Dungduru, Kishtwar: Until a few years ago, Ghulam Hassan Magray, 36, was living comfortably in his native village, Sewerbatti, located just on the banks of the Chenab River.
Magray owned six kanals of land, which roughly translates to 0.75 acres, that was used for agricultural purposes. The family used this land to cultivate rice, corn, vegetables, apples, pears, and walnuts, among other things. But the Magrays were forced out of their ancestral house in exchange for meager compensation in 2017 to make way for a hydropower project.
India is constructing seven new dams in Kishtwar, a region of dense forest in Kashmir – Bursar Dam (800 MW), Pakal Dul (1000 MW), Kwar Dam (540 MW), Kiru Dam (624 MW), Kirthai-I (390 MW), Kirthai II (930 MW), and Ratle Hydroelectric project (930 MW). Work on four of the dams has already begun.
Aimed at generating 5,190 megawatts of hydroelectricity, these projects will, however, affect the lives of over 20,000 locals, including members of Indigenous communities who depend on the forest for survival.
Sewarbatti was a small village with only 36 households. Only construction workers now occupy the lands and the once-bustling village is a ghost town. These families together owned 230 kanals of land, which was acquired by the government to construct the Dungduro hydropower project with a capacity of 1,000 MW. The land was purchased in exchange for 230,000 Indian rupees (around $2,800) per kanal.
While the government painted a rosy picture before acquiring the land, all is not well in the village. People believe they were short-changed by the administration in terms of compensation and rehabilitation.
Illustration: Aymun Naqvi.
According to locals, the compensation was not enough to even purchase land in the nearby villages, let alone move to the main town of Kishtwar. The government’s ambitious hydropower project and its unplanned implementation left the families landless and homeless, with no substantial means of sustenance.
Hassan, who works as a contractor in the neighborhood, said that the people of the village lost everything due to the project. “We were self-sustaining and did not have to run to the markets for our daily needs. Be it vegetables, rice, pulses, or fruits, we were able to cultivate everything for our daily consumption. Families would sun-dry them to stock up for the harsh winters,” he said.
According to Hassan, the compensation rate was decided in 2017 while the work started in 2019. “In those two years, the cost of land and construction materials went up exponentially. When we protested against the meager compensation, we were threatened with false cases under sedition laws such as the Public Safety Act,” Hassan added.