Voters of the remote but picturesque Lahaul and Spiti valleys of Himachal Pradesh want justice for the environment. They say upcoming projects in the state, mainly in the hydropower sector, are not only threatening to displace them but will also affect the ecology.
People from the region are asking political parties, mainly the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), to come out with a policy to check plundering around their tiny hamlets spread over the Himalayan peaks in Lahaul-Spiti district, part of the Mandi parliamentary constituency.
Subodh Kumar, president of the Shams Sangharsh Samiti based in Tabo, known for a more than 1,000-year-old cave Buddhist monastery, said: "It's high time for the political parties to come forth with a policy to preserve this fragile and eco-sensitive zone".
He said successive state governments had allotted numerous hydropower projects without assessing the carrying capacity. "Before allocating any new project in this Himalayan region that falls in seismic zone-IV, the government should first undertake carrying capacity and cumulative impact assessment of the projects", he said.
The state government last month informed the assembly that 37 hydropower projects, with a combined generation capacity of 2,292 MW, were allotted in Lahaul-Spiti district.
Corporate giant Larsen and Toubro (L&T) has been allotted a 420-MW hydropower project in Reoli Dugli, the biggest in the district, while the Seli Hydroelectric Power Company Ltd is executing a 400-MW project over the Chenab river near Shulling village.
Vishnu Bodh, a farmer in Kaza in Spiti valley, said there was abnormal rise in temperature due to massive construction activity. "We have even observed an increase in precipitation in this cold desert, which indicates that something has gone wrong with nature".
He said if the political parties remain unconcerned about environmental degradation in the hills, then "they would opt for NOTA (None of the Above) option" in the polls.
The Spiti valley is the only cold desert in India other than Leh in Jammu and Kashmir.
In a missive to National Commission of Scheduled Tribes (NCST) vice president Ravi Thakur last month, the Shams Sangharsh Samiti said: "Very sadly, the elected governments at the centre and the state have proposed to construct a series of dams across the Spiti river in Sham valley, which is bound to be a recipe for disaster".
The letter, also addressed to the Prime Minister's Office and the ministry of environment and forests, said last year's calamity in Uttarakhand was predicted by experts mainly due to unplanned dam construction that upset the ecological cycle and hill slope stability.
In 2012, residents of Lahaul Valley, some 122 km north of the picturesque Manali tourist resort, knocked on the doors of the union environment and forests ministry protesting against the upcoming hydropower projects on the Chenab river basin.
They said the projects not only threaten to displace them but will also affect the local ecology.
"The Chenab, one of the five major river basins in Himachal, remains the least exploited basin for hydro electricity generation. The government is hellbent on killing the only living river (in the state)", the letter said.
The Chenab basin is characterised by difficult terrain and fragile and loose mountains.
"In such an area, construction of reservoirs and tunnels will have serious implications. Any rise in temperature and rainfall can bring havoc in the form of landslides and can cause disasters similar to the kind in Leh in August 2010", it said.
Environmentalist RS Negi said the hydroelectric projects would severely affect local natural water sources in Lahaul like in another remote district of Kinnaur.
NCST vice president and local legislator Thakur told IANS: "I have already apprised the union Minister of environment and forests and the union minister of tribal affairs about the sentiments of the locals against the upcoming projects".
According to Himachal Pradesh's micro-hydel policy, the consent of the affected gram sabhas (local bodies) is necessary before constructing any project.
"I have asked the state government to take the local elected representative also into confidence before allocating any project and disbursing local area development fund in project-affected areas", Thakur added.
Polling for the four Lok Sabha seats in the state - Shimla (reserved), Kangra, Mandi and Hamirpur - is scheduled for May 7.