Saraswati Prakash

Sa

ti cannot stop agonising over the ravaged face of the Alaknanda. He sighs, looking at the once-mighty river that the 330-megawatt (MW) hydropower dam has reduced to a thin trickle. The dammed water flows into tunnels, enters a de-sedimentation basin (DSB), then a canal, and then hits the turbine blades to generate power. An approximately seven-kilometre stretch of the original water course, which passes through the heart of Srinagar (Garhwal), a township of about 60,000 people en route to Badrinath, is a boulder-strewn wreckage, with a meek stream flowing through it.

It’s 7.30 a.m. in the last week of May. We’re seven kilometres upstream of Srinagar in Pauri/Tehri Garhwal at the dam site, with a catchment area of 11,100 sq. km. The region is the Lesser Himalayas—between the Higher Himalayas and the Shivalik mountains. The water is deep brown, with a layer of black ash—due to fires—floating on it. It’s an overcast day. It’s pleasant here, the wind rumbling down the mountains as the pilgrims go up to meet their maker.

The mighty river has become a nala.

It’s almost a barren landscape, the surrounding hills a naked brown and black, the result of clear-felling and recent fires. Smoke still billows from smouldering embers in the distant hills. A ghost parade of half-burnt trees and black stumps dots the hill sides. The haze hangs like a miasma. It’s an aerosol of dust and smoke that has settled at an altitude, a result of atmospheric inversion—it hasn’t gained enough weight and size to settle down or the buoyancy to ride the winds.

Once upon a time not so long ago, Sati could look at the clear sky, breathe the clean air and watch his beloved Alaknanda gush through the gorges and valleys. “The mighty river has become a nala,” says the professor of Geology at Hemwati Nandan Bahuguna Garhwal University (HNBGU) in Uttarakhand. Born in Chamoli district near Badrinath, in a village Devasthani—he calls it, “just a beautiful, beautiful place”—he studied the petrochemistry of rocks and later branched into glaciology and disaster management.

Built and commissioned by GVK Power & Infrastructure Ltd, the purported run-of-the-river dam, relying on water from a high point to flow through the turbine shafts with the help of gravity, doesn’t disturb the normal course of the river much. At least that’s the theory.


Uttarakhand is second among the Himalayan states in respect of hydroelectric potential, Arunachal Pradesh being the first. The state plans to maximise the estimated 27,039 MW through 450 hydropower projects. So far it has commissioned 92 projects with installed capacity of 3,624 MW.  At least 95 per cent of this is accounted for by 15 large and medium projects.

Work is under way on another 38 projects (3,292 MW). Here, too, eight projects make up 97 per cent of the capacity. Detailed Project Reports (DPRs) for an additional 38 projects (3,318 MW) await clearances, according to the summary report of an expert body appointed by the ministry of environment and forests on the direction of the Supreme Court to assess environmental degradation and the impact of hydroelectric projects during the June 2013 flood. It terms the manner of these schemes “bumper-to-bumper.” An estimated 25 to 30 lakh people are affected by these schemes, apart from around 50,000 people who will be displaced.

As we walk along the bank, Sati points to assaults on the landscape: the blasting, the dug-up river bed pocked with holes and puddles, and plumes of debris cascading into the river. Machines mine for gravel and stones on the river bed.

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Sarswati Sati, a geologist in Uttarakhand, is at the forefront of reserach on dams, siltation and impact of debris on river systems. Title image: The dam on the Alaknanda upstream of Srinagar. Photo: GBSNP  Varma

He traces an arc with his hands, marking the slopes on both sides of the river, and shows the remnants of masses of mud, clay, silt, sand, cobble, gravel and rocks. GVK didn’t bother to build a levee or protective wall to stop the muck from cascading into the river. In the 2013 floods, when every river in the region overflowed, the dam management opened the sluice gates without any warning. The water flushed away about 500 homes and settlements downstream of Srinagar, Sati recounts. It also scoured his university stadium ground. Only after the floods and damage did they build a protective wall; and it proved too weak to hold. Only fragments of it remain. The intention seems to have been cosmetic and, as with all cosmetic measures, it proved skin deep.

In an estimate by Sati and seismologist V.K. Gahalaut, “The 330MW Srinagar project alone produced about 800,000 cubic metres of debris and muck. About 500,000 cubic metres of that was swept away during the floods which reached 11 metres above normal, the highest in the recorded history of floods in the Alaknanda valley.”

