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Pancheshwar Dam

Destruction in the Name of Development

Rakesh Agrawal ( is a researcher based in Dehradun.

Despite large dams being decommissioned the world over, the government has now set its sights on the construction of the Pancheshwar dam on the ecologically sensitive Mahakali river. Wary of being sacrificed at the altar of so-called “development,” resistance to the project has transformed into a concerted people’s protest, which continues to gain momentum.

This article is based on interviews with residents, stakeholders and protesters in the project-affected areas.

The fragile hills of Uttarakhand continue to face destruction in the guise of “development,” as construction of the Pancheshwar dam—315 metres above sea level—is set to begin in the Kumaon hills, on the Indo–Nepal border. Without paying any attention to the consequential ecological and social impacts, the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) has given the dam a green signal, thus actualising the Prime Minister’s promise to the people of Kumaon, made during his election campaign in January 2017.

While the MoEFCC’s expert panel, in order to expedite work on the dam, has waived off the requirement of a joint mechanism to assess the environmental impact on India and Nepal, people’s protest against the project has intensified. The project will directly affect 134 villages and 31,000 households in Pithoragarh, Champawat and Almora districts, as well as many more indirectly, and will submerge 11,600 hectares (ha) of land (7,600 ha in Kumaon and 4,000 ha in Nepal). Of these, only 123 villages will be resettled (not rehabilitated) in make-shift camps, where those displaced will be forced to live in subhuman conditions. Villagers, fearing displacement, have begun protesting and have burnt copies of the detailed project report (DPR) that was recently made public.

Residents of the affected villages have formed a protest forum called Mahakali Ki Awaz (MKA), in order to give voice to their movement against this project in India (Kasniyal 2017a). According to Viplab Bhatt from Jhulaghat village in Pithoragarh district, which is located along the Indo–Nepal border, “resettling villages is no solution. What about our livelihoods after being resettled?” Padam Singh, gram pradhan (village head) of Draulisera village stated that

no survey was conducted to rehabilitate the ousted families and no government or Pancheshwar dam authority representative visited [the] village. This DPR is based on a survey that was conducted 30 years back and land rates were peanuts then. (Dainik Jagran 2017)

The villagers have also submitted a memorandum to the district magistrate asking that public hearings be held first, followed by the publication of the DPRs.

Farce of Public Hearing

The author witnessed first-hand the “sham” of a public hearing on the dam, which was eventually abandoned amidst massive protest by the villagers and activists. “Public hearings are just formalities and most things have already been decided. The common people were not taken into confidence before announcing the project,” pointed out Rajiv Locan Shah, an activist and editor of Nainital Samachar, a Hindi weekly.

Environmentalists have also questioned the nature of this public hearing. Ravi Chopra of Himalaya Foundation, Himanshu Thakkar of South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People (SANDRP), a non-profit group fighting for the free flow of rivers and people’s water rights, and Bharat Jhunjhunwala, have written to the MoEFCC registering their objections against the public hearings for the project. Their letter states:

The way the public hearings were conducted, while ignoring the environment impact assessment (EIA) notification, is a wrong message at the start of an international project. (Times of India 2017)

This public hearing also resulted in a fight between the politicians belonging to the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the opposition Congress, which turned physical. Kashi Singh Airy, leader of the Uttarakhand Kranti Dal (UKD), was also allegedly pushed out of the meeting hall by BJP supporters (Madhwal 2017). The UKD—Uttarakhand’s lone regional party opposing the dam—has threatened to protest after a team of officials from India and Nepal inspected its site on the Mahakali river, called Sarda in Nepal.

Ruthless Development Agenda

Beyond the issue of the Pancheshwar dam, the entire paradigm of development of the existing BJP government in Uttarakhand is geared towards a big construction at the cost of the environment. For instance, the widening of national highways connecting Char Dhams—the four Hindu shrines in Kedarnath, Badrinath, Yamunotri and Gangotri, or the four abodes of god—means that thousands of evergreen trees will be sacrificed (Kasniyal 2017b). The current government is also determined to lay a 125 km-long Rishikesh–Karnaprayag railway line, which will displace hundreds of households, besides submerging vast amounts of land.

