Threats and Intimidation against Community Members in Chamoli, India

Project site of the Vishnugad Pipalkoti Hydroelectric Project in Uttarakhand, India, a hydropower generation scheme on the Alaknanda River financed by a US$ 648 million loan from the World Bank. © 2014, Human Rights Watch

The Vishnugad Pipalkoti Hydroelectric Project (VPHEP) in Uttarakhand, India, is a hydropower generation scheme on the Alaknanda River, one of two headstream tributaries of the Ganga River. The project is financed by a $648 million loan from the World Bank and is being developed by the Tehri Hydro Development Corporation India Ltd. (THDC), a joint venture between India’s central government and the state government of Uttar Pradesh. The project is currently under construction.

The hydroelectric project’s backers have promoted it as an important new source of electricity for India’s power-hungry economy and as an effective tool to help India reduce greenhouse emissions. A majority of the people living in the villages affected by the project has accepted the project, and some even welcomed it. However, some community members fear profound negative impacts from the project including during its construction phase. In particular, these community members have expressed concern that, amongst other adverse impacts, the project would:

· Undermine religious and cultural practices that rely on a free-flowing Alaknanda River;

· Create water shortages, diminish water quality, and impede livelihood opportunities linked to the river; and

· Limit women’s freedom of movement and safety.

Human Rights Watch spoke with some of the community members protesting the project who said they had faced several years of threats, including gender-based threats, intimidation, and acts of violence by THDC employees and contractors.

At the forefront of the protests have been a handful of families who reside at Harsari hamlet, adjacent to Haat village, who have been resisting relocation to make way for the project. Their resistance has received support from some community members in nearby villages who also have concerns about the project. More recently, as discussed below, residents in neighboring Durgapur village have been protesting the construction of a tunnel for the project and the blasting associated with it that they believe is endangering their homes.

The flash floods of June 2013 which caused massive loss of life and extensive damage to infrastructure, including to Vishnuprayag hydroelectric project, just 35 miles upstream of VPHEP, intensified concerns among these community members regarding the potential environmental impacts of the project.

Human Rights Watch wrote to THDC to seek the company’s views on the allegations that its staff and contractors were involved in threats and intimidation of community members. In its response, the company emphasized that it takes its responsibilities towards host communities very seriously, and stressed that there have been no violations of human rights in the project area. It said that the project is being implemented in accordance with all national laws and in conformity with the environmental and social safeguard policies of the World Bank. It did not answer any of the questions that Human Rights Watch had asked regarding specific allegations, but said that it was looking into the matters that Human Rights Watch had raised and would “deal with them as necessary.”

Threats and Intimidation against Community Members

In July 2012, several community members filed a complaint with the World Bank’s Inspection Panel raising social, cultural, and environmental concerns about the project’s impacts. The complaint also highlighted concerns about “women’s freedom” as a key issue. In particular, complainants argued that the presence of so many male company employees and contractors, including migrant laborers, around the communities was a real threat to the safety of local women, especially given the prevailing environment of intimidation.

When community members filed the World Bank Inspection Panel complaint, all but one of the complainants asked that the Inspection Panel keep their identities confidential for fear of reprisals. Some community members told Human Rights Watch that THDC staff had issued thinly-veiled threats to dissuade them from filing their complaint to the Inspection Panel. A community member said:

When we decided to complain to the Inspection Panel, then the THDC staff started putting pressure on us, saying, “You don’t need to go to the Inspection Panel … If you do, then if you need anything in the future such as employment, traveling through the road where our project is, or if our workers pose any problems for you, then how will you cope? You will have to come to us eventually for getting any problem solved.”

Threats continued throughout the Inspection Panel’s investigation visit in April-May 2013. THDC employees and contractors brazenly followed the Panel during their investigation. On one occasion, approximately 35–50 people who community members recognized as THDC staff and contractors confronted a community member during the Inspection Panel’s visit. According to the community member, “They threatened me that, ‘We will kill you.’”

Community members lodged a written complaint with the Panel about this incident and about THDC’s contractors’ intimidating surveillance of their visit. In that letter, community members also highlighted that they had received death threats and been pressured by the police for raising their voices in protest against the project.