“With all that muck, water density became high; its scouring capacity increased; its damaging capacity multiplied,” Sati says. “They don’t bother. They dump it in the river directly. Disposing of debris in the river is a crime.” The incidence of that crime is as ubiquitous as the dust here.

Controversy has been a constant companion of the project since it was first proposed by the Uttar Pradesh State Electricity Board (UPSEB). The Central Electricity Authority (CEA) granted techno-economic approval in November 1982, and the ministry of environment and forests gave environmental clearance in May 1985.  But it was delayed by a shortage of funds. The project was transferred to another firm, Duncan Industries, and new environmental clearances were granted. But it still couldn’t move ahead. Tata Power acquired it and changed the name to Alaknanda Hydro Power Company Ltd (AHPCL) which, in turn, was taken over by GVK in 2005.

The company finally started work in 2008.

In 2011, a writ petition was filed against a proposed increase in capacity from 220MW to 330MW. More followed in 2013, especially against relocating the Dhara Devi temple. Various committees submitted reports on it. The Supreme Court directed the environment ministry to set up an expert body for a detailed study on whether existing and in-the-works hydropower projects were contributing to environmental degradation and the extent of it, and whether they contributed to the June 2013 floods.

Locals in Srinagar say the dam has brought additional problems for the town. For one, they get unhygienic, putrid water from puddles in the nala, once a great river. There is a rule that the river channel should have at least one-third of the original volume. But at night all the water is diverted into the tunnel and the river runs dry. It’s only in the daytime that they release a little trickle, around 5 per cent of the total discharge, according to Sati.

“That too is because VIPs often travel through for pilgrimage, they shouldn’t see an eyesore.”

Roads that were dug up have not been relaid. So back and spinal injuries have increased for commuters. As for the dust, it is everywhere: in the air, food, lungs, on the windshields of vehicles, windowpanes and walls, and coats the skin, a patina of constant vexation. Anecdotal evidence suggests an increase in cases of silicosis and asthma and other respiratory complains. Hill people depend on aquifers, and in many places where dams are constructed, they’re destroying the only water source people have.


One of the greatest complaints against dams is their effect on biodiversity. The Himalayas are biodiversity heaven. They’re home to more than 10,000 species of plants, 977 bird species, 300 mammal species, 176 reptile species, 105 amphibian species, and 260 freshwater species. There are many more waiting to be discovered.

In this ecologically sensitive region, most species are altitude-sensitive. Some particular species have habitats 10 kilometres downstream and 16 kilometres upstream of Srinagar. River mammals like the endangered otter only occur in Himalayan rivers. The king of the piscines, the mahseer, is integral to the cold, clear waters of Himalayan rivers. Moreover, many species of fish migrate to breeding grounds upstream and then swim downstream.

“They are blocked by the dam, so their breeding suffers,” Sati says.


Hydropower proponents usually speak of it as carbon-free, renewable, and hence clean energy, unlike fossil fuels. This is an out-and-out falsehood. Dams are, as one climate scientist puts it, “methane factories.” Some call it “methane bomb”. When reservoirs are first filled, they submerge large tracts of forest. The organic stuff, soil and sediments rot and are decomposed by microbes, producing methane. It’s a more formidable greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide in terms of trapping heat and warming, although it doesn’t persist in the atmosphere like carbon. It ratchets up warming like crazy.

“Greenhouse gases, primarily methane (CH4) and carbon dioxide (CO2), are emitted from all the dozens of reservoirs where measurements have been made. Gases are emitted from the surface of the reservoir, at turbines and spillways, and for tens of kilometers downstream emissions are highest in hot climates. Hydro plants in the tropics with large reservoirs relative to their generating capacity can have a much greater impact on global warming than fossil fuel plants generating equivalent amounts of electricity,” according to International Rivers, an organisation spearheading education and advocacy.

With reference to the most detailed estimates from Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research (INPE), the organisation says, “dams are the largest single anthropogenic source of methane, being responsible for 23 per cent of all methane emissions due to human activities… dam methane emissions are responsible for at least 4 per cent of the total warming impact of human activities. No one has yet calculated the total climate impact of dams, which would include releases of carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide.”

