, waited, and wandered public transit systems from Los Angeles and New York to Berlin, London and Prague, and one thing I wondered is: Does Delhi’s metro system bring it closer to the so-called West or to some ideal of development and is this a good thing? What critiques could I come up with of the amazingly convenient system of transportation that seemed to save everyone time and money?

I wonder what the cost of the project was and what (even who) it displaced? I wonder if it is accessible enough to the people who built the walls and structures to hold it up. I wonder if there is or could have been a way to Indianize the barren walls and metal seats, not to make it more “traditional” but to add an Indian flair if you will – something to make it seem less sterile.

inside the delhi metroPhoto by flickr user Carol Mitchell

In addition, each metro car has at least two seats reserved for women. As a woman, I find this convenient, but almost patronizing. The voice of the metro tells riders to “Please vacate seats for senior citizens, physically challenged and ladies.” Are we then on the same level? Some have suggested a separate car for ladies, this is done in other cities where there are separate buses as well. Is this not continually placing band-aids on a larger problem? It makes me think about the “separate but equal” verdicts of the civil rights era in the United States. For the moment, it allows the few women who do ride the metro a temporary respite from the men who seem to outnumber them more than 10 to one.

As I reflect on my interactions with Delhi, I think back to the first night we spent together, in that puked in waiting room. The one silver lining to my previous wait in the wee hours of the morning was a man a nearby bookshop. As I wandered in and perused the new and used books, we began chat. We spoke of books and travels. I shared my Kerala cashews and we had tea. Before I left he invited me to his wedding.

no spitting signNo-spitting sign on the Delhi Metro. Photo by flickr user wen-yan king

Urban transportation systems should take into account a country’s heritage, history, and people. I hope that instead of continuing to imitate the West for something cheaper, faster and more cost efficient, that the Delhi metro takes on its own personality. This personality would ideally maintain the “no spitting” sign, but perhaps re-think the “don’t make friends” warning that is blared from the loudspeakers (though I guess it is pretty hard to stop for chai on the metro).

Though it’s not perfect, I am a fan of the Delhi metro.