Eroding People Power

A Himalayan village’s struggle to assert its forest rights

Dakchompa gompa, a sacred site revered by tribals of Lippa, is under threat by proposed Kashang hydroelectric project. SUMIT MAHAR
01 September, 2019

Karam Sain led the way through the narrow paths of the temperate forest near the tribal village of Lippa, located in the Kinnaur district of Himachal Pradesh. The cool May air was filled with the scent of dried chilgoza pine cones, which crackled under his surefooted steps.

Sain, whose fellow villagers save his name as CM—short for chief minister, reflecting his leadership role in the community—in their mobile phones, entered the small gompa—Buddhist religious structure—at Dakchompa. Located at an altitude of ten thousand feet, the site is said to house the spirit of the eighth-century Buddhist teacher Padmasambhava, who is revered by the Kanauras, the indigenous people of Kinnaur. The people of Lippa trek even higher up, to a holy lake called Ronnam Sorang, to celebrate the festival of Dakhrain. The Kanauras are a Scheduled Tribe, whose cultural and religious practices are rooted in the worship of animistic deities and ancestral spirits. Over time, these have become intertwined with Buddhism, the predominant religion in upper Kinnaur.

In recent years, Lippa—a topographically fragile region with bare, rocky outcrops and patches of pine and cedar forests—has experienced the impact of rapid climatic changes, with lesser precipitation on average and unexpected heavy rains. Its main habitation is boxed in, with precipitous slopes on both sides and a raging river cutting at the feet of the village. The Pajer khadd—streambrings millions of tonnes of silt to Lippa’s doorstep year after year, as it floods during the monsoon. Six years ago, even as disastrous floods in Kedarnath made national headlines, many parts of Kinnaur suffered unprecedented rains and loss of property. If it were not for the Kerang stream, which flows from the west to meet the Pajer near Lippa, their habitations would have been buried in a mountain of debris by now.

After six months of snowfall, the summer is the only time of the year the people of Lippa can work in their fields. Commercial horticulture—mainly apple cultivation, which has been promoted by the state government since the 1970s—is the primary source of sustenance. The villagers ensure irrigation by diverting chashmas—underground springs—from the forest. The forest also provides fuel, fodder, medicinal plants and the precious chilgozas, which are harvested and sold annually.

For the last decade, the tribal community of Lippa has been engaged in a relentless struggle to protect each of these critical elements of their lives and livelihoods: the revered Dakchompa gompa, the forest, the groundwater springs that feed their apple orchards, and the Kerang, the village’s lifeline. The proposed 130-megawatt Kashang hydroelectric project, to be constructed by the state-run Himachal Pradesh Power Corporation Limited with a $208 million loan from the Asian Development Bank, involves the diversion of the Kerang through a six-kilometre tunnel into a neighbouring valley. In recent years, the construction of underground tunnels for hydropower projects has become the major cause of erosion, landslides and disturbance of groundwater in the Himalayas.

The clearance given to the project by the environment ministry, in 2009, was fiercely opposed by the residents of Lippa, who set up the Paryawaran Sanrakshan Sangharsh Samiti to fight for their forest rights in court. Since Kinnaur is listed in the Fifth Schedule of the Constitution, the Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act, 1996 and the Himachal Pradesh Lease Rules are applicable here. The project also violated the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwelling Communities (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006—which requires gram sabha consent before diversion of forest land. On 6 May 2016, in response to a petition filed by the PSSS, the National Green Tribunal ordered that all community and individual claims should be considered by the gram sabhas.

Himachal Pradesh has been one of the worst implementers of the forest-rights act. According to the minutes of the state-level monitoring committee constituted under the FRA, in January this year, while the state government was effectively implementing Section 3(2) of the act, which provides for diverting forest land for development projects, claims under Section 3(1), which enumerates a number of rights for forest-dwelling communities, remained pending “in absence of appropriate directions to field officers.” Of the 2,319 individual and community claims filed under the FRA, only 136—less than six percent—had been recognised by the state.

A member of the PSSS told me that after the NGT ruling in 2016, “every effort was made by the company to scuttle the judgement, cajole and intimidate us into giving consent, even as the claims process was pending.” The community-rights claim filed by the Lippa gram sabha, covering 829 rights holders and over six thousand hectares of forest land, was approved by the district-level committee in 2018. Within months of the approval, the state cabinet decided to lease out 17 hectares of forest land to HPPCL for the Kashang project, in violation of the Himachal Pradesh Lease Rules and the NGT order. The PSSS approached the high court, but their appeal for a stay order was not granted. The case is ongoing. Meanwhile, the company, the district administration and the police ratcheted up the pressure on the local community, and cases have been filed against some of the villagers.

Even as the intimidation to let HPPCL start construction was mounting, the people of Lippa faced a fresh crisis. The Indian army asked for 40 hectares of Lippa’s forest land to build an ammunition depot at Tsering Thanga, across the river from Dakchompa. A large open field surrounded by massive trees, Tsering Thanga is considered the home of Lippa’s ancestral deity, Tantanarenas. “The entire village gathers here annually to appease the spirits of their ancestors,” Semjang Dasi, a member of the Oras community, which traditionally practises carpentry, told me.

The ammunition depot, currently located on the right bank of the Satluj river, has to be relocated as it falls on the alignment of an underground tunnel of Shongthong Karchham—an under-construction hydroelectric project, also being developed by HPPCL with Asian Development Bank funding. On 21 December last year, the Lippa gram sabha passed a resolution refusing the army’s proposal, and even proposed an alternative site. The proposal remains uncertain.

However, the status of Lippa’s community forest rights is more uncertain. A year after granting approval, the district-level committee has still not issued a CFR title. To make matters worse, 47 individual forest-rights claims that had been approved by the Lippa gram sabha were rejected by the sub-divisional and district committees on unreasonable grounds. The rejection is being challenged in the high court.

Tashi Chhewang, the secretary of Lippa’s forest-rights committee, discovered through a right-to-information application that the district administration had excluded the area diverted for the Kashang project—land-record numbers 827 and 944—from the forest land for which the village was to receive a CFR title. “Our CFR application included the entire forest land as per the settlement records,” Chhewang said.

“HPPCL has already begun tendering contracts for the project to outsiders” Kalzan Neema, the head lama of Lippa, told me. “I would not blame the people if they choose to give in to the company’s pressure. If the law does not mean anything to them, then what more can be done? The youth in the village are saying, ‘Kal to hum samjhauta karne layak bhi nahin rahenge’”—Tomorrow we will not even be in a position to negotiate. Despite a favourable court judgement and central laws meant to protect them, the Kanauras are no closer to exercising their forest rights. “The gram sabha has already spent time and resources, and we cannot keep fighting endlessly,” Neema said. “We are just one small village.”