India’s Ujh hydropower gambit: A step towards disaster? |By Shazia Habib 


India’s Ujh hydropower gambit: A step towards disaster?

RECENTLY, India has fast tracked the dams construction in the region claiming to “fastrack utilization of its share of rivers.”

One of these the Ujh dam will be built on River Ujh which is the tributary of river Ravi. River Ravi originates from the Himalayan Mountains in Bara Bhangal region in district Chamba of Himanchal Pardesh.

It flows in the north west direction in district Chamba and then flows in the western direction about 20 km and then it turns south west entering into the northern Punjab at Pathankot where the river becomes the source of the Ranjit Sagar Dam also known as the Thien Dam. The river continues to flow South West and thus enters Pakistan and then joins the River Chenab.

These rivers are part of the Indus Water System comprising Indus, Jhelum, Chenab, Ravi, Beas and Sutlej.

These rivers are shared by India and Pakistan — the two arch rivals. On 19 September 1960 India and Pakistan signed an Indus Water Treaty along with the third party representative of the World Bank.

The Indus Water Treaty regulates the flow of rivers between the two states. The treaty divided the Indus water system into two main wings: the Western rivers and the Eastern Rivers.

The Western rivers included the Indus, Chenab and Jhelum over which Pakistan had the exclusive rights whereas 20% will be used by India for irrigation purposes while the Eastern Rivers included Ravi, Beas and Sutlej.

However, recently the Indus Water Treaty has come under the shadow of strained Indo-Pak relations.

India has used the narrative of Pakistani-affiliated militant cells attacking civilians to justify its backing away from peace negotiations and even threatened to reduce Pakistan’s water supply. Meanwhile, Pakistan blames floods in the country due to poor water management in India.

Recently, the fears in Pakistan have increased as India plans to develop a number of dams on the Indus water system.

Pakistan has launched strong attempts to stop Indian attempts to build dams on the Chenab and Neelum Rivers. The Kishanganga project on the Neelum river which is the part of Pakistan’s Jhelum tributary is one such example of violation of the Indus Water Treaty.

The BJP government has envisaged three projects to give intent to its decision to seize water from three eastern rivers of the Indus system – the Beas, Ravi and Sutlej – from going to Pakistan.

In order to utilize the waters from the eastern river tributaries, India has constructed Bhakra Dam on Satluj, Pong and Pandoh Dam on Beas and Thein (Ranjitsagar) on Ravi.

There are two other projects aimed at stopping water from entering into Pakistan. Those are the Ujh multipurpose project and the second Ravi Beas link below Ujh. However these projects are rife with several dangers and face considerable domestic opposition.

A local non-profit organisation, the Village Social Development and Welfare Committee, has launched a movement against the Ujh project because of the perceived devastating impact on local communities.

Over 2 lac 14 thousand trees will be cut and at least 52 villages containing a population of approximately 4000 people will be displaced and relocated. The construction of the dam will also lead to inequalities in wealth and natural resources.

There is also a threat of natural disasters destroying dams such as the case in February when glacial flooding caused the Rishiganga Hydroelectric Project to burst killing at least 72 people in Uttarakhand.

The local population also fears that the government will confiscate their lands and will leave them at the hands and mercy of the rehabilitation packages of the government.

The Ujh project was considered detrimental for environment and thus forest clearance by the relevant Indian Ministry’s Expert Appraisal Committee and Forest Advisory Committee was sought respectively in December 2020.

Both the expert panels have recommended clearance to the project without consulting the inhabitants and ignoring the environmental costs and human rights violation due to confiscation of lands and compelling locals to migrate.

This type of hydro-politics in South Asia is not a new phenomenon. Any conflict or skirmish between India and Pakistan may stop the water from India to Pakistan.

Ujh dam is one of those projects that aim to reduce or altogether stop the water supply to Pakistan. This in itself could lead to more tension or even armed hostilities.

Moreover, projects like Ujh can be a massive man-made disaster. Without taking into account the local environmental conditions, the habitat of flora and fauna and the massive relocation can result in unsustainable hardship for the locals.

Additionally, imposing the decision of dam construction and not including the locals in the process also points out Indian misgovernance regarding this project.

Keeping the strategic aspect and Indo-Pak rivalry aside, this project is violating human rights and their freedom. This will increase the hostile sentiments in the local population and ultimately lead to a complete failure.

—The writer is a Research Associate at Maritime Study Forum.

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