The Pancheshwar multipurpose project, a part of the 1996 India–Nepal Mahakali Treaty, has been opposed by environmentalists and anti-dam activists, as well as Maoists in Nepal. The EIA and DPR of this mega-dam is indeed full of loopholes. SANDRP (2017) has detailed the numerous shortcomings and oversights of these reports, leading to a suspicion that the DPR and EIA were hastily completed in order to appease the pro-dam lobby.

While the Kumaon region will bear the devastation of this mega-dam project, Uttarakhand will receive just 12% of the electricity generated, as this dam fallsin the central sector. Further, the fact that this dam is being constructed in a high seismic zone—between 1992 and 2006, over 10 earthquakes with a magnitude exceeding five on the Richter scale have had their epicentre within a 10 km radius of the Pancheshwar dam site—has been ignored by policymakers, to the peril of local residents (Everard and Kataria 2010).

Although officials claim that 123 villages will be “rehabilitated,” they are silent on the question of the livelihood of the displaced villagers. This doublespeak about the number of dam-affected people is not new, yet, in this context, there remains “no reliable data available with the Uttarakhand government” (Agrawal 2013: 15).

Failure of Mega-dams

Large dams indeed outweigh their benefits, when compared with their social and environmental costs, as environmentalist Chandi Prasad Bhatt (1992) has pointed out. This dam bears an uncanny resemblance to the Tehri dam, with thousands of villagers facing the threat of displacement and losses, along with hundreds of local temples and deities. Considering that the Tehri dam victims have not yet been rehabilitated, how long will those displaced by this new mega-dam take to restart their life remains an open question. Also, while contrary to the planned installed capacity of 2,400 megawatts (MW), Tehri dam produces less than 1,000 MW. What percentage of its installed capacity of 5,040 MW will the Pancheshwar dam end up producing, and at what cost, no one can tell. Besides submerging large forest areas and displacing people, its huge reservoir will also increase the capillary movement of water in nearby areas, resulting in frequent landslides.

During the last 70 years since independence, millions of people have been displaced as a result of “developmental activities,” yet no official data on this displacement exists. Taking the World Bank’s conservative estimate of 13,000 dam-displaced persons as a standard, Fernandes (2012) estimates that 40 million persons have been displaced by 3,000 large dams between 1947 and 2000. The Indian Institute of Public Administration, in a study of 54 large dams, puts this figure at 44,182 people per dam (Pandey 2004: 93). This number could be much greater for a mega-dam like Pancheshwar.

Little wonder, then, that residents are no longer willing to be sacrificed at the altar of so-called “development,” and have launched protests against construction of dam, vowing to oppose it tooth and nail, unless their rehabilitation is taken care of. The affected villagers have also expressed their resentment for the project before the Indo Nepal Joint Action Forum, as well as their expectations of proper rehabilitation, right compensation, employment options and residential accommodation.

Environmental Costs

The people of these villages, united under the MKA banner, have voiced their opposition to this mega-dam, not only because it will displace them, but also because it will destroy the natural resources upon which their very existence depends, namely land, water and forests. In fact, water is the most important natural resource in the hills of Uttarakhand—the Himalayas are known as the water towers of Asia—where many rivers, including the sacred Ganga, originate. An MoEFCC report on the environmental degradation and impact of hydroelectric projects (HEPs) in Uttarakhand even noted that

The water and food security for billions of people is dependent on these mountains and the rivers that originate from here. The ecological balance maintained by the Himalayas, the spiritual tradition and ambience they nurture, the socio-cultural significance of the Himalayas and the Himalayan Rivers is certainly far greater than any gain we can possibly receive through their exploitation. (MoEFCC 2014: 218)

The Pancheshwar dam will also destroy traditional water sources of the people, like kuhls, naulas and dharas, besides adversely affecting the small tributaries of the river Kali, whose downstream movement will get affected by the backwater force of the dam.