It further nails down the impacts, “The most recent assessment of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) states that methane has a warming impact 72 times higher than carbon dioxide if measured over 20 years, and 25 times higher measured over 100 years.

Using these IPCC “global warming potential” (GWP) estimates means that one year’s methane emissions from large dams, as estimated by INPE, have a global warming impact over 100 years equal to that of 2.6 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide.”

In a classic case of pathological perversity, COP21 member countries paid obeisance to hydropower again in the meeting last year. For instance, India’s—in UN gobbledygook—Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs), starts off with a sanctimonious note about keeping the Earth pure, and then nosedives into hydropower as a way to reach emission targets: “With a vast potential of more than 100 GW (gigawatt), a number of policy initiatives and actions are being undertaken to aggressively pursue development of country’s vast hydro-potential.”


Sati is not a no-dams-at-all-anywhere kind of activist. He believes hydropower can be harnessed, with all the safeguards in place. Also, he thinks geothermal energy in the higher Himalayas can be tapped. He says norms, whatever exist, should be followed. But this is rarely done.

When Sati talks his hands talk, too. They construct grids, trace circles, weave webs, all on the canvas of space in front. When he walks, he listens to what the terrain is telling him. As a visitor in his infinite foolishness inches close to the edge of a slope, Sati shouts, “Ay, ay, don’t go there. It will sink and fall down.” In the land of karma, you’re your own ancestor and next incarnation.

Sati, though, doesn’t believe all the babaji-dom (saints, savants and saviours of souls) that obtains here, and considers it “hollow and shallow”. He is, as he puts it, a “comrade”; not an atheist, nor an agnostic, but exudes a sense of being a man of open-space Himalaya.

Terrains have a delicate equilibrium. A visitor from Switzerland says, “Your foothold does not hold steady here; it sort of slides in the Himalayas. In the Alps your foothold grips the terrain beneath.”

There are no studies on the carrying capacity of the terrain, on sediment and its flux, and on convincing discharge data (amount of water flowing per cubic metre per second), a fluctuating phenomenon.

The Himalayan terrain is loose. The river made terraces, consisting of boulders, rocks, stones, sand, and silt, deposited over the millennia. The dam-impounded water seeps into and moves up the fluvial terraces and slopes, flushes away sand and carves voids inside, making them even more porous and fragile. Many a time, the slopes sink, subside, collapse, and cave in. In 2007, Sati gave a warning that the percolated terraces and leakage would cause the river side of the university to wash away. That is what happened.

“Even the open canal now constructed to route water to the turbines is dangerous due to water seepage and leakage,” Sati says. “They should have constructed it with pipes. Percolation and subsidence will happen.” He points to the flimsy embankment built on soggy soils. “It happened in Tehri dam also.”


As much as the dam is built on the river, it’s also built on a big data hole. “There are no studies on the carrying capacity of the terrain, on sediment and its flux, and on convincing discharge data (amount of water flowing per cubic metre per second), a fluctuating phenomenon,” Sati says. The so-called Environmental Impact Assessments (EIAs) are funded by the project company and are not neutral. They’re superficial, according to Sati.

All dams in the state are constructed without basic data on river flows or siltation rate (which is particularly catastrophic), and without considering the fragility of the terrain. There are no studies on the microclimates they affect; no studies on how a particular dam could induce a landslide. Nobody knows how dams affect and change the rivers’ morphology—the shape of rivers.

There is no robust basin-level analysis—except for some reviews in literature—for any river in India.

Moreover, the Srinagar dam does not produce more than 100 MW. “Water is not that much, river discharge is not that much. It’s a miscalculation,” Sati says. The 2,400 MW Tehri hydropower project produces 1,000 MW at its optimum levels of production.

Sooner or later, the reservoirs will silt up, reducing capacity and thus knocking down a major premise of dam construction.

What’s more, the Himalayas are threaded with faults. As it happens, geologists say that there is a fault crossing the river near the dam axis. Just above the dam, the valley is narrow; downstream the river carves a wide bend, and broadens and meanders. This is a seismically active region, with continual small or moderate earthquakes, and pulses of shaking. Srinagar was hit by a big earthquake in 1803.

“Even a small jerk would cause a crack in the dam,” Sati cautions. If it unravels, that would have a cascading downstream effect, water from the upstream reservoir crashing into the downstream dam, and so on.

