Kashmir on the edge: no water, no heating, no peace
In the midst of the worst cold wave in decades, Kashmir is freezing and pitch-dark, reeling from a severe electricity shortage. The immediate causes are broken transmission lines which triggered 12-18 hour power cuts, and therefore street protests. Protests in turn spawned tragedy – as seems inevitable in Kashmir – when security forces opened fire on villagers in Baramulla, killing a 22-year old student.
Kashmir is reeling under the cold without power. AP
Chief Minister Omar Abdullah took all the usual symbolic steps: arresting the Central Industrial Security Force troopers, and announcing cessation of power supply to all VIP areas. But he failed, however to acknowledge the real cause for frustration.
The power crisis in Kashmir has roots deeper than the recent snowstorms. A great part of the outage in Baramulla has to do with the National Hydroelectric Power Corporation, a public sector company. As a recent Tehelka story notes, “[M]any residents felt cheated by the denial of electricity after they had acceded land for the NHPC project on promises of 24-hour power supply.”
And it certainly doesn’t help that they were shot at for making such basic demands – not by any counter-insurgency force but by the CISF which is “hired by the NHPC exclusively for the security of their installations across the state”.
NHPC’s sins, as Tehelka notes, include more than just this particular incident:
NHPC generates much of the 2,556MW of the hydroelectricity produced in the state but offers a paltry 12 per cent of free power to the state and sells 88 per cent to the northern grid at lavish profits. Any power the state has to buy back from the NHPC has to be done at a premium.
On top of such an exploitative power sharing agreement, NHPC now stands accused of resorting to shockingly fraudulent means to acquire the land for at least one of the projects as well as to retain ownership of all of them in perpetuity, even though the Prime Minister’s economic adviser C Rangarajan had categorically suggested transfer of assets to the state.
That NHPC is currently working on 14 more power projects there with a total capacity of 3,445MW with perhaps the same exploitative arrangements only contributes to the growing resentment. In this context, the death of a civilian in protest against near denial of electricity and in the hands of troopers deployed at a NHPC facility immediately assumes larger implications.
As one Shakoor Rather wrote on Facebook, “It’s only ironic to bear the fact that a state with a capacity of generating more than 2500 MW of electricity has to reel under darkness”.
The level of anger at the NHPC runs so high that the Kashmiri Chamber of Commerce & Industry today penned an open letter to Manmohan Singh demanding the return of the state’s power projects – warning that failure to do so will lead to “open revolt from general public especially Trade, Commerce and Industry Fraternity of J&K so that they can take back these resources.”
“The Kashmir Valley in particular is fast going back to medieval period with no hope for economic self-sufficiency and development, notwithstanding all the packages announced by your good self,” wrote KCCI president Abdul Hamid Punjabi, referring to the the PM-appointed Rangarajan Committee which too recommended giving back the hydel projects to J&K back in 2006.
When businessmen threaten “revolt,” it’s probably time to take more forceful action. A message seemingly lost on Abdullah who has merely said, “We are not asking for them forcibly. If need be, we will pay for it. However, we feel we have a rightful claim over these projects.”
The problems with NHPC extend far beyond Kashmir. A plan to construct a 2000 MW hydro-electrical dam on the Arunachal Pradesh-Assam border recently triggered widespread protests – and again a firing incident which prompted a strong condemnation from Team Anna. Next up: three power projects planned in Orissa which are prompting threats of rebellion.
The Arunachal Pradesh CM describes the recent protest as a “law and order” problem, much as some may dismiss the recent Kashmir unrest as business as usual. Certainly, the tradeoff between power needs and land rights is far bigger and more complicated than individual cases suggest. But to focus primarily on the infrastructural angle is to miss their broader impact in states like Kashmir and Assam. As Nilim Dutta, executive director of the Strategic Research and Analysis Organisation, points out:
Just when Assam has limped back to a modicum of peace from three decades of debilitating insurgency, the centre’s lack of foresight appears to nullify the dividends of peace. What is even more ominous is that with the Arunachal Pradesh government strongly backing the continuation of the construction, and the anti-dam protesters in Assam steadfastly determined to oppose it, this can soon accelerate into a larger conflict with ugly consequences.
All peace initiatives are doomed to fail if basic bread and butter needs remain neglected. “Frozen tapes, frozen pipes frozen roads and frozen water tankies and half an hour of occasional electricity, hell with this,” complains a young Kashmiri. No one thinks of peace — be it a Kashmiri, Punjabi, Assamese or Kannadiga — in hell.