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Development and Displacement: Impacts of the Tehri Dam

Info: 4575 words (18 pages) Essay
Published: 10th Nov 2021 in Society

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The Tehri Hydro Power Project (THPP), also known as the Tehri Dam, is a development project in the Indian Himalayas that provides electricity, drinking water, and irrigation to North India. This paper will explore the ways that the THPP succeeded and failed by considering the priorities of the Indian government and how they directed the actions of the THPP. These priorities include the generation of hydropower, the generation of profit, and the prioritization of urban residents over rural populations. Using a social justice lens, the social impacts of the THPP will be examined, as well as the larger relationship between development and displacement in India.

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History: 1960s to 2000s

The Tehri Hydro Power Project was a controversial undertaking that initially struggled to gain traction and become reality. The project was conceptualized in the 1940s and work began in the early 1960s. In 1963, surveys were conducted that assessed the viability of the Bhagirathi River Valley in the Himalayas as a location for the dam (Reddy, 2016). Nearly a decade later, the design for the dam was proposed, and then from the 1970s to the 1990s, funding streams were pursued. In the 1990s, funding was finally secured, the design for the dam was approved, and construction began. The Tehri Hydro Power Project was fully finished in 2007, more than 60 years after conceptualization, and nearly 40 years after work began on the project (Reddy, 2016).

Throughout this lengthy process, Bhagirathi River Valley residents lived in perpetual uncertainty. The Tehri Hydro Power Project would dam the Bhagirathi River and create Tehri Lake, a 20 square mile reservoir. The reservoir would fully inundate the town of Old Tehri, where approximately 12,500 people lived, and flood approximately 100 rural villages upstream that housed between 80,000 and 100,000 people (Newton, 2008). Some residents watched anxiously, others organized and protested. Many residents hung on to the hope that a lack of funding, combined with Indian governmental bureaucracy, would prevent the project from ever coming to fruition. They held onto hope for 40 years, but in the end, tens of thousands of people were involuntarily displaced from their homes so the dam could be built.



The Tehri Hydro Power Project is owned and operated by the Tehri Hydro Development Corporation, which is a joint venture undertaken together by the Government of Uttar Pradesh and the Government of India (International Hydropower Association, 2017). Annually, the Tehri reservoir provides 6,200 GWh of clean, renewable electricity to India, drinking water to 7 million people, and irrigation to much of North India.


While an impressive economic undertaking, the dam has been criticized due to the hazards the government has created by building the dam on a major fault line (Gupta, Mahesh, Sivaram & Rai, 2012). Although the project engineers maintained that the dam could withstand an earthquake of up to 8.0 on the Richter scale (Iyengar, 1993), a breach in the dam would be devastating to the surrounding area. If the dam broke, it would release 3,200 million tonnes of water held 550 meters above sea level, from the mountains into the plains below. Projections show that a 200 meter high wall of water would obliterate the lower lying cities of Devaprayag, Rishikesh, and Haridwar. The number of deaths in this scenario is estimated to be upwards of a hundred thousand, and millions along the river would be affected. Projections show this flood affecting six cities and countless villages, in total impacting approximately 2 million people. In addition, another danger is the possibility that the weight of water in the reservoir would cause ground tremors and trigger an earthquake (Rao, 1988).


There were two main groups of people that were displaced by the creation of Tehri Lake: residents of the town of Old Tehri, and residents of the villages that lined the Bhagirathi River upstream of the dam. Planned resettlement was managed by the Indian government, and was handled differently for the two populations relocated. The government allocated different amounts of resources to each group, prioritizing the urban displacees and providing fewer resources to the rural villagers.

Old Tehri to New Tehri

5​,291 families comprised of approximately 12,500 people lived in the town of Old Tehri, which at the time was just called Tehri (Newton, 2008). The government spent $26 million USD to build New Tehri, a brand new town that included houses, a hospital, police station, college campus, sewage system, consistent electricity, and stadium. New Tehri was built to house 25,000 people, which was twice the population from Old Tehri that needed resettlement.

