Standing over 260 metres high on the Bhagirathi river in the state of Uttarakhand, Tehri Dam is one of the tallest dams in the world. It is part of a larger hydroelectric power complex, managed by the Tehri Hydro Development Corporation (THDC).
The complex has been under construction since 1978 with assistance from the former Soviet Union, and is currently being expanded to include a pumped storage plant. The project has been criticized by environmental and social advocacy groups over its economic feasibility, and resilience to local geological activity and flooding, leading to cases being filed in the Supreme Court.
Impacts of the Dam
The major benefits of the project include flood moderation; an increase in electricity generation in North India by 2400 MW; the stabilization and expansion of irrigation; and a supply of 270 million gallons of drinking water per day to the national capital and Uttar Pradesh that meets the needs of 7 million people.
As with any big infrastructure project, Tehri Dam is not without its deficiencies. In the dam’s immediate vicinity, we find the loss of biodiversity in the lower Himalayas, production of methane by the decomposition of vegetation under the reservoir, and the ‘terraforming of a whole landscape’, supplementing the risk of earthquakes, landslides and floods. There is also an enormous social issue at stake – the displacement and relocation of 85,000-100,000 people as a direct consequence of the dam’s construction.
The Women of Tehri Before Displacement
The mountainous nature of the area surrounding the dam dictated that most villages were small, as were family lands. This made agriculture labor-intensive, requiring the participation of all family members, irrespective of gender – a subsistence economy. The small size of most villages and integrated working culture created a strong sense of community within a village. Men often migrated to the plains for work, making the household and local community the domain of women.
A large portion of the population depended on forests for their livelihood, local people claimed haq-haqook (traditional rights) and free access to these resources. Forests were a source of fuel (wood), fodder, housing material, herbs and medicinal plants, and raw materials for agricultural equipment. Thus, forests served a dual purpose in promoting equality: they not only reduced the extent of women’s economic dependence on men by giving women control over valuable natural resources, but also created a social space almost exclusively for women. Both of these factors were key sources of empowerment and support for women in pre-displacement societies.
Consequences of Displacement
Since the vast majority of people displaced had minimal agency in the siting of the dam, they experienced an involuntary displacement. Such a displacement resulted in “dissonant culture” because of the destabilization of “routine culture”. Michael Cernea’s ‘Impoverishment Risk Reconstruction’ (IRR) model puts forth some potential outcomes of improper displacement and relocation. Some of these relevant to Tehri are
- Landlessness, homelessness
- Social disarticulation, joblessness
Landlessness and Homelessness
Displaced families were given the option of relocating to either two acres of rural land, or half an acre of land near an urban center. In either case, people faced high construction costs (to pay for building materials earlier freely available from the forest), and were not given full legal ownership of their new land. Furthermore, women were generally left out of the calculation for compensation since land ownership was in the name of the male head of the family. These policies also treated women who were divorced, deserted or widowed as independents and ineligible for compensation. The people who chose to settle in rural areas struggled to meet the cost of water to irrigate their land, making cash crops the only viable option to stay afloat.
Social Disarticulation and Joblessness
With the loss of forests and the labor-intensive agricultural practices came the loss of much of the equality that they promoted. Women have thus experienced ‘social disarticulation’ in several ways. First and foremost is the decrease in significance of panchayats [local/village governments], especially during relocation to more urban areas. Since community organization once used to be within the purview of women, they experience a significant decrease in power as their voice was deemed irrelevant. Women who relocated to more rural areas with their families experienced an enormous shift in attitudes towards the expected gender roles regarding the workforce. In the mountains, there was relatively greater equality in the division of labour, whereas in the plains, women who participate in the workforce are looked down upon as socially inferior.
Women who did not conform to new norms were made to be prisoners within their own homes, and those who resisted the enforcement of these norms were labelled as outcasts for their pahadi [mountain-dweller] culture. In both cases, the net result was a severing of ties with their immediate surroundings, leading many to a feeling of extreme isolation. One study found that over half the women were illiterate, all relied on agriculture in some form as a family occupation before displacement; and two-thirds changed dressing habits, three-quarters changed food habits, over 90% changed their celebration of festivals and other social events, and more than half changed their religious practices in some form after displacement.
What Happened in Between?
Let’s take a closer look at the period between pre- and post-displacement society. Tehri Dam, a “bottleneck”, grants tremendous power over not only its immediate vicinity, but also the networks associated with it. Moderating traditional resources of wealth, water, and electricity – it is also a bottleneck of social power. Gray Brechin, when speaking about the conversion of fossil fuels to material wealth, observed “natural wealth excavated from the depth and piled up on the surface”. In the case of a dam, this idea is inverted: we are submerging a wealth of biodiversity and human culture in search of a wealth of energy, water, and money.
Especially in a mid-development country like India, it is tempting to make the case against the wellbeing of small communities for the promise of more widespread economic growth and benefits to millions of people. However, given that rural communities around the dam have limited political, economic and social power, we may see the area as an “energy sacrifice zone”, where the interests of these people are seen as less important and more easily given up. Further, many of the benefits of the dam are redirected away from the local region towards the city and more densely populated areas. However, we must keep in mind that “[i]n the process of developing a particular region, capital creates some of the very conditions that can mitigate against future developments”. In other words, there are unintended consequences to large development projects, which need to be well-considered from a “plurality of positions rather than singular, homogenous entity”.
If we view the impacts that the displacement has with a gendered lens, as we have done so far, these inequities are thrown into even sharper relief. Since the experience of dislocated women speaks to greater gender inequality outside of the pahadi culture, it is logical to wonder whether the location of the dam was selected by “seek[ing] to avoid communities that that are most capable of mounting an effective opposition,” as has been documented in cases of environmental injustice worldwide. If this is the case, then it could be that the dam was situated through the gendered expectation that there would be minimal resistance, and that any dissent could be easily silenced, bought, or otherwise kept in check.
While examining the effects of Tehri Dam on the displaced population, we found that women were affected by relocation in significantly different ways than men. The dam acted as a bottleneck that altered the social geography of the surrounding region. Women found that their economic freedom, expressive freedom, and political agency were limited due to restrictions placed on their ability to find work and form social and political networks in their new communities. Recognizing the failings of current policies is the first step to a more equitable system of relocation and compensation that acknowledges and acts upon the lived experiences of women. It is possible to improve the standard of living in a more local context as well. Promoting tourism in the area, and tapping into the skills of local artisans to develop cottage industries could attract revenue that would bolster the local economy, and help lay the groundwork for a more just distribution of wealth.
Besides the main issues raised here, a multitude of other facets of Tehri Dam may be explored to better understand the contexts within which it operates. These may include the desire to support a fast-growing economy at the national level, the use of water as a strategic resource between China, India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, downstream environmental impacts on the Ganges-Yamuna system, improving water usage and providing equal access in the national capital, and the religious significance of the Ganges river.
The full text of this paper is available here.
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