Video: The human costs of the Baglihar dam

The Baglihar dam in Jammu and Kashmir bears testimony to the enormous human costs associated with hydroelectricity projects

Pul Doda, once a thriving business centre for dozens of surrounding villages in the eastern part of Jammu district, is now half submerged in the river Chenab.

Until 2008 the town in Doda district was home to more than 400 families, mostly small traders, who were relatively prosperous for the region. It is now gone.

The construction of Baglihar Hydroelectricity Project submerged the town. Most families were forcibly displaced and their lives descended into chaos.

“It was like a death-blow,” recalled 37-year-old Dheeraj Sharma, who owned a pharmacy.

“It [the dam] took away everything we had earned with our blood and sweat throughout our lives.”

Situated least 65 kilometres downstream of Pul Doda on the river Chenab, the 900 MW Baglihar dam forced more than 1,400 people to relocate after the water levels rose and submerged everything in its way including roads, houses, and shops.

The Chenab flows through five districts in Jammu and Kashmir in northern India and then into the plains of Punjab in Pakistan. It is one of the major tributaries of the Indus river, divided between Pakistan and India under the Indus Waters Treaty. While the treaty limits the storage capacity of dams on the Indian side on three of the rivers that flow into Pakistan, the displacement in the Baglihar dam was enough to drown Pul Doda.

People who had spent their whole lives in the town, seeing it develop from a village to a place full of commercial activity, were suddenly left homeless and without any source of income.

A decade after being displaced by the dam, locals are caught in a web of poverty and debt with some experiencing mental health issues as a result of losing everything.

Jebina Khanday, 35, used to live with her parents and three siblings in a five-room house in Pul Doda. Back then, she had a job at the Life Insurance Corporation of India with many plans for her future. But being displaced by the Baglihar dam changed everything for her.

Her father Ghulam Mohammad Khanday, 70, lost his shop. Her younger brother Fazal Ahmed was forced to drop out of school. Left with no money or options, the family moved further east to a distant village in Dachan Tehsil in Kishtwar district.

Braving harsh winters and lack of facilities, the family is struggling to make ends meet.

“The dam brought doom for my family,” Jebina said.

In 2008, the state government identified land and ordered the resettlement of the affected families. But 12 years on, nothing has happened.

“That promise of land and a shop still remains a promise,” she said.