Then there is the danger of glacial lake outburst floods (GLOFs). Dam assessment reports don’t factor in this possibility, they limit themselves to floods caused by rainfall. In as-yet systematic analysis, published in Environmental Research Letters by researchers from the University of Postdam, Germany, the danger to dams from GLOFs is increasing. The researchers analysed the exposure of 257 hydropower projects (HPPs) to 2,300 glacial lakes. Most of the projects are in Uttarakhand and Sikkim, which have a high density of dams. Along some stretches of river, they have dams at every 30 km or thereabouts.

As the demand for power rises throughout India, more and more projects are creeping up the headwaters, bringing them closer, sometimes to within a few kilometres of glacial lakes. The study says 66 per cent of them are in potential flood tracks, and up to one-third cannot withstand the outbursts. In some cases, the impact will be felt for many kilometres downstream. The study will help to assess present and future dangers, “given that global warming is likely changing the number and size of Himalayan meltwater lakes”.

In a trendsetter of a judgment, the National Green Tribunal held Alaknanda Hydropower Co. Ltd.-GVK Power & Infra structure Ltd. liable for irresponsible disposal of muck and the consequent inundation of the residential areas downstream during June 2013 Uttarakhand floods.“Alaknanda Hydro Power Co. Ltd. (GVK) shall deposit an amount of Rs 9,26,42,795/- (Rs 9.26 crore) by way of compensation to the victims of the June, 2013 floods in city of Srinagar,” the order said.The petition was filed by Prem Ballabh Kala, the vice president of Srinagar Bandh Aapda Sangharsh Samiti and Vimal Bhai, a convener of Matu Jansangthan, an organisation working on environmental and forest issues. The members sought compensation for loss of life and property and for restoration of affected area in Srinagar during the floods. “The company called it the God’s act,” says the social activist Vimal Bhai, who has been working in Uttarakhand since 1989. Vimal visited the sites in June-July 2013, collecting evidence and documenting the damage. “No, it’s not the God’s act. The same thing happens with other dams also,” he said.Bharat Jhunjhunwala, the former IIM professor, who stays in Laksh Moli village in Tehri Garhwal district in Uttarakhand partly argued the case for the petitioners. “Polluter pays,” Jhunjhunwala says, speaking of the judgment’s core principle, and bedrock of environmental jurisprudence.  “The company was saying the muck was not due to their activities, but we’re able to establish that it’s from them.”The origin of the case lies in the relocation of Dhara Devi—the guardian deity of Uttarakhand and protector of Char Dhams—temple, located about 15 km upstream of Srinagar, for the hydropower project . The people were against it. The idol of the goddess was removed at around 7.30 PM on June 16, 2013, by the priests, for the sake of the hydropower project, and hours after that removal, the Kedarnath tragedy struck.Vimal says people started agitating against the removal of the deity.“They kept the dams gates closed so that flood waters would come in and flood the temple’s area,” he says.Since the project was not yet commissioned then—it was commissioned in March, 2014—he asks why were the sluice gates kept closed? “This was done to submerge the whole area of Dhara Devi temple, and get done with it,” he said.  “We’re able to prove they kept the gates closed.” A GVK spokesperson said: “We are contemplating to prefer an appeal before the Supreme Court of India against the orders of NGT.”  

It’s a lake burst that led to the Uttarakhand tragedy of 2013, which swept through the Kedarnath and Badrinath shrine area and killed 10,000 people, according official estimates—anecdotal evidence suggests 30,000 people dead. What triggered it is a question researchers are investigating and answering. Chorabari Tal (lake) sits above Kedarnath in the Chorabari glacier which is fast eroding. The lake breached on June 17, 2013.

Research shows global warming is the crucial factor in the glacier melting. Snowmelt flowed into the lake, and swelled and ate away its moraine, a series of stone piles that guard the banks. The convergence of a trifecta of weather systems—monsoon, low-pressure, and the Western Disturbance—poured lakes of rain and delivered the knock-out punch. Research published in the journal Landslides (April 2015)—“Lake outburst and debris flow disaster at Kedarnath, June 2013: hydro-meteorological triggering and topographic predisposition”, by Simon Allen and colleagues, says, “The timing of the early onset  of the heavy monsoon rainfall immediately following a prolonged four-week period of unusually rapid snow cover depletion, rather than the combination of rain falling onto snow-covered ground , that is the crucial hydro-meteorological factor in this disaster.”

