The once-prosperous Uttarakhand villages and their long wait for rehabilitation

Chaien residents also live in constant fear of melting snow and the boulders it brings from the higher reaches of the mountain
Last Updated 13 February 2021, 20:37 IST
Chaien village in Uttarakhand. DH Photo/ Sagar Kulkarni
Chaien village in Uttarakhand. DH Photo/ Sagar Kulkarni

Nestled in the Himalayan ranges in Uttarakhand, Chaien was once known for its juicy citrus fruit malta and abundant milk production. The village overlooking the Nanda Devi mountain range is now a pale shadow of its prosperous past.

“Anything you sowed here would reap a good harvest, be it gahat (horse gram) or vegetables. We had so many plants of oranges, but since they dug a tunnel beneath the village, cultivating any crop has ceased being feasible,” 63-year-old Gopal Singh Panwar told DH.

Panwar claims his village once supplied 500 litres of milk to Badrinath town every day. Now, he finds it tough to rear cattle due to lack of adequate grazing grounds.

“All the sources of water have dried up since the tunnels were dug for the power project at Vishnuprayag,” 76-year-old Jagat Singh said, referring to the privately built 400 MW hydroelectric project that was commissioned in 2006.

Jagat Singh, a retired armyman, once reared cattle in the village and supplied milk to nearby areas. “I had 13-14 cows a few year back, now there is only one cow and her newborn calf,” he said.

According to Atul Sati, a social activist, 21 villages, including Chaien, Raini, Paing, Lata, Tangni in Joshimath block were identified for rehabilitation in 2007 after locals feared cave-ins due to work on power projects and roads in the region.

“The residents of Chaien village have been waiting for 13-14 years for rehabilitation,” Sati said.

Recurring loss and constant fear

“We live in constant fear of death due to rocks falling from the mountains and the earth shaking due to the tunneling work for the power project,” 62-year-old Yashoda Devi said.

She said 21 families whose houses had developed cracks due to the tunneling work were rehabilitated in Joshimath, located on the opposite mountain.

“We were assured of rehabilitation in a phased manner, but haven’t heard anything in the past few years,” Yashoda Devi said.

The Vishnuprayag Hydroelectric Project was awarded in 1992 by the then Uttar Pradesh government to Jaiprakash Power Ventures Limited. The run-of-the-river project entailed building a barrage in Lambagad, behind the mountain on which Chaien village is located. The water from the reservoir is diverted through tunnels under village.

In Raini village, near the now washed away Rishiganga Hydroelectric Project, locals want the government to relocate them to a safer spot.

“We are in the sunset of our lives, but what about our children and grandchildren? They should have a better life,” says Jhooti Devi, the daughter-in-law of the late Gaura Devi, who began the Chipko movement in the 1970s against indiscriminate felling of trees for development projects.

While the young keep migrating for jobs to nearby towns, a section of the elders do not appear keen to move, apparently unwilling to sever their link to the village identified with the iconic Chipko movement.

Chaien residents also live in constant fear of melting snow and the boulders it brings from the higher reaches of the mountain.

“Whenever it snows, it doesn’t stay for long on the mountains. It melts under the bright sunshine and the water flows through small streams,” Yashoda Devi said, pointing to a boulder stopped by a tree just on the outskirts of the village.

Septuagenarian Hayat Singh Bisht worked as a contractor for the government, constructing roads and buildings in the mountainous regions.

“The region now has wide roads and projects, but the 'development' is yet to reach us. Not much has changed over the years,” Bisht said.

(Published 13 February 2021, 19:39 IST)

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