On 5 January 2019, the prime minister Narendra Modi arrived in Jharkhand to lay the foundation stone for the Kutku Mandal dam project. The same day, thousands of villagers, marched from the site of the dam toward the airstrip where Modi was to land, in protest against the project. The locals were protesting their likely displacement from their villages as a result of the dam, and demanding proper resettlement, compensation and jobs. Their rally was stopped before they could reach the airstrip.
First proposed in the early 1970s, the Kutku Mandal dam project, also known as the North Koel dam project, is located inside the Palamu Tiger Reserve, which spans Jharkhand’s Latehar and Palamu districts. The dam in the PTR had been lying defunct since the 1990s when work on the project was stopped after local protests. In 2015, Prakash Javadekar, who is now in his second term as the minister for environment, forest and climate change announced the creation of a task force to “expedite” the forest, environment and wildlife clearances for the project.
The PTR is part of the Betla National Park, which was constituted as a protected forest under the Indian Forest Act, in 1947. Betla was declared a wildlife sanctuary in 1973 and a national park in 1986. It was one of the first national parks to become a tiger reserve under Project Tiger, a government initiative to maintain a viable tiger population in India. Apart from being home to tigers, the reserve is also inhabited by wild boars, elephants, barking deer, golden jackals and bears. It is also home to forest-dwelling Adivasi communities, such as the Khervars, Chero, Oraon, Munda, Birjiya, Korva.
However, when the Mandal dam becomes operational, it will submerge parts of the PTR. In November 2018, the environment ministry gave the final approval and environmental clearance for the dam, allowing the Jharkhand government to divert more than one thousand hectares of forest land for the project. This land falls in the dam’s submergence area. MoEFCC documents also show that approximately 3.4 lakh trees are to be felled for this project. Environmental activists say that the dam threatens the environment, wildlife and ecosystem of the region. It will also displace hundreds of Adivasis living in the area. According to figures in a government-commissioned Site Specific Wildlife Management plan—a document that assesses the impact of the dam on the surrounding biodiversity, wildlife and people in the area—atleast eight villages will be submerged by the waters of the North Koel river.
In October 2019, I visited the PTR and met residents of two villages that will be impacted by the dam—Meral and Chemo. The Adivasis I spoke to were angry over the revival of the dam. Several villagers told me they were protesting the project because it would forcibly displace them and impact their livelihood. They said that the dam would submerge the land they have been living on for generations. They added that they will also lose crucial forest land on which they depend for their survival. Several villagers also said that they had not been offered alternative land for rehabilitation. Others had been shown alternative barren land that was not fit for cultivation.