Against the Current

Ecological destruction in Kinnaur

The visible contrast between two sides of the valley, separated by the Baspa dam. On one side, the landscape is marred by roads, construction and landslides, while the other remains untouched.
30 April, 2024

I WAS RAISED along the banks of the river Pabbar, whose once robust flow has dwindled into a mere stream, its vitality drained by the construction of a hydroelectric project. Rivers are polluted, mined and dammed for energy, but very little is done to expand our knowledge about how they work. The pressure on these water systems and surrounding ecology has caused largescale change, and left rivers to be managed in ways that suit corporate development.

This photographic series examines the intricate story of the Sutlej, a river in the northwest Himalayas. The transformation that its surrounding landscape and basin has witnessed over the past fifty years has been dramatic, leading to profound environmental damage and repercussions for communities living near it. Much of this damage stems from incessant construction and hydroelectric projects. According to a Down to Earth report from 2021, the Sutlej basin has had fifty-six percent of the state’s total installed capacity, and 142 hydroelectricity projects of 10,031 megawatts are either commissioned, under construction or planned on the Sutlej. As a result, 92 percent of the river will either be part of reservoirs or flowing through tunnels. “Such a cumulative scale of disturbance with the river’s natural state will drastically impact the life, livelihood, and ecology in the Sutlej basin,” the article stated.

Zalam Puri, a resident from the village of Rarang, in Kinnaur, which is known for its temples and monasteries. Today, its residents are also at the forefront of a battle against hydroelectric projects, and the Jangi Thopan Powari project in particular. “In this fight for our way of life, both the youth and the elderly are actively participating,” she said.
ABOVE: A series of Google Earth views of the Urni landslide between 2004 and 2022. BELOW: The houses of people the photographer met during the research for this project—Ramanand, Sanamjit and Kiran Kumari—are marked on a Google Earth image, to indicate their proximity to the landslide-prone area.