On 25th March 2014, 31 women from the remote Holi village in District Chamba, Himachal Pradesh belonging to the Gaddi Scheduled Tribe were detained/arrested by the police and taken 70 kms away to the district headquarter at Chamba for protesting against the illegal felling of trees and road construction for a hydroelectricity project. This move reveals the high handed attitude of Chamba Police and the District Administration at a time when the pre-election model code of conduct is in force. It has been almost 24 hours since the detention and the Government of Himachal Pradesh, despite appeals from various concerned citizens, has refused to meet the demand of unconditional and immediate release of the women.
Why the women were protesting? Violation of the Forest Rights Act 2006
For the past four years, the people of 4 panchayats of the area have been protesting against the shift in site of the tunnel and the power house of the GMR promoted 180 MW Bajoli Holi Hydroelectricity project. The project proponent had shifted, without approval of any expert body, the location of the tunnel and the power house of the project from the uninhabited and barren right bank of the Ravi river to the left bank, which harbours the entire population of 4 Gram Panchayats, dense forests and rich agriculture. The people have been protesting against the project due to the deforestation, drying up of drinking water sources, damage to houses and agriculture and the breach of peace that the construction of the project would bring in its wake. The project involves diversion of 75 hectares of rich Himalayan forests and 4995 trees would be felled for this purpose. Despite peoples’ opposition to the project, the Ministry of Environment and Forests had accorded forest clearance to the project on the basis of a false certificate issued by the Deputy Commissioner stating that there were no forest rights to be settled on the forest land to be diverted for the project, whereas under the Forest Rights Act, only the local Gram Sabhas are authorised to issue such certificates. Last year, a petition filed by some local people was dismissed by the High Court, which failed to see reason in the villagers’ pleas.
Filing of non-bailable offenses to intimidate the protesters
The women of the Holi Gram Panchayat, where the power house and the surge shaft of the project are proposed to be constructed, have been the most active and vocal during the protests against the project. Since the past one and a half year, they have been continuing on a dharna at the power house site and have prevented the felling of trees till now, under the watch of about 50 policemen. However, on the 24th of March, two additional busloads of police arrived at the construction site. Soon they cordoned off the protesting women and restricted their movement. During the evening, the police used force as the women tried to break their cordon to return home. In the commotion that followed, a police woman fell down. Infuriated, the Police made the 31 women, 5 of them having very young children, board their buses to take them to Chamba. Later, the FIR lodged by the Police at the Bharmour Police Station booked the women under non-bailable Sections 153A and 332, among 8 other sections. Charging the peacefully protesting women with these sections is a clear attempt by the District Administration to bulldoze democratic protest in order to serve the interests of a private company.
Though the women of have been granted bail by the Magistrate at Chamba today, the real issue of harassment by the police on the basis of concocted charges and the non-implementation of FRA still remains. We appeal to all sentient individuals and NGOs to lend solidarity to this movement by endorsing, via e-mail, the letter pasted below that would be submitted to the Chief Secretary of the State with as many signatures as we can get by tomorrow evening. We appeal to you to send your endorsement to email@example.com by the evening of 31st March 2014.
Mangni Ram, Holi Ghati Bachao Sangharsh Samiti, Chamba. Tel: 9418337391
Rahul Saxena, Himdhara Environment Research and Action Collective, Himachal Pradesh. Tel: 09816025246/09459530190
To sign the petition click here