India Interior

Many tunnels, no water

Ashutosh Sharma | Updated on December 13, 2019 Published on December 13, 2019

A view of Railway tunnels in Bakkal village of Reasi district ASHUTOSH SHARMA   -  Ashutosh Sharma

Construction of tunnels to connect what will be the world’s tallest railway bridge in Jammu and Kashmir’s Reasi district has left scores of villages without water

Shakuntla Devi, 42, has to now trek 5-6 hours through steep and rugged mountain tracks to fetch water. Her husband, Prem Nath, 48, trudges the same path to get grains ground at an electric mill — which remains functional only for a few hours during the day due to power outages. And Rajinder Singh, 38, once a proud owner of a water-powered wood and stone mill, has to hunt for menial jobs for subsistence.

Mountainous Bhomag block in Jammu and Kashmir’s Reasi district, which once had gushing brooks and pristine water bodies, has been facing one of the worst water crises in its history. Due to the construction of a railway tunnel — which aims to connect the world’s highest railway bridge being built at a height of 359 metres above the waters of the Chenab river — all fresh water sources in the surrounding villages have disappeared.

Ground water that now gushes out of the tunnel, according to local residents, is not potable for livestock or for irrigating crops as it comes mixed with concrete and chemicals sprayed inside the tunnel as part of the construction.

“When the construction work started, we were told that the bridge, which they say will be higher than the iconic Eiffel Tower in Paris, would bring prosperity to the village. But right now, it has brought us disaster. How can one live happily without water?” asks Jagjeevan Ram, 45, a resident of Sermeghan near Tunnel 5.

The Railways is currently constructing over a dozen tunnels in the district and local officials admit that people in the surrounding areas have been facing water problems. Villagers point out that when water sources in the area started drying up gradually, they were told that fresh sources would come up. But nothing of that kind has happened even after the passage of seven monsoons.

In fact, it was after residents in the area raised a hue and cry that the work executing agencies — Konkan Railway Corporation Ltd, the Northern Railway and the local administration — started supplying drinking water through tankers.

Ashok Thakur, Block chairman, Bhomag, says, “While the drinking water requirement of each hamlet is 10-12 water tankers on a daily basis, residents get only 2-3 tankers. Even that supply is not regular. But tankers can’t be an alternative to the natural sources of water.” He goes on to add, “Over 14 water mills in my block are lying defunct now. In just Kansar and Bakkal village, farmers can’t grow paddy as they have no water for irrigation.” The Railways has targeted the completion of the project by 2020. The villagers fear that once that happens they may no longer be provided even drinking water. “Many villagers, who are economically well-off, are planning to migrate to other areas,” claims Thakur.

The district administration, meanwhile, has directed the Central Ground Water Board to conduct a survey and find alternative sources of water. It has also been focusing on water conservation projects in all the water-stressed villages.

Elusive revival?

“In the district, villages near the 14 railway tunnels have been hit owing to the damage to the aquifers. But it’s not going to be a long-lasting problem,” District Development Commissioner, Indu Kanwal Chib, avers, adding that, “at the time of the completion of a tunnel, a waterproof membrane is used to seal the structure. It eventually leads to groundwater recharge and revival of the water sources. We have seen this happening in one of the affected villages.”

But several experts remain sceptical. “In case the groundwater channels have been completely cut or blocked and diverted in the reverse direction, the old water sources won’t get revived even after the installation of the waterproof membrane inside the tunnels. There is every possibility that the water may unexpectedly emerge at other places in future,” says GM Bhat, a geologist, and rector at the Bhaderwah campus of the University of Jammu.

“It’s compulsory for all developmental projects to have in place environmental impact assessment and environmental management before construction is undertaken. Had the work executing agencies followed the recommendations of the geologists or hydrologists, this crisis could have been avoided. The engineers should have factored in the underground water courses before and during the excavation work,” he asserts.

Many villagers, however, share the District Development Commissioner’s optimism. They continue to perform rituals at the local ‘Nag Devta’ (Snake God) temple, which sits near what was once the origin of a gushing stream. They believe their prayers will reach the water gods.

The writer is a freelance journalist

Published on December 13, 2019

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