Rural Himalayan Villagers to the Uttarakhand Plains

Upstream of the Tehri Dam,​ 125 Himalayan villages were affected by the creation of the reservoir (Reddy, 2016). 37 villages were completely flooded, and 88 of the villages were partially flooded. In these villages, 5,429 families' properties were fully submerged. These families were offered either cash compensation or resettlement. Cash compensation was typically around Rs. 5 lakh, which is the equivalent of approximately $75 USD. They had two options for resettlement: two acres of land in the rural plains, or half an acre of land in one of the 14 resettlement colonies on the outskirts of Dehradun, Haridwar, or Rishikesh (Asthana, 2012). Even though these villagers had lived in the Himalayas for generations and only spoke Himalayan languages, they were not given a resettlement option in the Himalayas.

For the 3,810 families whose properties were partially submerged, the government did not offer resettlement options. Those families were simply paid a cash equivalent of their land that had been flooded (Reddy, 2016). Because many of these families moved later without government assistance, there is no official count of the number of rural families that have been displaced. Earlier estimates hover around 80,000 people displaced, and later studies have maintained that closer to 100,000 rural individuals were displaced (Rao, 1988; Newton, 2008).

Protests and Criticism

Protests against the Tehri Hydro Power Project began in the 1970s with Sunderlal Bahuguna and the Chipko Environmental movement. Grassroots organizers with the Chipko movement, Tehri, Silent Valley, and Fish Workers opposed the development project (Sharma, 2009). They spoke about the importance of nature and environment, they spoke out against deforestation in the Himalayas, and they protested the project's plan to dam the Bhagirathi River, which carries religious significance to Hindus. Bahuguna was a prolific writer who communicated effectively and gained widespread support in the area for the Chipko movement. Bahugana maintained that the Tehri Dam project is part of a western development system that is based on two false presumptions: that nature is a commodity, and that society consists only of humans (Sharma, 2009). Bahugana thought that Indian development should be based on cultural values, peace, and fulfillment, instead of monetary gain and affluence. Bahugana and the Chipko movement organized and protested against the Tehri Dam for decades, from the early 1970s and through completion in the early 2000s.

New Information Surfaces: Governmental Lack of Transparency

As the years progressed, new information began to surface regarding the process by which the government built the Tehri Dam and resettled the displaced residents of the Bhagirathi River Valley. A lack of transparency and accountability underpinned much of the government approach to resettling the displaced population. The state continually maintained that in Old Tehri, 5,291 families were displaced and resettled in New Tehri, but new data from 2001 has shown that 10,303 families were living in Old Tehri and were displaced (Dhasmana 2002; Reddy, 2016). Some of those families were unable to navigate the government system to receive resettlement services, and some were straightforwardly denied government support. Furthermore, People's Union for Civil Liberties states that the number of displaced families that the government claimed to have resettled included government THPP workers as well (Dhasmana, 2002).

In addition, people had been living on the site of New Tehri before the government claimed it as a resettlement site for the displaced residents of Old Tehri. These people were displaced by the government without resettlement in order to create the new town (Dhasmana, 2002). No public government records exist about this population, and they are rarely mentioned in the literature about displacement during the building of Tehri Dam.

New Developments: Potential Privatization of the Project

Tehri Hydro Power Project is owned and operated by the Tehri Hydro Development Corporation, which is managed by the Indian government and the Uttar Pradesh​ government. In November 2019, the Indian Government Cabinet Committee on Economic Affairs approved the disinvestment of the Government of India's shares in Tehri Hydro Development Corporation, and transfer of management to a private company, National Thermal Power Corporation Limited (Business Today, 2019). This decision was protested by Uttarakhand Congress in December 2019 (Kazmi, 2019). (Note: When construction of the dam began, it occurred within the state of Uttar Pradesh. In 2000, part of Uttar Pradesh was carved out to create the state of Uttarakhand (formerly Uttaranchal). At the time of writing this paper it is uncertain whether the THPP will be privatized and managed by a for-profit business. However, government privatization has been steadily increasing, and trends show that energy production is becoming more privatized worldwide (Klein, 2007).