Traces of that tragedy linger around all these places. It’s never far from people like Sati, and it haunts the land and people. As we move around the area, a siren goes off. It’s rung every half an hour to notify people that a sluice gate is opening. The dam has eight gates. After the siren rings at 8.30 a.m., we wind down the road leading to the canal. We stop at another point to see yet another place where the river has been scarred and gouged; debris dumped by the power company.


Neeraj Kumar Naithani, a teacher, whose home overlooks this stretch of the river, is both livid and helpless at the destruction. He says he would get up and salute the river every morning.

“Now, it’s a puddle,” he says, his voice rising in anger.

“When I looked at it, I was charged for the day,” he says. “Capitalists and politicians murdered the river.”

“Murdered,” he repeats.

He earlier poured his anguish into poems and prose and had them published. The destruction and despoilment has continued. In the din of construction, the roots to the land are being shaken loose.

“[The] most damaging thing is that these dams are destroying not only the environment but also destroying the rich culture and tradition which is rooted in the flow of the Ganga,” says Hemant Dhyani who lives in Gangotri valley in Uttarkashi. His Ganga Ahvaan campaign works for the conservation of the Ganga-Himalayas.

“The alternative is to develop eco zones by making a proper zonal master plan for Himalayan river valleys, this would be sustainable development based on ecological aspects,” he says.

All over the land, the change is so marked that people don’t see the landscape they once lived in and grew food from, don’t have the climate they once lived with, can’t touch the rivers they once dipped in and drank from, don’t have the air they once breathed.

Sati estimates that these projects will generate a staggering three billion cubic metres of muck that will be largely be dumped on the river banks, posing serious danger in the region and beyond. Some of these constructions have been deferred because of cases pending with the National Green Tribunal or the Supreme Court. A thousand dams are planned or in different stages of construction in the Indian Himalayas.

Sati once thought separation from Uttar Pradesh would be a boon for Uttarakhand. “The state government was distant from the hills and there was no development.” So he was prominent in that agitation. In 2000, he saw the land brimming with possibility. He gave lectures, wrote articles, galvanised people and took part in marches, creating general hell. The police broke his skull, broke his hands and jailed him thrice.

At last, Uttarakhand was formed. Politics, now conducted and fenced in by relatively small geographical constituencies and locations, bred a patronage system where everybody is a rat in a rat’s nest of connections.

The new system developed its own spider web of oligarchs, power brokers and land grabbers, and contractors and politicians, hollowing out natural resources. Environmental degradation, ecological wreckage, lack of basic development and livelihoods, changing land-use patterns, construction on flood plains, India’s hunger for power and climate change are all converging to create a complex and multi-faceted crisis. The state is also becoming a case study in the “extreme event attribution” studies.

“The formation tales of continuous development led to disillusionment and despair,” Sati rues, throwing up his hands as if everything is going up in smoke.

When companies like GVK can come in and dam up rivers and generate power and make profits, leaving dust and debris and detritus in their wake for the locals to live by and breathe in, and they’re all powerless to stop it, the logic “why not be a party to the pillage” has its own justification.

The irony of this project is that the state receives just 12 per cent of the power generated. The rest goes to the Uttar Pradesh Power Corporation Ltd (UPPCL) in accordance with a power purchase agreement between the company and UPPCL.

A GVK spokesperson told Fountain Ink, “Before commencement of works, we have taken formal approval for muck disposal sites along the niches in the river and we have constructed walls along the disposal sites. These niches in the river were formed earlier by river erosion action. We helped the local administration by filling the niches with soil and protective walls.  This has given protection to the adjoining properties. The devastating floods during 2013 had caused damages to the walls at one location near the Garhwal University and some soil entered the river. Without these protection walls and the muck filling, the university building would have been washed away.”

The spokesperson said that vested interests keep making baseless allegations, even though the charges against the company had been investigated and cleared by various government-appointed committees.  On the the condition of roads, the spokesperson said that patches damaged during the monsoon need attention, but said that the roads used by the company are not public roads but project roads which do not see heavy traffic.


Development—an oft-used word—means different things to different people. The wealthy tend to equate development with growth, whereas a lot of people believe just an increase in GDP is not enough, says Dr Ravi Chopra, chairperson of the Supreme Court’s experts body, and a research scientist at People’s Scince Institute, Dehradun .