The situation has not improved in the intervening years. Community members who were seen with the Inspection Panel during their visit said that threats and harassment increased after the Panel’s investigation visit. They told Human Rights Watch how people associated with THDC had been trying to identify those who had complained against them. One community member, Shyam (not his real name), said that following the Inspection Panel’s visit, “all the people who accompanied the Inspection Panel have been targeted.” Community members also described THDC employees and contractors continuing to surveil their activities following the Panel’s visit. According to Shyam:

Often, when I leave home, these contractors of THDC follow us in a THDC car. There is a logo of THDC on the car. If they ever meet us in the market, they always try to come and misbehave and threaten. It has become difficult for me to leave home by myself. So I try to take someone with me when I leave.… They have been following me since the Inspection Panel visited.”

Outspoken community members have reported new incidents of intimidation, harassment, and threats by THDC employees and contractors. Between February 25 and April 8, 2015, 40–50 community members of all ages, mostly women and girls, sat in protest in Durgapur village as THDC began constructing a tunnel that community members believe is endangering their houses. Community members allege that throughout that period of protest employees of THDC:

· Routinely verbally abused them, often using derogatory language referring to their caste and gender;

· Threatened to beat them;

· Took their photographs in an apparent attempt to create fear of further reprisals; and

· Destroyed their protest site.

According to a complaint filed with the local magistrate, at about 7:00 p.m. on March 12, 2015, company and contractor employees visited the protest site, verbally abused the protestors, and warned them that if they did not end the protest, “the consequences would be severe.”

One community member said he was afraid to criticize the project even though he feared it would have profound negative impacts on the well-being of his community. Shyam told Human Rights Watch, “I am afraid… My wife and son always caution me, ‘they might kill you and they might even kill us.’”

Community members that are critical of the project have also highlighted that in this context of intimidation, the presence of large numbers of company employees and contractors around their communities has created feelings of insecurity and fear that undermine women’s ability to go about their daily lives and work. In early March 2015, a senior company official allegedly told Sita, a local woman from Durgapur village, “You are a Dalit. You have no background. We can do anything to you. No one is going to bother about you.” That same day, the same official told all of the women sitting in protest, “You all womenfolk are prostitutes.…” Sita told Human Rights Watch, “They call us Dom (caste-specific name that is used in a derogatory manner), which is the most hurtful thing they can say to us.”

On at least a few occasions, threats and intimidation have reportedly escalated to the point of physical violence. Radha (not her real name), a widow, described waking up one night in August 2014, together with her son, to hear noises outside her home in an affected village, and then coming out to find contractors building a road next to her cattle shed, destroying the shed and fruit trees in the process. She said that when her son went outside to protest this, he was physically threatened. As Human Rights Watch interviewed Radha, she was visibly scared. She said:

That night when my son resisted, [the contractor] held my son by his neck and threatened that “If you speak too much, I will beat you up.…” Every day [company representatives] threaten us that we should leave otherwise they will beat us up.… I am scared. I live alone.… I worry about my safety.

When Radha complained to a senior THDC official he allegedly told her, “What am I supposed to do if you are not agreeing to it [building the road]?”

According to another community member, on May 14, 2013, a local worker employed by THDC hit and injured a supporter of the protestors. The community member also alleged that a THDC contractor attempted to hit him in September 2013 when he went with others to protest at the project site.

Legal Action against Protestors

Several community members critical of the project described to Human Rights Watch their fear of facing criminal charges for protesting. Across India, the filing of frivolous criminal charges has been a tactic used by companies and local officials to intimidate and punish people who protest against the development of large infrastructure or other projects.

Human Rights Watch interviewed one community member who recalled a THDC official telling him, “Either accept the dam and vacate your land or you will all go to jail. We are providing electricity to the whole country.” Another community member explained that this fear is particularly strong with regard to parents who are concerned by the possible impact of an arrest record on their sons or daughters. “People are worried that their children’s names, if ever associated with any police action, will be ruined.”

According to a Harsari resident, a THDC engineer filed a criminal complaint at Pipalkoti police station against three community members under the Indian Penal code, section 353, which deals with “assault or criminal force to deter public servant from discharge of his duty,” and carries a maximum punishment of up to 2 years imprisonment. On the community members’ petition, Nainital High Court granted a stay on arrest. Despite this, according to one of the community members, the police have gone to his home several times and threatened him, saying, “We can arrest you anytime.”

