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GUREZ, Jammu & Kashmir, Sep 27 2011 (IPS) - A ruling by the International Court of Arbitration (ICA) at The Hague, staying construction of a dam across a river that flows into Pakistan, has brought cheer to the tribal people who live around the site.
Few would want to move out of this idyllic, alpine valley – that stretches 80 km in the high Himalayas and is home to the Dard Shin tribe – through which flows the Kishenganga, called the Neelum after it crosses into the Pakistan-controlled part of Kashmir.
Najar and other Dard Shins have refused compensation offered by the government at rates twice the prevailing value of land in the Gurez valley, which falls in the Bandipora district of Jammu and Kashmir state.
“The government promised us twice the going rate per acre of land, but we are not willing to leave our homes and move to other parts of Kashmir,” Najar said.
What may save the Dard Shins, who speak a language that is unique and endangered, is the Sep. 24 ruling by the ICA banning “permanent works on or above the Kishanganga/Neelum riverbed at the Gurez site that may inhibit the restoration of the flow of the river to its natural channel.”
Pakistan had argued that Kishanganga dam stands in violation of the 1960 Indus Waters Treaty signed by India and Pakistan to share the waters of the Indus and its five tributaries – the Jhelum, Chenab, Ravi, Sutlej and Beas.
Under the treaty, Pakistan has exclusive use of the western rivers, the Indus, Jhelum and Chenab while India has exclusive rights to the eastern rivers – Sutlej, Beas and Ravi. All the rivers ultimately flow into Pakistan.
Pakistan is building a 969 Mw dam under the Neelum-Jhelum Hydroelectric Project downstream, which Islamabad contends will be affected by the KHEP.
After bilateral negotiations collapsed in April last year, Pakistan took the case to the ICA as a violation of the World Bank-mediated Indus treaty, which provides a mechanism for resolution of disputes over the waters of the Indus basin.
The KHEP calls for the relocation of more than 1,200 people from at least six villages in sparsely populated Gurez valley that falls on the Line of Control, the de facto fenced and patrolled border separating the Indian and Pakistani controlled parts of Kashmir.
“I have four acres of land on which I cultivate different crops like pulses, potatoes and maize worth thousands of dollars, apart from grazing my cattle and sheep on the same land,” Abdul Razzaq, another Dard Shin farmer, told IPS.
“Owning the land not only means food and a livelihood for me, it also represents security for our future,” Razzaq said. “Any compensation from the government may keep me happy for some time, but it means an irreparable loss for my son and three daughters.”
“We made our objections clear when the government informed us about the construction of a power project, but that did not seem to have any impact,” Razzaq said. “Who cares about the opinions of poor people like us who live in the mountains?”
Children in Gurez are equally upset. “As you can see I am helping my mother collect hay, after attending school,” said Saima Shafi, who is in the sixth standard. “I can’t ever think of leaving the water in our mountain springs and going elsewhere.”
An environmental impact assessment (EIA) carried out by Delhi University’s Centre for Inter-Disciplinary Studies of Mountain and Hill Environment warns that the dam will endanger several Himalayan plant and animal species, including the snow leopard and black bear.
The EIA concluded that ecological habitats face the danger of disturbance, degradation and fragmentation because of the heavy deployment of labour and construction activity.
According to the EIA, more than 500 hectares of land, including cultivable and forested areas, are likely to be affected by the project.
The Kishanganga project is being executed by the public sector National Hydroelectric Power Corporation (NHPC) at a cost of around 560 million dollars through the Hindustan Construction Company and Britain’s Halcrow Group.
Political leaders in Jammu & Kashmir say that while Pakistan and India wrangle over the resources of the territory there is little benefit from hydroelectric projects for the Kashmiris.
Nayeem Akhtar, spokesman for the main opposition People’s Democratic Party in the elected state assembly, told IPS: “We don’t think that what happened in a court in the Netherlands makes any difference to us because we are never consulted by either country.”
“They (Pakistan and India) capitalise on our water resources while we remain mute spectators. What is happening is a huge fraud on Kashmiris, the main stakeholders.”
Akhtar said Jammu & Kashmir continues to be power starved, although it has the potential to produce 20,000 Mw of electricity from hydroelectricity projects.
Shakeel Qalandar, president of the Federation of Chamber of Industries Kashmir, told IPS that all the energy produced by the NHPC in Jammu and Kashmir is supplied to other Indian states while local industries and domestic users are starved of power.
Qalandar is part of a group that in July filed public interest litigation in state high court seeking the handover of all NHPC projects to the state government. “How can we progress unless we have steady power supplies?”
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