Mega power project brings ruin upon nearby villages where apple orchards have been ruined, houses are crumbling, and engineers still trying to figure out the problem
Bandipora: The very earth is losing its firmness and the soil its fertility in two villages of Bandipora where water has been oozing out of the ground ever since the first unit of the Kishanganga hydroelectric project was commissioned last month. Engineers of the National Hydro Power Corporation (NHPC), which owns the project, said last month that a water tunnel had developed “seepage”. Now the General Manager (GM) of NHPC, Amresh Kumar, says that it is not clear why water is still seeping into the soil because all the water in the tunnel was removed on April 20.
“On 20th of April the tunnel was dried out, but still the water has been observed appearing in the orchards,” Amresh Kumar said. “Now a committee constituted by DC (Deputy Commissioner) Bandipore is monitoring the seepage of water in the orchards. The last visit of the committee took place on 24th April. The committee has decided to observe the seepage for a further one week and it would visit the tunnel also.”
The committee’s inspections are already too late. This year’s apple crop in the orchards has been ruined.
Haleema, 45, was sitting silent on a little patch of dry greenery in Chak Karalpora village, located close to the powerhouse of the Kishanganga project, when this reporter went there on Wednesday. She was watching her husband, Mohammad Shafi Tantray, 50, remove wet soil from near the 90 apple trees in their orchard. Her daughter, Rubeena, 21, was also anxiously watching her father, who tiptoed between the trees one after the other with growing unease on his face.
Then, suddenly, the silence was broken by a long wail. It was Haleema, who now had an unending trail of tears rolling down her face. “Haa myneh Khudayou yeh keyho taawan tchunuth (Oh my dear God, what curse you have brought upon us),” she wailed. At this, her daughter shouted at her to shut up, but tears welled up in her eyes, too.
“I have small children, how would I take care of them… their studies…. their marriage… Oh dear God,” Haleema continued to lament.
“The orchard is gone. There is no hope left for any fruit this year,” Shafi said with a deep sigh. “The flowers dropped within five days. Now the trees have begun to die. It is 25 years of hard work gone to waste.”
According to the UK-based Halcrow Company engineers responsible for the design and dispensing of power generated from the Kishanganga project, “The project will generate 330-megawatt power after all its units start working together.” They say that the project has been commissioned but work on two units is still on and only one unit, of 110MW capacity, is operational with trial runs.
When this one unit started its trial run in March this year, it developed seepage with water oozing out of the “Head Race Tunnel”, the engineers said. The seepage entered Chak Mantrigam village, in such a deluge that people abandoned their homes and fled in the night. Now they have come back but are living in fear of what may happen next.
Residents of the nearby village of Chak Kralpora began seeing water in their apple orchards, emerging as if out of nowhere. A report by the horticulture department to the DC Bandipora said at the time, “If the water continues to emerge in the apple orchards for 15 days, the flowers will drop and if it persists for a month or more, trees will die as they are not aquatic.” The report was sent by the Chief Horticulture Officer Bandipora.
“It has been more than a month that the water hasn’t stopped,” Chak Kralpora’s Shafi Tantray said. He was seconded by the son of another orchardist, Mohammad Azad, whose share of 600 apple trees in his uncle’s orchard is almost lost.
“The water never stopped emerging in these orchards and fields, despite the NHPC’s clams that it dried up the tunnels some ten days ago,” said Ghulam Ahmad Pandit, 70, who has been taking care of the task of diverting irrigation water from the canal in Chak Kralpora.
“The villagers would request me to manage the task of getting the water diverted from the canal for their irrigation needs. But now it is water all around here. I have been doing this work for decades now but never in my life have I seen water emerging in the fields, in orchards, from below the ground, at so many palaces. It seems like this whole mountain is filled with water,” Pandit said.
Though the horticulture department as well as the agriculture department have been tasked to compensate the affected farmers and orchardists, villagers say that nothing has been done so far, as the officials are still trying to link the water seepage with some cause other than the hydropower project.
Just some paces up the hamlet is the house of Ghulam Mohammad Gojjar, 45. His newly constructed house has developed cracks and water has been seeping into all the walls. Gojjar came to live downhill after selling his land in 2012, after his old house near the project site crumbled due to the blasting carried out by HCC (Hindustan Construction Company) for tunnel construction. His new house is also on the verge of collapse.
Gojjar said he was never compensated for his loss. He showed a bundle of official papers signed by top officers that entitled him to compensation, but which fetched nothing. With his wife and six children, Gojjar is now living a life of penury.
Villagers said that many houses on the hill slope were on the verge of collapse, as the water seepage was weakening their foundation. The rains last week dislodged a major chunk of soil near Kharpora and blocked the irrigation canal. “It was cleared after heavy machinery was deployed by the HCC. That portion of land belongs to the project, so eyes weren’t raised,” said Irshad, a young villager.
At Chak Mantrigam village, where the water first emerged from the Head Race Tunnel in the form of a stream, villagers contested the NHPC’s claim that the water seepage had ended on April 14. They said the seepage had only reduced in quantity, because the stream had been diverted into the Pathakot stream nearby.
A tribal community of 300 persons lives in Chak Mantrigam village. A young man here said that in the initial survey the engineers had recommended evacuation of this village, but the NHPC couldn’t compensate all the families as each household here had a vast area of agricultural land in their name. “Rather than compensating us, they took risk,” the young man said.
80-year-old Mohammad Safdar Khan quipped with a toothless and sarcastic smile: “Any time this place can collapse, as there is a monster living in this mountain. We have put all our hopes in Almighty Allah. Whatever he wishes will now happen.”