As far as land is concerned, the dam will submerge more than 7,000 ha of land in the Kumaon region, most of these, agricultural lands. Since farming is the mainstay for most hill people, their livelihoods will be permanently affected.

Finally, this dam will destroy a huge area of forestland, a usual feature of hydropower projects.

Almost all hydropower projects of Uttarakhand involve deforestation. Deforestation directly increases the potential of erosion, landslides and floods since water now just runs off to the rivers, solid becomes exposed and without any binding that forests provided. (Thakkar 2013)

People’s Protest

When the public hearing on the dam began at Dhauladevi in Almora district, people from the project-affected villages arrived in large numbers and began to protest, accusing the administration of having deceived the people. In fact, this public hearing too was conducted only after Uttarakhand High Court issued instructions for it and, even then, it was conducted as a mere formality (Upadhyay 2017).

The dam will submerge properties worth several hundreds of crores and many temples, including the famous Pancheshwar temple as well as monuments that are crucial embodiments of Kumaoni culture. Moreover, this project, costing a massive `40,000 crore—an amount bound to multiply many times by the time it is completed—means a huge cut to policymakers and bureaucrats, and so they are “dutifully” supporting it. Little wonder, then, that the administration did everything to sabotage the public hearing conducted on 9 August 2017 at Champawat, and again on 11 August at Pithoragarh and on 17 August at Dhauladevi. “The administration chose these dates in the midst of the monsoon as most roads are disconnected in the month of August to discourage people [from] reaching the district headquarters which are far away from the submerging villages,” pointed out Shankar Khadayat, coordinator, MKA. Despite these hindrances, determined citizens arrived in large numbers in a display of their resolve against the construction work scheduled to begin in 2018. This is to be followed by filling of the reservoir in 2026, with the year of completion of the dam set in 2028.

The people of Kanadi village, Pithoragarh district have been up in arms against the government. “The government has totally ignored our rehabilitation and we won’t let them go ahead,” vows a resolute Parvati Devi, 34, a resident of the village. People from Majirkanada village are also determined to oppose the project and have demanded modifications to the DPR. Similar demands have arisen from Garjia village, along with a demand to cancel the sham public hearings. Politicians like Mahendra Singh Mahra, a Rajya Sabha member of Parliament (MP), stated: “[The dam] will devastate this seismically sensitive zone.” Their apprehensions are justified, as it has been shown in a study by Michael Cernea (2000) that forced displacement and ouster from one’s land and habitat carries with it the risk of becoming poorer than before. Indeed, “displaced persons suffer on various counts, especially social, economic, psychological, cultural, spiritual deprivation” (Sharma 2014: 28).

Considering the widespread opposition to this dam by the people of Kumaon, and with politicians now lending their voices to this opposition, it will not be easy for policymakers to bring this dam to completion, especially with dams now being considered a failed model of development. The world over, big dams are being discarded; more than 1,000 dams have been dismantled in the United States alone, while, in Australia, a mega-dam costing $2 billion is being dismantled (ABC News 2009; Medeiros 2015).

Furthermore, if the Pancheshwar dam goes ahead, it will also violate the Supreme Court’s order that

prohibited the setting up of any new hydroelectric power projects in the state and directed the Centre to constitute an expert body to study environmental degradation caused by such projects in Uttarakhand. (Economic Times 2013)

Alternative Development

The protesters have provided the government with an alternative to the mega-dam. Trepan Singh Chauhan, convenor of Chetna Andolan (CA), a people’s movement, stated that “78 community-based HEPs of one MW each on gads [rivulets] have been planned by us. They are run-of-the-river projects, and will not displace anyone, but will generate revenue and catalyse reverse migration.” The first such HEP will soon become a reality on the Bal Ganga river, a tributary of the Bhagirathi river, in Basaripatti area, Tehri district. This HEP is owned by the residents of the four villages it covers, all owning an equal share of the project. The monthly revenue of `28 lakh, generated by selling electricity to the Uttarakhand Jal Vidyut Nigam (state electricity board), will be shared amongst these residents. Such a project will shift the paradigm of development, as, besides generating electricity, it will also serve to draw back residents of the estimated 1,100 out of 16,626 villages in the state that have become ghost villages as a result of migration.

