Uttarakhand Disaster: Over 300 km from Joshimath in Chamoli, ripples of alarm in Himachal’s Lahaul and Spiti

Massive flash floods, possibly due to a glacier burst or a landslide, in Chamoli district of Uttarakhand have sent shock waves in Tandi and Gaushal panchayats in Lahaul-Spiti, Himachal Pradesh. Villagers are holding meetings and passing gram sabha resolutions to oppose the proposed hydropower projects in their region.

Nidhi Jamwal
Deputy Managing Editor| Updated: February 8th, 2021

Two hydro power projects have suffered damages in the flash floods in Chamoli, Uttarakhand. Pic: By arrangement.


It looked like any other cold winter morning, when Ramakrishna Khandwal stepped out of his house in Subhai village in Joshimath area of Chamoli yesterday morning. What he witnessed next shocked him. 

A massive dust cloud was emerging from  the far-off hills of the Nanda Devi Biosphere, an ecologically-rich protected zone in Uttarakhand.

“Since the dam work was going on, I thought some sort of dumping had caused the dust cloud,” Khandwal told  Gaon Connection. “In no time, we villagers heard a loud thump. The ground beneath our feet trembled as large quantities of flood water, along with boulders of ice, gushed in at high speed. The Rishiganga river [a tributary of Dhauliganga] was in spate,” he recalled. “Soon, the Bhavishya Badri temple in Subhai crumbled and was washed away,” he added.

Rescue and relief operations are underway in the Himalayan state of Uttarakhand, which woke up to a massive disaster last morning, possibly due to a glacier burst or landslide, leading to flash floods in the Dhauliganga river, a tributary of the Alaknanda river (which further forms the Ganga). Two hydro power projects — Rishi Ganga Power Project and Tapovan Vishnugad Power project — have suffered major damages. 

Rescue operation underway in a tunnel in Chamoli, Uttarakhand. Pic: NDRF

So far, at least 19 dead bodies have been retrieved from several-metres-high rubble, while 202 people are still missing. Personnel of the 

Indo Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) personnel and National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) are working round the clock, against time, to rescue survivors, some of whom are feared trapped in the hydropower project’s tunnel. 

When Khandwal was watching the disaster unfold in front of his eyes, over 300 kilometres away in Lahaul and Spiti, a tribal district in Himachal Pradesh, villagers of the Gaushal panchayat had assembled for their regular meeting.  

“There are about 56 small, medium and big hydro power projects proposed in the ChandraBhaga basin. We were holding our regular meeting to devise a plan to oppose these projects when we heard about the Uttarakhand disaster,” Megh Singh Rana, former panchayat pradhan of Gaushal, told Gaon Connection

“Uttarakhand’s flash floods acted as a live example for us to know what can happen when hills are blasted indiscriminately in the name of development. In the meeting, all the villagers said they do not want such development in their area,” he added.

Meanwhile today, another meeting of villagers was held in Tandi panchayat (covering 11 villages) of Lahaul and Spiti to oppose the proposed hydro power projects. More and more panchayats are joining hands to oppose the projects, especially in the wake of Uttarakhand disaster. 

A meeting of villagers in Gaushal panchayat, Lahaul and Spiti, Himachal Pradesh. Pic: Save Lahaul Spiti

“A series of dam projects are proposed on Chandra and Bhaga rivers in Lahaul and Spiti. These two rivers meet at Tandi, a holy sangam site, and form the Chenab,” Vikram Katoch, vice president of Save Lahaul Spiti, a local organisation,told Gaon Connection. “A number of projects are proposed on the Chenab as well. Gaushal and Tandi are located on either side of the Chenab, and both fear the dam projects will damage their river and the mountains, the  abode of their Gods,” he added.

All these dam projects require blasting and drilling of hills, and constructing tunnels in the mountains. “We have seen what happened in our Kinnaur district, where a large number of such projects are under construction. All the debris is dumped along the rivers, which flows into them. Rivers are being killed,” Katoch said.

So far, no construction work has started on any proposed hydro power projects in Lahaul and Spiti. In December 2020, three projects  in ChandraBhaga basin — the 104 MW Tandi, 130 MW Rashil and 267 MW Sach Khas — were allotted to Satluj Jal Vidyut Nigam Ltd, a public sector unit.  

Since then the villagers have upped their protests against dam projects in the region. In the past, they have refused NoC to the proposed projects.

“A couple of days ago, our Tandi panchayat passed a resolution against the construction of the 104 MW Tandi project. At that time, we did not know a disaster would strike Uttarakhand,” Virendra Kumar of Tandi panchayat told Gaon Connection. “Now we are adamant about not letting anyone destroy our rivers and mountains in the name of development and progress,” he added.

Villagers of Tandi panchayat held a meeting today on Feb 8 to oppose the proposed hydropower projects in their region. Pic: Save Lahaul Spiti

The villagers plan to pass another resolution against the proposed dams in the region and send it to the Governor and the President of India. 

Lahaul and Spiti is a tribal district, and is also known as a cold desert. It receives scanty rainfall and the villagers barely manage one crop a year.  “We are completely dependent on springs and some surface water bodies to meet our water needs. These springs are already drying up,” Susheela Rana, pradhan of Gaushal panchayat told Gaon Connection

“Blasting of hills for construction of dams and tunnels may further damage our water sources. We already face water scarcity. We will not give NoC for the dam projects,” Rana added.

According to Hee Ram Gourd, a resident of Udaipur village in Udaipur panchayat of Lahaul Spiti, about 45 kilometres downstream of Tandi, “Over a decade ago, the survey for the Shaili hydropower project showed sixty thousand trees would be cut. This number would have gone up to at least a lakh now Who wants such development?”

“The recent disaster in Uttarakhand has scared the people of Lahaul and Spiti, who fear something similar can strike them too. Hence they are coming together to oppose these projects,” said Prakash Bhandari of Himdhara Environment Research and Action Collective.

In the past, the tribal villagers of Lahaul and Spiti have organised several campaigns to oppose the proposed dam projects in their region. The recent Uttarakhand disaster has only strengthened their resolve.

As per news reports, Himachal Pradesh has a total identified potential of 27,400 MW, of which only 10,519 MW has been generated so far. A majority of the projects are proposed in Lahaul-Spiti, Kinnaur and Chamba districts. 

Meanwhile, in Chamoli district of Uttarakhand, it is a race against time as ITBP and NDRF teams try to rescue people. Vaibhav Saklani, a resident of Joshimath, was trying to locate his relative who was last seen near the Tapovan tunnel. Saklani told Gaon Connection that the water level rose thirty to forty feet and came up to the road. 

A bridge of the Border Roads Organisation (BRO) has been destroyed. Connectivity to 11 villages has snapped. Telephone networks are poor, and since this is the Niti Valley close to the border, mobile connections have not reached these remote villages, Bhandari said. The villages that have been disconnected include Gahar, Bhangyul, Raini Palli, Paing, Laataa, Suraithota, Tolma, and Fagrasu.