While attending a winter school in Himachal Pradesh recently, I witnessed many developments in the infrastructure of roads, in particular, where a tunnel had been cut through the hillside to shorten the earlier route, and also broaden the passage to four lanes.

As a commuter I was told such development would aggrandise the economy of the state and enhance the inhabitants’ standard of living.

However, on a field survey to understand recent developments in the socioeconomic status of some villages in Kullu, I encountered ‘under-wrapped realities and the other way around’.

On our first field visit my fellow participant Umesh Yadav, a graduate student at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, interacted with a family on the uphill.

Irrigation crisis

Like every other family here, agriculture is their economic mainstay. A respondent from the family told him they grow all the major crops adaptable to the topography of the region. They used not to bother about any other means of sustaining their livelihood. But the past year’s asymmetric agricultural growth, and its overall stagnation, had forced them to think beyond agriculture

Climate change has overwhelmingly affected crops here: there is reduced rainfall. Some crops had even failed because rainfall is the only source of irrigation in high altitude lands.

The whole agrarian economy is in crisis here. Some members of the family would go to Chandigarh or Delhi for seasonal employment. The state government isn’t supportive of farmer’s grievances. A minor exception was a tank built in Jwalapur, a nearby village, from where drinking water is being circulated to families nearby.

Under this stark crisis, for irrigating their cultivation, families are either relying upon rainfall or trying to store water from nearby flowing streams.

Road-and-tunnel developers

Meanwhile, both the central and the majority of the state governments are in full swing to usher in a certain kind of development, even at the cost of the environmental destruction, and against the wishes of concerned stakeholders at the macro level. We call this neoliberal development.

The incumbent corporate-friendly state government plans to build eight new tunnels in Himachal Pradesh.

In our field survey we saw that the government has allowed a private construction company, AFCON, to build all eight tunnels, each 16 kilometres long, which will shorten the passage from Chandigarh to Manali by a mere 80 to 60 kilometres, cutting travel time by only 2 to 3 hours.

Unsurprisingly, the state government is heedless of the ecological degradation which has an overarching impact on the whole of Himalayan society.

Speaking with workers engaged in the construction projects, we found some problems in AFCON’s progress. The workers asked not to be named for fear of losing their jobs.

One worker figured to us that 1,200 people are employed in the project overall, of whom around 700 are local inhabitants and the rest hail from Nepal, Assam or Bihar.

We were told an unskilled worker gets 390 rupees per day, semi-skilled workers get 451, and skilled workers get 551 rupees per day.

For an unskilled worker this amounts to 11,700 rupees per month, along with 7,000 more in overtime, averaging to 18,000 per month.

In order to sustain the livelihood of fellow family members, as most of them live in joint families, some local workers also do farming off season as they don’t get full-time employment.

We found that one worker had lost his life while working, and the company has provided 7 lakh rupees as compensation, besides 50,000 from the trade union amongst them.

How long will these 7.5 lakh rupees sustain the whole family? All the other members were dependent upon that one male person, because of the strict patriarchal nature of the family structure here.

Working conditions

Fellow participant Nikhil Malik, a research scholar at Ambedkar University Delhi, found from a worker that as far as health precautions are concerned, the company claims to have an ambulance on standby, but that it doesn’t usually come on time. This could have serious repercussions on the health of any labourer in case of an accident.

Ethically, when workers are doing labour for the profit of the company owners, the latter should arrange clinical checkups for them on a regular basis. But the workers told us there’s nothing like that here, there is no sensitisation about workers’ health, there are always health hazards.

In fact, some workers had experienced problems with their eyes and lungs. But they couldn’t bother about themselves because they had to work for their families.

We were told that AFCON provides the short-term mechanism of jaggery to deal with health problems. Even that is being provided in very few instances.

Workers get four vacations per month: two Sundays and two personal leaves. But actually, workers under pressure to earn work on those days as well, because if they don’t go their overtime will not be counted.

Their constant worry doesn’t let them enjoy their leisure time for a single day. Even when they go to have their meal, they have to purchase the ingredients on their own. The company has only provided them with a collective kitchen.

Residents’ horror of explosions night and day

We saw injustice being done to these workers and to local residents as well. Asked about their grievances, residents explicitly articulated the horror right from the advent of this development catastrophe.

They told us that sometimes “the company” uses 50 tonnes of explosives in the hills, which have direct repercussions in the form of cracks in the houses of families nearby. Mirrors and interior tiles regularly break from the force of smaller explosions.

Villagers, young children in particular, were undergoing mental stress and anxiety from the repeated vibrations and horrifying sounds of explosions, which happen both day and night.

The groundwater level is also rapidly going down. Villagers alleged that the tunnel development was supposed to be done over a year, but the company ruthlessly completed it in just six months.

Along the way we were told that more than one lakh trees had been cut down in just the area surrounding the tunnel, let alone the passage and route.

A victim respondent from the village told us that earlier all the villagers affected by this project protested and filed a complaint against the company.

However, the corporate-government nexus came into play and people started threatening the villagers who had complained. Many of them were detained inside the police station with the objective of harassing them for long hours.

He witnessed the police call them “anti-establishment people”.

The media, believe to be democracy’s third pillar, is not supporting their lost voices in these onerous times.

All their hopes are blurred. The government, corporate media, big businesses and all other institutions are using their power to suppress their dissent, or refusing to help them in their resistance.

This should be a matter of deep concern to all of us. Many of you may have gone to the hill states and acknowledged the ‘development’ there, but are unable to imagine the under-wrapped struggle of the local people.

Don’t the aggrieved inhabitants have the right to protect their homeland, their homes and their lives from this profit-seeking catastrophe?

Vishal Rajput studies politics and international relations at Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi. He would like to thank fellow participants of the First Nagwain School of Marxism, and members of the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (Himachal Pradesh State Unit).