As people’s resistance and opposition to the Pancheshwar dam continues to mount, policymakers will find it difficult to sell this mega-dam as a desirable development milestone. Movements such as Chetna Andolan have made it clear that such mega-projects ought to be renounced, and community-owned HEPs should be phased in, in order to pursue a more sustainable development path.


ABC News (2009): “Dam Removal Work Set to Begin,” 7 May,

Agrawal, Rakesh (2013): “Hydropower Projects in Uttarakhand: Displacing People and Destroying Lives,” Economic & Political Weekly, Vol 48, No 29, pp 14–16.

Dainik Jagran (2017): “पंचेश्वर बांध के विरोध में मुखर हुआ महाकाली की आवाज,” 2 September,

Bhatt, Chandi Prasad (1992): The Future of Large Projects in the Himalaya: Overcoming Incomplete Knowledge and Unsound Beliefs, Nainital: Pahar.

Cernea, Michael (2000): “Risks, Safeguards, and Reconstruction: A Model for Population Displacement and Resettlement,” Risks and Reconstruction: Experiences of Resettlers and Refugees, Michael Cernea and Christopher Mcdowell (eds), Washington: World Bank, pp 11–56.

Economic Times (2013): “SC Prohibits New Hydroelectric Power Project in Uttarakhand,” 13 August,

Everard, Mark and Gaurav Kataria (2010): “The Proposed Pancheshwar Dam, India/Nepal: A Preliminary Ecosystem Services Assessment of Likely Outcomes,” Institution of Environmental Sciences.

Fernandes, Walter (2004): “Rehabilitation Policy for the Displaced,” Economic & Political Weekly, Vol 39, No 12, pp 1191–93.

Kasniyal, B D (2017a): “Villagers Protest Dam on Kali at Pancheshwar,” Tribune, 25 February,

— (2017b): “Char Dham Road to Uproot 40,000 Trees,” Hindustan Times, 18 November,

Madhwal, Abhinav (2017): “Congress, BJP MLAs Fight During Public Hearing on Pancheshwar project,” Hindustan Times, 11 August,

Medeiros, Joe (2015): “On Water, Dams and Restoration,” Snowy Range Reflections: Journal of Sierra Nevada History & Biography, Vol 6, No 1,

MoEFCC (2014): “Assessment of Environmental Degradation and Impact of Hydroelectric Projects during the June 2013 Disaster in Uttarakhand,” Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, Government of India, New Delhi.

SANDRP (2017): “New Grounds Why Pancheshwar Dam Is Unviable Project,” South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People,

Sharma, Subhash (2014): “Development for Whom and at Whose Cost: Displacement Due to Dams in India,” Indian Journal of Public Administration, Vol 50, No 1, pp 19–34.

Thakkar, Himanshu (2013): “Uttarakhand: Existing, Under Construction and Proposed Hydropower Projects: How Do They Add to the Disaster Potential in Uttarakhand?” South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers, and People,

Times of India (2017): “Environmentalists Question Public Hearings on Pancheshwar Dam,” 30 November,

Pandey, V C (2004): Environment, Security and Tourism in South Asia: Security and Regional Aspirations in South Asia, Vol 2, Delhi: Isha Books, p 93.

Upadhyay, Vineet (2017): “Uttarakhand High Court Asks State Counsel to Get Info on Pancheshwar Dam Hearing,” Times of India, 10 August,

Updated On : 16th Apr, 2018


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