For growth, we have diminished our forests, dug up or mineral resources and ruined our lands. Growth must take account of this loss also. This brings in the sustainability angle. The wealth generated has to be shared equitably. Unless the difference between rich and poor diminishes, we cannot call it development. If inequality is growing, even if incomes are rising, we cannot call that development because there is no equity, he says.

The other aspect, Chopra says, is that we’re living in a time of climate change. In a state like Uttarakhand, the ravages of climate change like floods, drought, landslides are greater. He asks: Does growth lead to greater climate resilience?



He adds that these issues were raised in a big way before the Narmada valley project and the Tehri dam. The government and dam proponents have large resources at their disposal, and they keep pushing one point of view through the media. Over time, people have been brainwashed into believing growth is development. Growth is necessary for development but it is not development itself.

Also, he says, these projects are rationalised and justified, by saying somebody has to pay a price for the development of the nation. No one asks who is doing the sacrificing, how much suffering they undergo. The majority suffer for the benefit of a few.

“In simple terms, it’s imposing costs on the poor and transferring their resources to a selected few and the rich,” says Bharat Jhunjhunwala, former professor at IIM Bengaluru. “The benefits are obtained by those who consume the electricity. The benefit to the consumer is less than the environmental costs imposed on affected people. Overall, it is a loss. But it is pushed because the costs borne by the people are not accounted. If you monetise environmental costs, then power production is not viable. If you don’t do that, then it’s viable.”

The Kotlibhel Hydroelectric Power Project 1B (KB1B), located in the Tehri district in the Garhwal region of Uttarakhand, is a case in point.  National Hydroelectric Power Corporation Ltd. (NHPC) is in charge of the project. The KB1B dam was proposed to be built at Devprayag. It was granted environmental clearance and Jhunjhunwala appealed against it in the National Environmental Appellate Authority—the earlier avatar of the National Green Tribunal—and it ruled in Jhunjhunwala’s favour and quashed the environmental clearance.

According to the cost-benefit analysis done by Jhunjhunwala, the KB1B imposes a net loss of Rs. 776.3 crore after taking into account benefits from power generation, employment and free power to the state against costs like sediment, quality of river water, forests, methane emissions, road accidents, malaria, otter decline and loss of biodiversity, landslides, earthquakes, sand, bridges, aesthetic value of free-flowing water, relocation of temples, loss of fishing, and cascade effects.

He says others may have different estimates, but the point is that all these costs are wholly ignored in reports. The project is on hold, and NHPC’s appeal is pending in the Supreme Court.

There is higher demand for electricity in the morning and evening, called peaking power. The benefit of hydropower is you can switch it on in an instant and generate power. The cost of peaking power in the market may be around Rs. 8-10; the rest of the time, around Rs. 3-4. In the West, you pay more in the evening than during day and night.

“In our country, you have the same rate for all consumers, including industries irrespective of time. If you have day pricing, people will shift to using power during the day when it costs less. Then the need to develop hydropower and impose costs on people will reduce. Various committees have suggested this but the government is not implementing it because there is a lot of money to be made in giving clearances to hydropower projects,” Jhunjhunwala said.

One more level of alternative to building a barrage or a dam in Uttarakhand, Jhunjhunwala suggests, is abstracting water from river flow by making a small obstruction—removing 30 per cent of the flow, leaving 70 per cent water to flow continuously in the river.

“By doing that, 90 per cent of the environmental impacts can be reduced: fish can migrate, huge reduction in methane emissions. But these are not implemented,” he says.


The priorities in most development and hydropower projects are about contractors making a fast buck. Peddling influence at the cost of lives is a feature, not a bug. For instance, there were about 8,000 km of roads in the hills till 2000. In the last 16 years, 15,000 km of new roads were laid, gashing the mountains and forests.

Sati calculates that one kilometre of new road in the hills generates 20,000 to 60,000 cubic metre of muck. That figure means about 50 crore cubic metre of muck was generated by new road construction.

“Where is it all disposed of, [do] you know?” he asks in the tone of a man who has seen everything that could go wrong goes wrong. “On slopes,” he answers. The debris then comes down the streams and channels and finally into the rivers.