India's Priorities

Context and Assumptions

The section of the paper explores the government of India's priorities and motivations for undertaking the Tehri Hydro Power Project. This paper uses an ethical, social justice-oriented lens to examine two economic motivations behind the THHP: generation of hydropower, and generation of profit. This paper uses the same lens to explore the government's political decisions behind resettlement, and the prioritization of urban areas at the expense of rural areas and the people who live there. Of course, economic issues are also often political, especially in the context of development for a lower income, still developing country like India.

Generation of Hydro-Power

The Tehri Hydro Power Project illustrates a conflict that low-income countries sometimes encounter regarding development. Having been previously colonized and economically exploited, India finds itself with a lower economic output than wealthier, developed countries. On the global stage it is easy for international actors to promote clean renewable energy, and limits on carbon emissions. But for an overpopulated, low income state like India, development of renewable energy can come at a price. The curbing of anthropogenic climate change, caused by carbon emissions and greenhouse gases, is a real and important priority. Some would argue that renewable energy is the future, but at what social cost? Ethically and morally, how many people is it acceptable to displace to create a hydroelectric dam? And clean energy generation is a worthy goal, but the question must be asked: clean energy for whom?

Generation of Profit

The Indian government prioritized the generation of profit and economic development over the needs of the Indian people. The THPP emerged as India gained independence from the British Raj and subsequently dedicated itself to becoming an economic power. However, the state prioritized profit over its people, leading to many negative social outcomes for displaced persons and those in the surrounding area.

Prioritization of Urban Areas

The Indian government prioritized urban residents over rural villagers in two ways. First, the creation of the dam itself displaced tens of thousands of mostly rural Indians. This large-scale displacement occurred so that 3 million New Delhi residents and 4 million residents of urban centers across North India were able to receive fresh drinking water. Proponents of the THPP reference these numbers to illustrate the benefits of the project. In contrast with that, critics draw attention to the staggering number of people displaced, and questioned whether it's ethical for the government to uproot rural people in order to benefit city dwellers.

Second, the Indian government prioritized urban displacees from Old Tehri over rural displaces from the villages. In 2002, a People's Union for Civil Liberties Report was released that that lists the amount of money spent on Old Tehri resettlement and rural village resettlement.

Rs 170 crore ($26 million USD) was spent on the 12,500 Old Tehri displacees, and Rs. 94 crore ($14 million USD) was spent on 80,000-100,000 rural displacees.


Utilizing principles of social justice, anticolonial thought, and disaster capitalism, this section seeks to explore the relationship between development and displacement. Decades old colonial exploitation turned into modern capitalism-related exploitation as India gained independence, and the country's national priorities begin to take shape. India strived to gain influence in the world order by prioritizing economic development and establishing itself as economically competitive with other nations. But the question must be asked - development and progress for whom? Certainly not for the Indians who are displaced by dam construction and other development projects. The relationship between development and displacement is explored in this section, and this paper argues that the economic development of dam construction is not worth the social and human costs of displacement.

Colonialism, Capitalism, and Exploitation

India suffered from colonial and economic exploitation from the 1500s into the mid-1900s. In 1947, India achieved independence from the British Raj. Years of colonial rule had impoverished the country, and when India emerged as its own country, it found globalization and worldwide economic development in full swing. India sought to gain power and influence on the world stage by spurring economic growth and development. In doing so, the state often exploited its own people for monetary gain. In a famous speech given shortly after independence, India's first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, stated that "dams are the temples of modern India" (Roy, 1999). He set the priority for development and dam building, and as a result, India became the third largest dam builder in the world, displacing approximately 33 million citizens in the process (Roy, 1999).

