That is the true smell of the Himalayas, and if once it creeps into the blood of a man, that man will at the last, forgetting all else, return to the hills to die’

In the 1960’s the Government of India initiated the process of resettling the inhabitants of Hardoon Valley, from Kangra in Himachal Pradesh, to Rajasthan. 1.500.000 people were displaced, mostly small farmers living off the land. The cause of this mass displacement was the Pong Dam, a multipurpose project built across the river Beas. At the time the tallest of its kind in India, the dam was part of an ambitious project to bring water for irrigation to dry, arid Rajasthan and generation of electricity. What followed was a decades long, messy process of compensation and resettlement that the ousted were entangled in. More than half a decade on, resettlement is still not complete, and there are families that are still fighting for the land that was promised to them in Rajasthan [1].

This is the story about the Pong dam in Himachal Pradesh, but it is a template that can be applied to any of the ‘multi-purpose’ projects that currently dot the Himalayan landscape, or are being planned for the future.

The incident, while shocking, is far from being an isolated event. Currently one of the biggest developing economies in the world, India’s path to growth is littered with some shockingly bad decisions when it comes to the well-being of its people, and a consistent disregard for its environmental wealth. Where is the line drawn, trying to fulfill the requirements of a hungry, growing nation and the costs that have to be borne for its growth?

Thinking back to the quote in the beginning, taken from Kipling’s short story, Namgay Doola. When all you’ve known your entire life is the valleys of the Himalayas, being suddenly forcibly removed to the deserts of Rajasthan must be like being thrown into a different world. It is to deny them their cultural identity, and their way of life, that is so closely intertwined with rhythms of their natural surroundings. It can, of course, be argued that humans migrate all the time. That is how we as a species have managed to survive, and thrive beyond the continent of our origin. The issue here is that of choice and free will, and whether it is fair to force people to give up their identity to suit the requirements of the greater good.


The greater good, a dangerous concept in itself that prizes the wants of a many over the lives of a few, reducing people to numerical equations. A cold, clinical way to reduce the well-being of a nation to something resembling a balance sheet. Development is becoming another one of the country’s ‘holy cows’, that has been so ingrained in the public’s perception as an issue of importance to the well-being of the country, that to speak out against it, or to criticize it any way, is to invite accusations of a lack of nationalist sentiment. The past two decades have seen the state chase GDP figures, as the ultimate indicators of economic well-being of the nation. Big-dam projects, in such a scenario, are only symptomatic of the problem.

It is often stated that economic growth is necessary to pull out the impoverished, numbering hundreds of millions, out of their miserable current situations. Undeniably true. But when the government grants large tracts of forest land to foreign multi-nationals for the purpose of mining, who is that really benefiting? The process of obtaining environmental clearances for similar controversial projects has repeatedly been made a mockery of. It is well known that obtaining clearances, a procedure that already possesses a shocking lack of transparency, is perceived as a roadblock to attracting foreign investment, rather than a safeguard to prevent blind exploitation and destruction of natural resources. The present, ‘growth-focused’ government has done its best to dismantle and undo whatever little work the previous one had [2], setting dangerous precedents for the governments to come. This has especially been done to signal foreign investors that this is a convenient place to invest and conduct business in. And whatever had been done previously by the Ministry (of Environment, Forests and Climate Change), had been done under immense pressure to provide hasty clearances. A diabolic political-industrial nexus exists that seeks to subvert the check sand balances that have been established to ensure that ‘development projects’ do not come at the cost of environmental damage [3]


Fortunately there are several examples of local movements that are fighting back against what seems to be becoming the norm. One example is that of the Lepcha community in North Sikkim, who are fighting to preserve their landscape against an onslaught of power projects on the river Teesta. The Lepchas fear a loss of cultural heritage, apart from the damage that will be done to rich ecological value of the region [4] While the Lepcha community has managed to group itself into some semblance of a coalition and gain visibility within the state, the self-absorbed ‘mainland’ remains ignorant of their efforts.

The development path that the country is currently set on mirrors that which has been set as a precedent by the economies of the global north, as have the parameters that define this development. In most cases, the price has been the present global environmental horror-show that we are facing. Unfettered abuse of natural resources, while the most obvious and established medium of achieving growth, is impossible to sustain in the long run.

[1] Mathur, Hari Mohan (1995). Struggling to Regain Lost Livelihoods: The Case of People displaced by Pong Dam in India. RSP Document Centre.


[3] Green tribunal’s case reveals subversion of environmental laws

[4] Dam The Lepchas