“The frequency of flash floods has increased in the last 10 years, due to increased sedimentation in rivers,” he says. Landslides, too, are on the rise. The debris from dam and road construction is already causing untold damage in the state.  There are at least 10 pulses of floods every monsoon due to debris piling up in the rivers, and every year, 400 to 500 people die, Sati says.

As we continue to walk, Sati develops a cramp, pain stabbing down through his right shank, and he limps. We ride the bike to the desiltation basin, where water from the tunnels settles to desilt. The road along the channel has been gouged and dug up, pockmarked with stones and rocks and holes. The stretch the company promised to repair and lay, but has not yet. Some workers from Bihar guard the works.

“Migrant labour,” Sati says.

He calls up two youngsters going on the road, mobiles to their ears. They are wearing tattered jeans and crumpled shirts, their hairs a shrub of threatening needles.

He asks them if they are from Bihar. They say yes. This is yet another aspect of the economics of dam construction. Local people may not take up the jobs as Uttarakhand, Sati says, doesn’t have grinding poverty. Nor is it stinking rich. The Public Distribution System takes care of people.

Here many people belong to the lower middle class, and middle class, and the state has 85 per cent literacy. Its educated youth migrate for jobs all over India.

“Out migration is a big problem for our educated youth, as there are no jobs here,” he says.

Uttarakhand’s real problem is natural disasters and wholesale pillaging of nature. The state has been subverted by the very thing makes it what it is—water, tumbling, pulsing down the mountains, rushing through the wide valleys and narrow gorges, galloping in entrenched meanders, riffles and runs.


The Himalayas are the densest drainage system of Asia; Uttarakhand alone has 16 comparatively big glacier-fed rivers and innumerable small rivers, tributaries, streams and channels flowing through it. Some 50 million people depend on the Ganga alone for drinking water and irrigation.

Asked why the rest of India should care about what’s happening in Uttarakhand, Sati lapses into contemplative silence. Then he raises his hands, circling them around an imaginary India.

They control the water budget of the country, at least north India and the fertility of agriculture,” Sati says. “No Himalayas, no monsoon.

“These rivers, these glaciers, these forests are not for only our purposes,” Sati says. He wants to make the rest of India see—feel, if possible—the water coming out of their faucets has glacial origins in the snow peaks of the Himalaya.

In addition, Himalayan rivers have riverbeds that are distinct—they have gravel and pebble river beds, in contrast to sand or silt riverbeds. In a study—“Gravel-bed river floodplains are the ecological nexus of glaciated mountain landscapes”—published in Science, the authors say “Gravel-bed river floodplains in mountain landscapes disproportionately concentrate diverse habitats, nutrient cycling, productivity of biota, and species interactions.” At the risk of extrapolation from the north American study, you could say the gravel-bed floodplains in the Himalayas are mind-bogglingly fecund zones and are essential for “a wide variety of aquatic, avian and terrestrial species”.

The Himalayas are a climate regulator and they affect all Indian circulation patterns. “They control the water budget of the country, at least north India and the fertility of agriculture,” Sati says. “No Himalayas, no monsoon.”

Increased temperatures are already causing heavy rainfall in the Himalayas. “Any disturbance in the Himalayas affects 40 to 50 million people, entire north India directly.”

These freshwater ecosystems and forests are under assault from various threats, dams, changing rainfall patterns, temperature increase and climate change. The sheer movement and flow of water around—hydrology—is complex and fascinating. Water nourishes forests by cycling the nutrients in the soils and breeds aquatic fauna and creates microclimates that house innumerable habitats. And it doesn’t stay in one place, so the downstream gets affected, too.


Research in the Amazon basin has shown rivers and forests and landscape are inextricably linked. You tamper with one, the impacts spread around through all the systems. When trees are cut, evapotranspiration—sucking in water from the soil and evaporating it through the leaves into the atmosphere—is reduced, which in some cases causes erosion, which affects sediment loads in the rivers downstream, which in turn affects fluvial depositing in the plains and fertility, and frequency of floods. In some spatial scales, evapotranspiration changes the microclimatic regimes, influencing rainfall and drought.

Climate studies have shown that the Himalayas seem to be warming at more than the global average rate. A 2007 paper by Sati and Raiwani, in the Journal of Climate Change, suggests, “The data from the Himalayan region indicate that warming during last 3-4 decades has been more than the global average of 0.75 per cent over the last century (Du et al., 2004). Temperature increases are greater during winter and autumn than summer, and they clearly increase with altitudinal rise (Liu and Chen, 2000). For example, decadal temperature rise remains up to 0.2°C up to 2000 m, while above 2000 m it often exceeds 0.3°C.”