Through damming, the state creates a system where it can own water, sell water, and profit from water sales. First, the state benefited from directly managing and selling the resource, but as capitalism and government privatization progresses, the state benefits by selling the water administration to private companies. By considering selling the Tehri Hydro Power Project to the National Thermal Power Corporation Limited, the state seeks to gain profit through the sale, while simultaneously boosting India's GDP by allowing NTPCL to profit from water sales. Increased water prices would be disastrous for low-income residents of the region, especially those who were previously displaced and are still struggling to survive. In this way, the cycle of exploitation continues.

Development and Displacement

Economic development in India is often related to natural resources, and ongoing development in India solidifies humans' dominance over nature. However, impoverished and rural Indians also depend on natural resources for survival and their livelihoods. Dam development prioritizes the state's needs over the needs of the citizens. These natural resources are taken from them, and they face economic marginalization as well as marginalization due to the social costs of displacement. This exploitation is unwarranted and unethical, and it is only fitting that the policy instrument that allows the state to do so is a colonial-era law from 1894. Using a colonial law, India replicates the same type of exploitation on its own people that British colonizers imposed on Indians during the British Raj.

The Land Acquisition Act of 1894 grants eminent domain authority to the Indian government. The state is allowed to acquire land for the 'public good', the parameters of which is left open to the state to define. Once the land acquisition is announced, it cannot be legally challenged or resisted (Land Acquisition Act, 1894). The act states that the Magistrate can "enforce surrender" of the land to the collector, which most often is the state. In 2013, the 1894 act was replaced by the Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act. However, by this point, most of the exponential economic growth caused by dam development and land seizure had already been completed.

The social and human cost of development is enormous, and this paper will briefly discuss some of the more disgraceful impacts of development dam construction. Displacement is the primary negative impact of development and dam construction in India. However, there are no official statistics that exist regarding displacement caused by development in India since Independence in 1947. This could be because some displacees are resettled, and others are not, as was the case with the Tehri Dam construction. Additionally, there is an undervaluing of compensation, when compensation is provided. These equity concerns are often dismissed by the state.

Some would argue that hydropower is a clean, renewable energy, and dam construction creates irrigation opportunities, manages floodwater, and provides drinking water to millions. True, but dam construction and development must be conducted with transparency and accountability, and systems must be put in place to ensure that displacees are cared for throughout resettlement and into the future. India has shown that it can be capable of this, as demonstrated by the resettlement from Old Tehri to New Tehri. But not all displacees benefitted from that level of social support and thoughtfulness.

For most displacees, development related to dam construction leads to cascading social failures including loss of livelihoods, loss of community, culture, and language, increased mental health problems, economic and social marginalization, and religious issues (Newton, 2008). As displaced people struggle to survive socially and economically, they are often drawn to cities in search of employment and basic needs. The resulting urbanization has further negative social outcomes like increased urban homelessness, living in hazard prone informal settlements, and public health problems related to large populations living on the streets. This was absolutely the case for the people who were displaced by the Tehri Dam and who were resettled in the plains of North India. It was also the story for those who were not provided resettlement but who were left to fend for themselves. Dehradun, one of the host cities, saw an exponential population increase due to an influx of displaced persons caused by the Tehri Dam. Resettlement began in 1979, and at that time, Dehradun's population was 276,000 (PopulationStat: World Statistical Data, 2019). In 2011, at the time of the last census, Dehradun's population was 1,696,694 (Office of the Registrar General & Census Commissioner, India, 2019). This rapid urbanization of Dehradun has carried many negative effects for its residents, however the exploration of that is out of the scope of this paper.


This paper is limited since the number of people affected by the Tehri Dam have been underestimated, and then subsequently contested. This paper also chose not to use an economic lens to explore the benefits of dam construction and development in India.

Overall, it is demonstrated in this paper and in other sources that more equitable principles and more thoughtfulness should be infused in development and resettlement programs. Increased government transparency and accountability is necessary, and evidence-based benchmarks for compensation should be established and upheld. Lastly, displaced populations should be centered throughout this process and granted some agency as they decide what the future holds for their families and community.


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