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Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Neelam or Kishenganga?

The binary system of one interest pitted against the other is played out between India and Pakistan on many fronts. Exchanging gunfire across the LOC is not quite passé yet but the war of attrition is now played out through a race to build hydro projects in the region. The net result in any event is huge human and ecological cost to Kashmir.

What started in Pakistani Administered Kashmir (PaK) as the 969 MW (Mega Watts) Neelam-Jhelum Hydro Project in January 2008 was 'countered' by the 330 MW Kishenganga Hydro Project in January 2009, a mere 70 kilometres upstream in Indian Administered Kashmir. The former with the assistance of American, Chinese and Norwegian firms whilst the latter is being built in conjunction with a British firm. Despite the Indus Basin Water Treaty of 1960 (without Kashmiri consultation - K.H. Khursheed was apparently sacked from the AJK presidency for his defiance) not permitting both projects to operate simultaneously, Kishenganga is set for completion in 2016 and Neelam-Jhelum in 2017.

Both projects were conceived more than twenty years ago (Neelam-Jhelum as early as 1982) and though ecological concerns are apparent with Kishenganga's proposed 103 metre reservoir submerging some parts of the Gurez Valley, the emphasis of this piece is to highlight some of the concerns of the AJK population and in particular the inhabitants of Muzaffarabad district. One would be eager to read something covering the same topic from the other side of the divide.

It should be made clear that Pakistan started this $2.16 Billion project without fulfilling basic environmental obligations required for such development projects. Neither did it consult the public of PaK or make any written agreement with the PaK Government. The project's Chief Executive is a retired General, Zubair, more attuned to firing bullets than presiding over a hydro-electric project. An environmental law enacted in 2000 has proved to be somewhat of a (belated) saviour for the people of PaK, as an NOC from AJK's EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) is required by law before the commencement of any infrastructure project in this territory, except that three years of work have been carried out before a public hearing to assess people's reservations has been conducted. The public hearing which took place this past Monday was requested by the EPA upon public demand last year.

It should be no surprise that the venue was packed with members of the public and lasted for over six hours. Each and every participant expressed serious reservations about the project and the panel of four Pakistanis (the General, an environmental analyst and two members of WAPDA- Pakistan's federal electricity board) was utterly inadequate in their attempt to appease the public. Even the South African Consultant (representing the American firm MWH) who they brought along to presumably give a colour of authenticity was evidently bemused at what he witnessed. His assertion that Rs 25 billion would be pumped into the AJK economy as a result of the project did little to allay people's concerns. 

The history of Mangla and the unfulfilled promises made by Pakistan in the 1960's is still fresh in people's minds. They understand that Pakistan is seriously deficient in meeting it's energy demands and that this project would be directly connected with Rawat or Gakhar Grid station (in Pakistan) through a 500KV double circuit transmission line. Free or subsidised electricity and zero load-shedding promised in the wake of Mangla Hydro Project looks to be repeated, albeit with some variations.

Persistent requests by the Pakistani panel to "trust us" ringed hollow, sounded clichéd and were bereft of rationale. They were startled somewhat by the level of awareness espoused by the public of PaK and the Kala Bagh Dam fiasco was cited as an example of Pakistan shifting its burden to a disputed territory, where it knew it had a pliant power structure ready to oblige it at any cost. What they under-estimated was the assertiveness of the public.

Pakistan's impression that the working models of old would suffice in pushing through their objectives have been repeatedly dashed in this age of communication technology, not just by Monday's public hearing but even by the reservations held out by the EPA. For example, when WAPDA initially submitted an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) report in February 2009, it was found to be prepared in 1996. Its revised report presented in July 2010 still left much to be addressed in terms of combating environmental hazards of the project.

At the public hearing, some members of the public staged a walk-out in disgust at the panel's inability to answer their questions. The general employed both 'carrot and stick' in his attempt to calm the situation down. He employed sweet language by waxing lyrical about the number of years he had spent in PaK and privately warned a Project affectee to, "Remember who the Sardar is, never take a panga with the Sardar." The Sardar, of course, is referring to the Government of Pakistan.

It should be abundantly clear at this stage that Pakistan has embarked on this project using a procedure which is not only inherently flawed but back to front. For example, the sequence if one were to employ universal and civilised norms would have been to first consult the public, obtain their approval via debate in the AJK Assembly, fulfill all criteria related to protection of the environment (incidentally, our most prized asset in Kashmir), subsequently obtain an NOC from the EPA and finally address social, economic and political concerns by guaranteeing benefit to the local population in the shape of employment, skills and technology transfer.

In an effort to understand what drives such disasters, the war of attrition played out between India and Pakistan in Kashmir must be focused on and conscientious civil efforts must be devised by the public of Kashmir to immunise us from this conflict. Whether the Neelam-Jhelum Hydro Project will attain fruition is still far from certain.

Is it a matter of sacrificing our ecology and natural habitats for Pakistan's energy needs? or is it a matter of 'national interest' (viz. Pakistan's) where the Neelam-Jhelum project will give Pakistan some leverage in the Indus Basin arbitration process and forestall India's alleged attempts to divert the upstream river flow for it's own needs?

During the forum, this writer made it clear that the panel had provided an inadequate response to people's questions. The question of legality of Pakistan's activity was also raised. Where members of the public couched their criticism of the project by a feigned allegiance to Pakistan, one has always had the privilege of saying what he feels, unconstrained by any associated interest. In an attempt to define 'national interest', which was the underlying current of the Pakistani panel's response, nothing was forthcoming.

In response, yours truly requested the panel to ask major stakeholders in the Pakistani power structure (be they the military, bureaucracy, politicians or anyone else who stood responsible for Pakistan's decisions) to come to Muzaffarabad imminently and face questions from the AJK public in a similar hearing. Our region needs to move forward with a clear definition of our national interest and the direction that we need to take.

...

The writer is a writer, broadcaster and activist working for civil society development in Pakistani-administered Kashmir and can be mailed at sahaafi@gmail.com

This article was first published in Rising Kashmir (a Srinagar-based English daily) on the 22nd of December 2010


This article was re-titled as "Power Politics" on December the 23rd 2010 by Vijay Sazawal, a Kashmiri Pandit living in the USA and running a website named Kashmirforum.org


He also commented that:

"Tanveer says in the battle for hydro-electric power, Pakistan has ignored environmental impacts"

The article can be read at the following link:


This article was also referenced in:

 'The Indus Equation' by Strategic Foresight Group - Mumbai in 2011


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