Periodic Mumbai floods are one result of these changes. In addition, if the glacial cover declines further, it will cause havoc not only in India but all of South Asia, Sati says.

Glacier studies have shown—“Observed Changes in Himalayan Glaciers” in Current Science—“the loss of 443 plus or minus 136 gigatonnes of glacial mass out of a total 3,600-4,400 gigatonnes of glacial stored water in the Indian Himalaya.” Rainfall patterns show increased localised torrential rainfall, that is leading to flash floods and landslides.

Changing patterns of forests and their depletion are a continuing saga of trashing nature. Uttarakhand with 63 to 64 per cent forest cover, which acts as a carbon sink zone, is fast losing it to fires and pillaging. “It will cause increased erosion and affect the Indo-Gangetic plain and flood frequency,” Sati says. Changing the forest regime—from broad leaf forests, mainly oak, to fire-friendly pine—changed the dynamics of these forest ecosystems. Uncontrolled pilgrimage is adding to the ecological and environmental woes.

When Sati goes on field trips, he often listens to first-hand account of changes occurring in the Himalayas. He says he has had opportunity to talk with local people in Ladakh,  Lahul-Spiti, and the Trans Himalayan villagers of Uttarakhand. He says they all are worried about the irregular rainfall spells, unusual snow, early turbidity in the rivers, temporal changes in the flowering seasons in bugyals (alpine pastures), deserted and dry appearance of the higher Himalayan ranges, with monals (Himalayan peacocks native to the upper reaches) spotted in altitudes below 2000 m during winters and other changes.

Scientific consensus on the factors responsible for the changes may take long time, he says, but, “the local people cannot wait till the final inferences are drawn about the factors responsible for changes which they have already started experiencing in the Himalaya.”

All of this volatility at the level of systems shows what scientists call “the death of stationarity,” an end to the known order of changes in temperature and rainfall.


The contribution of the rivers, glaciers, and forests is civilisational. “This single landscape controlled and facilitated a distinct civilisation called Indian civilisation because of the northern barrier, a natural wall from the northern side. So many things could not come and disturb the evolution of Indian civilisation. That’s why our civilisation is distinct. Any disturbance in the Himalayas will affect the entire people of the subcontinent and South Asia,” Sati says.

Then there is the loss of the unquantifiable values needed for life: mountainous silence, serenity and solitude.

The benefits of supposed development so far in Uttarakhand are unevenly distributed, mostly ending up in private hands in the state and beyond, while the impacts are localised. Any fair assessment of risk takes into account the fate of locals who are the main victims, but that has never been done. It buttresses the popular saying in Uttarakhand: The forests, the youth and the water in the state are useless to it.


It’s around 10 o’clock. A rumbling parade of fat raindrops comes down the hills as we reach Sati’s university quarters.

Surendra Singh Bisht, a professor of history, joins us. Sati offers tea and “biskoot”.  As the rain tip-taps the roofs, Bisht lays out the historical changes in his state. Traditionally, people viewed themselves as a part of the landscape. Villages mapped out into forests and mountains, forests merged with villages. There was a symbiotic relationship. People depended on the forest for food, fodder, medicines, and wood. Forests nourished people and people took care of forests.

When the British set up their administration in 1815, they demarcated boundaries between villages and forests. They established land-rights and land ownership laws. At its core exploitative, the administration stripped forests of timber for railway coaches and gauges. That continued after independence, too.

“The symbiotic relationship between forests and villages was broken,” Bisht says. The Chipko movement was essentially a movement to connect people with nature. Bisht says people view forests as government-owned, and the disconnect is so large now that it alternates between being parasitic and predatory, so hostile that there are reports of people setting fires to forest to take away the burnt timber.

As the rain continues to pound, Sati’s cramps haven’t eased up. He struggles to lift his leg and pace the room. At 50, his activism has ebbed a bit, but the embers keep smouldering like those in the distant hills.

We arrive at his university office. Cars bearing pilgrims wend their way to the Badrinath and Kedarnath, the abodes of the Preserver and the Destroyer. The rivers, meanwhile, always search for their ancient routes.