Displacing Rural Communities for Delhi’s Drinking Water: Is the Renuka Dam Worth the Cost?

First Published in Project Groundswell

I have a love/hate relationship with the many contrasts in India: the bright green paddy fields next to red tile roofs, the smell of jasmine and fresh food mixed in with the scent of putrid sewage, and the polluted cities juxtaposed with the expansive sky from mountain tops.

The narrative of dams (and dams in India especially) is one stark contrast in development. It goes something like this: let’s drown fertile land and forests with a reservoir that will provide drinking water to a city far away. In the process, let’s displace a whole community of subsistence farmers in the mountains. The same story seems to play out again and again.

About 300 km north of Delhi in the Sirmaur District of Himachal Pradesh, a controversy is brewing over plans to construct the Renuka dam in order to supply drinking water to Delhi at a cost of 3900 crore ($860 million). The project will displace 750 families in 37 villages, and about 1600 hectares of fertile land and forests (including part of a wildlife sanctuary) will be submerged. Sirmour has relatively poor infrastructure and health facilities with nearly 23% of households residing below the poverty line. A report on the project says, as a result of submerging land, there is little doubt that the dam will “directly affect the food security and sovereignty of the families.”

Paying for Delhi’s water: Tara Devi, a dalit farmer, looks gloomily at her land. Thousands like her are left wondering why they must give up their land and livelihood in favour of an unjust act. (Photo by Neeraj Doshi)

A few weeks ago, I sat down with Neeraj Doshi’s, a photographer who created a photo exhibit that tells the story of the Renuka Dam site and the people it will displace, alongside Delhi’s water waste and rationale for the dam (click the link above for more photos). In addition to the photo exhibit, which will travel to other colleges and universities in Delhi, a short film by Tarini Manchanda called A Dam Old Story was screened, followed by a discussion at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi India on September 30, 2011.

Neeraj Doshi tells me that the photos are part of a broader education project to create awareness, “It will not change in a drastic way, there are many more Renuka [type dams],” Doshi says. This statement is sadly too true, as from 1947 to 2000, the number of dams has grown from 300 to 4000. He also explains how this dam is unique because it is “a very clear-cut thing: Delhi needs water, it is damming Renuka. Delhi wastes its water.”

The politics and controversy around the Renuka Dam Project are typical of many large dam projects throughout the world, consisting of three main issues: 1) land acquisition and project related displacement, 2) environmental concerns and 3) technical feasibility of the project itself. All three of these issues are controversial in Renuka’s case, questioning why the dam should be built in the first place.

In an open letter to Delhi Chief Minister on Renuka Dam citizens and groups in Delhi make the case against the dam, citing avoidable losses as well as the possibility for rainwater harvesting within Delhi, among many other things. The letter mentions the displacement and environmental destruction that past projects have created are “fresh in people’s minds and the number of sufferers keeps going up,” finally it asks, what right does Delhi have to demand more of such displacement and destruction?

renukaDehli Water Waste: Yet again, but this time it’s from the pipelines carrying potable water from Sonia Vihar Water Treatment Plant to South Delhi. Many more such ruptures leaking precious liquid can be spotted throughout the long stretch. (Photo by Neeraj Doshi)

The dam clearly threatens the livelihoods of the people living in Giri river valley according to a report published by People’s Action for People in Need called Dispossessing Mountain Communities: Who will pay for Delhi’s water? A Study of the socioeconomic and environmental implications of the Renuka Dam Project found that the most affected people will be dalits (members of the lowest caste in India), women, and children. As the study says, “decades of experience with large dams has shown that the costs outweigh the benefits… even if the environmental and social costs are excluded – the proposed benefits are almost always over-estimated to justify the projects.” The study mentions the cases of theTehri and Bakhra Dam. The report also questions if this is the least cost effective option for Delhi’s water supply. Delhi’s per capita water consumption is 240 liters as day, but there is still a need to optimize supply and distribution losses, which have been cited as high as 40%.

The film, along with the report, seem to narrate a continued story of deceit and misinformation on the side of Himachal Pradesh Power Corporation Limited (HPPCL) detailing how at a public hearing, people were brought in buses by the project authorities and treated to a feast, but not informed of the process.

The Renuka Dam project is also based on 20 years of rainfall data until the year 1988-89. In a memorandum submitted  to Delhi Chief Minister Sheila Dixit by Renuka Bandh Sangarsh Samiti (RBSS), an organization of project affected communities and Himalaya Niti Abhiyan, a coalition of community activists and organizations in the state, they state that “It will take years for a dam of 148 m to be filled… If after displacing 37 villages, destroying hundreds of hectares of forests and spending thousands of crores of rupees, the project is unable to fill its objective… who will be held accountable?” Chief Minister Dixit has shifted the blame to the Himachal government, arguing that Delhi is merely a “buyer” and thus the responsibility remains with the seller.

renukaDelhi Water Waste: What would Tara Devi think when she finds out that both, her life and water have been snatched away for such careless wastage in Delhi. (Photo by Neeraj Doshi)

The report details a host of recommendations regarding the Ministry of Environment, the government of Himachal Pradesh, land acquisition and details of the Forest Rights Act but the final point may be most salient: “Delhi government should take responsibility for its water woes by looking at the consumption and demand issues as well as adopting an integrated water management approach for the city.”

As it stands now, there is a stay on construction, as the project must receive forest clearance before continuing to move forward. However, according to Nidhi Agarwal, one of the report authors, HPPCL has not stopped acquiring land and continues to go forward with preparations.

As Doshi says, “If this dam gets scrapped, which I think it will be, there will be precedence… Taking away people’s self-sufficiency isn’t survival.”

With the photo exhibit heading next to the Indian Institute of Technology in Delhi, Delhi residents will have additional opportunity to see the exhibit and film, consider the contrasts and if they so choose, get involved.