It’s a big victory for some 1,200 people of Lippa village in Kinnaur district in . After a seven-year struggle, the villagers have become the first grass-root people in the hill state to get empowered under Gram Sabha (village body of locals) to decide whether a hydel power project would be set up in their area or not.

The empowerment came when the rights of the villagers under the Forest Rights Act (FRA) were recognized following a judgment of National Green Tribunal (NGT) on 4 May.

Representational image. AFPRepresentational image. AFP

Representational image. AFP

But it was not an easy task for the villagers of Lippa, with 200 odd families, to challenge the Himachal Pradesh government and prevent setting up of hydel projects. But they did, as it was a matter of their livelihood and existence. The battle that began on ground as simple protest by tribals, gradually transformed into a litigation and reached the green tribunal in Delhi.

The judgment

The NGT in its order said that the government should ensure that prior to forest clearance for hydro-electric projects (Kashang Integrated Hydro Electric Project), the proposal is placed before the Gram Sabha of the villages in Kinnaur district.

“The NGT judgment has recognized the key argument of non-compliance to a critical legislation like Forest Rights Act, especially in a tribal area. The tribunal has acknowledged the role of Gram Sabha in the process of forest diversion. It’ll prove to be a milestone in all the similar cases of forest land diversion in Himachal Pradesh, where large number of hydro power projects has been mushrooming over the years,” Ritwick Dutta, advocate representing the villagers of Lippa at NGT told Firstpost.

“It’s a landmark judgment as the role of gram sabhas has finally been recognized here. It shall have far-reaching impact as there are many proposals to set up power projects in Spiti Valley, Hungrang valley in Kinnaur, etc where diversion of forest land is an issue. Now, these gram sabhas will have a strong say. We’re trying to create awareness among tribals and villagers related to forest and land rights, but it’s limited. Ultimately, it’s the local people who have to come forward and villagers of Lippa have shown the way. The government and corporate entities need to understand that this unilateral decision of politicians, bureaucrats and companies won’t sustain anymore,” said RS Negi, a retired IAS officer and convener of Him Lok Jagriti Manch, Kinnaur.

The Beginning: Protest by tribals and villagers

It all began in 2009, when Ministry of Environment and Forest (MoEF) gave sanction for diversion of 17.6857 hectares of forest land for the construction of 130 MW Integrated Kashang Hydro Electric Project to be set by the state-owned body Himachal Pradesh Power Corporation Ltd (HPPCL).

Forest clearance and permission for diversion of forest land were given without consulting the gram sabha — a mandatory clause. Another threat that was apparently ignored was the diversion of Kerang stream that will prevent the huge loads of slit flowing from the Pager stream near Lippa village. According to experts this would result in flooding of the village and the Lippa would be buried under the debris brought by Pager. Moreover, the fact that project lies in the snow bound high altitude, where any increase in temperature would cause heavy precipitation resulting in landslide—was also ignored.

“The tragedy in the entire episode is that the state government never recognized the rights of the tribals, who are the actual right holders of the forest land and not encroachers. As per the MoEF 2009 guidelines, before taking forest clearances and NoC, a project promoter has to consult gram sabha, which wasn’t done at Lippa or any other place. It’s an irony that the FRA came into existence during the UPA government in 2006, whereas the Congress-led state government never considered the provisions of the Act seriously,” added Negi.

It was a difficult period for the Lippa villagers to contest litigation in Delhi. Under the banner of Paryawaran Sanrakshan Sangharsh Samiti led by Devigyan Negi, the locals decided to challenge both the MoEF and state government at NGT in 2013 for alleged violation of the FRA 2006 and Panchayats Act 1996.

Right from collecting funds to travelling down the mountains all the way from Lippa to attend to the court hearings was a daunting task. The villagers of this hamlet, which is nestled in the Himalayas, proudly recall their long struggle, as they have become an icon for the entire Himachal Pradesh.

“First we tried to convince our ‘sarkar’ (government) through representations, then demonstrations, but nothing worked. They refused to recognize our rights. We could see the danger of losing our livelihood due to the hydel project. It was then we decided to file petition in Delhi. As our society here in Kinnaur is very cohesive, all the families joined hands and we collected money to file petition to go to Delhi for the hearings,” Vishnu Negi, a Lippa resident told Firstpost.

Similarly, South Korean steel manufacturer Posco in Odisha too got stuck due to land acquisition issue and faced violent protests from locals.

Ecological threat

Forty years have passed since the devastating earthquake in the Himalayas, but no lessons have been learnt. Himachal Pradesh, especially Kangra and the tribal areas, fall in the most sensitive seismic zone V, highly prone to earthquakes. Kinnaur district has already witnessed four major floods in the region — in 1982, 1994, 2000 and 2013 — and there had been incidences of landslides.

A 2009 order of the Himachal Pradesh High Court mentions that there were more than 150 hydel projects under varying stages of construction in the state. By now, it has doubled. Besides, HPPCL and state-owned power generation companies, there are a large number of private players who have applied for setting up of big, small and micro hydropower projects, raising the risk levels.

“Allowing hydel projects in the state at such an alarming scale will result into serious ecological and environmental consequences and the lives of people living in these tribal areas is on high risk. Technically, there is no implementation of FRA. Many projects have been proposed on very high altitudes, without considering the risk associated like earthquakes, landslides and the effect of climate change on glaciers. The courts should come up strongly on this matter and issue orders to stop such projects instead of putting responsibility on villagers,” remarked geologist R Sreedhar of Environics Trust.

“The state government is giving rampant approval in lure of getting 12.5 percent of free electricity from each project, besides taxes and duties. Due to this several Himalayan states have engaged in this game of setting up of hydel power projects on the pretext of green power, giving a blind eye to environment norms,” he added.

It is not just about the threat to mountains and environment, but to the livelihood of tribals as well.

Threat to livelihood

The villagers strongly objected the project as loss of livelihood and irrigation facilities weren’t considered while approving diversion of forest, thus jeopardizing the existence of 200 families. As the project lies on the Chilgoza pine belt, the existence of the species which is already endangered, the project posed a big threat.

Prakash Bhandari of Himdhara Collective, an environment group said, “There are close to 150 natural water springs in the area on which people depend for irrigation. There are orchards and Chilgoza on which livelihood of locals depend. All would have finished had the project been constructed.”

Far reaching effect

Himachal Pradesh has a forest area of about 67 percent, whereas agricultural land holding is 9-10 percent only. The NGT order has come as a major relief to people of the affected areas due to upcoming power projects, especially the tribals in far flung areas.

“The NGT judgment shall have a far-reaching effect on other areas of the state. The gram sabhas will get to play its role of decision making. Till now state government gave a blind eye to FRA and adopted short cut means to issue approvals to projects. Due to small agricultural land in hills, it’s imperative to protect it, rather than lose it to power projects,” added Bhandari.

The villagers adjoining Lippa village and other areas will gather on 8 May to discuss modalities to empower gram sabhas in respective villages.

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In a first, Himachal villagers get a say in hydel power projects