The dam disaster
The Tehri dam literally sits on the powder keg. While the people of the region believe that trapped Bhagirathi will wreck her revenge, nature scientists have warned for years now that the dam, the largest in Asia, is situated in a region prone to high-intensity earthquake. It is on what is called the fault line. In fact, the members of the various committees appointed by governments at the Centre over the decades to study the dam shudder to think what could happen if there is any mishap.
According to the findings of a five-member Tehri Reappraisal Committee, appointed by the government in 1988-89, the dam plan had not been looked at from the point of safety. Dr Shivaji Rao, who was one of the members, said the dam was built to withstand a quake of 7 to 7.5 on the Richter scale whereas the region had suffered quakes of 8 and above. When he made the observation, Uttarkashi earthquake had not happened. At least after that, everyone had pleaded for the abandonment of the dam.
The Tehri Dam project is not about development. Ever since the dam was approved by the Planning Commission in 1972, there have been a series of continuous protests, demanding the scrapping of the dam. The questions involved in the Tehri project are the faith of the people, the potential conflict between technology and nature and the inevitable, incalculable consequences of a man-invited disaster. These are both immediate and long-term.
Most immediately, the fear is that Haridwar and Rishikesh, the Hindu pilgrim centres for thousands of years, would cease to be, with Ganga becoming a mere trickle because of the trapping of the waters of Bhagirathi. According to various assessments, the two holy towns will be in floods, within half-an-hour if the dam breaks, Meerut will be swallowed in two hours and Delhi is not far.
And it is not a matter of mere speculation. The fear is backed by precedents. Tehri is the largest dam on the slope of the mountain. There are just two dams comparable to this in the world. One in Italy and the other in Russia. The one in Russia is out of use because of siltation. In Italy, the dam was at Vaiont, located in a similar tectonic zone as Tehri. Though the dam was strong, two km of the mountain collapsed triggered by a quake. The dam burst, in October 1963, claiming at least 3000 lives. The regions which will be affected by Tehri is one of the most populous in India. One fears to think of the scene in the event of a near-certain disaster.
Former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi had abandoned the project when she came back to power in 1980, after she toured the region and realised the intensity of the opposition to it. It was Rajiv Gandhi, as part of his flamboyant idea of quick-fix development who gave a new lease of life to the cursed project. The successive governments at the Centre have appointed committee after committee to assess and appraise the Dam project. Almost all of them have given unanimous decision to abandon it, even if it meant a wastage of hundreds of crores already gone down the drain. Under V.P. Singh, a 21-member committee was formed which had as its members experts from all possible fields of science. This committee submitted its 118-page report in February 1990, unanimously favouring abandoning of the dam.
Right from the beginning, there is one question on Tehri, which has not been addressed by the policymakers. That of the sentiment of Hindus. Ganga is not just another river. She is addressed as ?Ma?, the life-sustaining mother to crores of Indians. The origin of Ganga as Bhagirathi and the penance Bhagirath undertook to bring the nectar of heaven to the earth is etched in the minds of Hindus. In fact, people living in the Tehri region believe that the dam has already extracted severe political and personal price and the river will now show her might. Environmentalist Sunderlal Bahuguna, echoing the sentiments of the people, had said that the local belief is that ?Bhagirathi will not take it lying down?.
Hemvati Nandan Bahuguna lost his chief ministership within a fortnight of supporting the dam. V.P. Singh who as the Chief Minister inspected the tunnels of the dam lost his brother in a mishap within a few days. Former Union Minister Kedar Nath Pandey and former UP Minister Balbir Singh lost their ministership within days of speaking up in support of the dam. Rajiv Gandhi never regained his political high. The list grows longer.
Superstition or faith, there is no doubt that the Tehri Dam is a symbol of 21st century stupidity of man.