Two more criminal complaints have been filed against community members from Haat and Harsari resisting the project. In October 2014, an engineer at Hindustan Construction Company filed a complaint against four people alleging rioting, “causing hurt,” and mischief causing damage. In September 2013, a THDC official filed a criminal complaint against another community member, again for causing hurt and for “intentional insult with intent to provoke breach of the peace.”

The Response of Tehri Hydro Development Corporation India Ltd.

In May 2015, in response to a letter from Human Rights Watch, THDC emphasized that it “has been keenly sensitive to the need to work with communities in the project area” and had held innumerable consultation meetings to assess the potential impacts of the project on communities and “work out satisfactory mitigation and management plans”.

THDC specifically addressed women’s security in its response. It said:

From the very start of project preparation, we have taken very seriously the issue of the safety of women in the project area, especially with the ingress of outside labor. The contractor’s labor is housed in special camps equipped with all necessary facilities in order to reduce the need for workmen to venture into the local villages. We have established a women’s safety and facilitation center in village Haat to specifically monitor the activities of contractor’s labor force, and will also act as a first contact for any complaints in this connection. The center is managed by two residents of the village, including a woman. Special women guards have also been deployed around the major construction sites to ensure the safety of local women and both our personnel and the contractor’s labor have been instructed to let the women guards be the first interface with local women in the vicinity of the construction sites.

However, THDC did not address the complaints that Human Rights Watch has received alleging that company employees have targeted women protestors with gender-based threats.

THDC also provided information about:

· The compensation it is providing to communities, which it says exceeds norms laid down by national law, includes special provisions for vulnerable community members, with due consideration of gender, caste, and economic status, and involves assistance towards loss of fuel and fodder;

· Community welfare activities it has been implementing which include infrastructure works, education development, drinking water supply, vocational training, and other livelihood programs;

· Ongoing outreach to the community, with the help of a “reputed local NGO;”

· Measures it is implementing to mitigate people’s concerns about the possible impacts of blasting on their houses and other structures;

· Measures taken to ensure women’s safety is not compromised with the ingress of outside labor, as discussed above;

· A grievance redress committee that it has put in place, that includes representatives of affected communities and is chaired by a retired senior civil servant; and

· Employment opportunities generated by the project, directly and indirectly.

The Indian Government’s Response

Community members that have been critical of the project have tried to raise concerns about the project and complaints about harassment and intimidation by THDC with government officials. In an October 2014 letter to the Prime Minister, Chief Minister of Uttarakhand, and the Ministers for Energy, Water Resources, Environment and Culture, community members wrote that, “When we villagers oppose the dam, we are threatened with false cases [criminal charges] and fear of the police, and given death threats.…”

These threats were outlined in several complaints filed with the police between May 2013 and November 2014, alleging that employees and contractors of THDC had threatened to kill villagers and had verbally and physically assaulted community members. In a September 2013 letter to the District Magistrate, community members pleaded for him to make arrangements for the community’s safety “because we are sensing danger from the executing entity.” This plea was echoed to police more than a year later, when community members wrote, “We are in a highly vulnerable situation. Kindly protect our life and property.”

Some of those protesting the project told Human Rights Watch that it had proven impossible to get corrective action from the government, and that state institutions appeared in at least some cases to be an adversary rather than an avenue of redress. A community member explained, “When we went to file complaints with the police, they told us … the government had told them to take strict measures against anyone resisting the project.”

The World Bank and Inspection Panel’s Response

In its initial report after the 2012 visit the Panel noted its impression that:

[A]n adversarial relationship has developed between the community and Project authorities. Villagers alleged various attempts to place inordinate pressure on them to accept the compensation options offered, some of which, in their opinion, bordered on harassment.

The Panel also highlighted its concern “to learn … that critics of the Project, including some of the Requestors, may have been intimidated and/or threatened.”

In spite of this, the Panel’s investigation report did not address the community’s allegations of threats, intimidation, violence, and legal action by THDC employees and contractors for their criticism of the project. A community member said, “We told the Panel [about the threats] when they visited, but they haven’t taken any steps against it.” The community letter to the Panel that was handed to them during their visit concludes by saying, “Sir, we have not only hope but also full faith in you that you will try to raise our issues, with sincerity, across the whole world.”

