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Power-less lives blamed on sadhus

New Delhi, June 16: Surtama, a 37-year-old woman from the mountains of Uttarkashi, was in the capital yesterday to express anger at having to live with no electricity and demand a revival of stalled hydroelectric projects in her state.

“We walk more than 2km to a village in Himachal Pradesh to charge the mobile phone battery,” said Surtama from Pujeli, a village of about 80 households some of which have acquired mobile phones to talk with relatives in distant cities.

Surtama is among members of hill communities in Uttarakhand now campaigning for the revival of hydroelectric projects in the state that they believe have been stalled by the Union and state government under pressure from sadhus.

The Centre and Uttarakhand governments have abandoned hydro projects at Vishnugad, Peepal-Koti, Himjyoti, Palamaneri and Bhaironghati said Avdhash Kaushal, chairperson of the Rural Litigation and Entitlement Kendra (RLEK), a non-government organisation in Dehradun.

Just three of the stalled projects, he said, would have generated 1,000MW electricity, much of it reserved for the state.

“The sadhus have made this misleading claim that the hydroelectric projects would destroy the Ganga — this is utter rubbish,” Kaushal said yesterday at a media conference here, also addressed by several women from some of Uttarakhand’s 1,220 villages which still do not have electricity.

Leelavati, a 50-year-old woman from a village named Bheetri, recalled how her daughter-in-law from Himachal Pradesh went back to her parents after she discovered her husband’s home had no electricity. “She didn’t want to spend the nights in complete darkness — as we have to do,” she said.

Despite the absence of electricity, some households like that of Surtama, have acquired mobile phones to talk with children working in towns or cities. “There’s a mobile tower in Himachal Pradesh that brings connectivity, but there is no electricity to charge batteries,” said Arvind Sharma who works with the RLEK.

Kaushal said the Centre and the state government have buckled under “political and religious pressure” after spending large amounts of money on projects that would have helped accelerate the state’s economic development.

Uttarakhand spends about Rs 750 crore each year to purchase electricity and, Kaushal said, the state has spent Rs 80 crore on the Palamaneri, Rs 120 crore on the Baironghati, and Rs 1,200 crore on the Lohari Nagpala hydroelectric projects.

The RLEK has claimed that “vested interest groups” are now propagating various alternative schemes — from thermal power to solar energy — to the hydro projects. “We don’t believe solar energy is a practical option for the hill areas where it rains more than three to four months of the year,” Kaushal said. “And coal is a highly polluting fuel — such alternatives will not be able to meet the electricity demand.”

The energy consumption of Uttarakhand — a per capita power consumption of 654kWh, in contrast to Delhi’s 1,766kWh, and a global average of 2,752kWh — reflects the paucity of electricity in the state.

The RLEK has said several thousands of workers have also lost jobs after the projects were stopped. The shortage of electricity is likely to affect the industrial production in the state, the organisation has predicted.