The Inspection Panel told Human Rights Watch that at the conclusion of its investigation visit it raised these issues with the World Bank country director in their debriefing meeting, highlighting specific incidents and the general environment of intimidation, and the country director confirmed this.

In addition to the Inspection Panel process, community members also described trying on several occasions to raise concerns in writing or in person with visiting World Bank staff, but were unable to effectively communicate with them. In December 2014, community members described attempting to raise concerns directly with World Bank officials when they visited the area, but were not able to have conversations with them without the company being present.

Radha said that she tried to tell the World Bank representatives about the violent attack on her son and the destruction of her property when they visited in 2014:

I went to the [World Bank] officials and complained to them … but they didn’t understand the language I was speaking in.… [A THDC official] came there and … told … me, “You should be quiet. We will win the case against you.”

Shyam, speaking of the same visit, said that he told the World Bank officials about the reprisals, “They said, ‘We have noted your complaint and we will talk to THDC manager PPS Mann.’ But we never heard back.” Two community members who were present for the same exchange claim that a World Bank official asked them why they were protesting against the project since THDC’s director was a “good man.” On the other hand, one community member said that the World Bank country director had given him his telephone number and email during a previous visit to the area, so he could contact him if he had any problems.

Community members also raised concerns in a January 2015 letter to the country director. They wrote:

The revenue authorities have threatened to take punitive action against us.… Recently, THDC has for the fifth time lodged FIR against people of Hatsari Village. THDC officials have threatened to kill us. We are suffering a life of horror.… We request you to immediately suspend funding of the project and save our lives.

All community members interviewed said that they did not see the World Bank as independent of the THDC, pointing particularly to the fact that THDC employees accompany World Bank officials whenever they visit the affected area, making it impossible to approach Bank staff on confidential terms. When the World Bank country director for India, Onno Ruhl, visited the area in mid-2013, however, he made a conscious effort to ensure that he met with community members separately from THDC.

Ruhl told Human Rights Watch that he and his colleagues had raised security issues with THDC on several occasions, particularly regarding women’s security, emphasizing that the World Bank expects THDC to uphold a standard that the World Bank can defend. While it is not always easy for the company to address these issues, Ruhl said, he does believe that they are working to address them and does feel that they have been responsive to the concerns raised.

Community members who had spoken to the Inspection Panel or other Bank representatives about their fears said that neither the World Bank nor the Inspection Panel ever enquired into their security. An Inspection Panel representative called one of the community members to check on the community’s safety after the June 2013 flood disaster which had caused extensive devastation in the state, including in Chamoli district. The community member said the Inspection Panel representative did not enquire about the broader security concerns: “We said yes the disaster is here but we aren’t secure even otherwise.” The Inspection Panel representative had understood that this was a reference to the community facing relocation, rather than a security threat. The Inspection Panel told Human Rights Watch that it did not hear anything more from the complainants or their representative about threats, harassment, or intimidation, even though they were in regular contact with the complainants’ representative. The complainants’ representative did not, however, live in the villages where some of the community members have alleged threats, harassment, and intimidation.

The Inspection Panel did address the issue of generalized threats to women’s security posed by project employees in its investigation report, which had been raised in the complaint. The Panel found that the Bank had given insufficient attention to the issue of women’s security, noting that fences around labor camps cannot alone be seen as an adequate mitigation measure. It emphasized that:

[T]here should be a systematic and regular monitoring of the conditions of the labor camps, ensuring that any breaches of agreements and standards are picked up early and not allowed to become serious conflicts between the community and labor. Going forward, the Panel notes the importance of regular supervision missions that may include gender expertise.…

In its response to the Inspection Panel’s investigation report, the World Bank outlined several measures that THDC and the civil works contractor would implement aimed at securing the safety of women living in villages around the labor camps. In addition to two previously agreed measures — to house workers in fenced camps to minimize their impact on local resources and communities and prohibiting their access to community forests so as to ensure the safety of local women collecting fuel and fodder there — the Bank said that the contractor had agreed to a range of additional preventative and awareness-raising measures. Despite these commitments, women protesting the project described to Human Rights Watch in 2015 feelings of insecurity that undermined their ability to go about their day-to-day lives and access community forest lands, which they needed for fuel and fodder.

Published in Human Rights Watch report, At Your Own Risk, June 2015.