In the small mountain village of Tribeni, in southeastern Nepal, Santoshi Rai uses a small, curved blade, known as a kudi, to harvest millet for her family. Grabbing handfuls of the long green plant, she slices from the base. It is September, the last month of the wet monsoon. The ground is still damp from an early morning downpour. Beads of sweat drip down her face. From the small terraced field that she and her husband Dhanbahadur Rai have cleared, a sweeping view of the surrounding villages comes into sight. Similar terraced fields rise to the top of the peaks like giant steps. In the valley below, the Sapta Koshi flows.
The river has sustained indigenous people for years. Like the five generations before her, Santoshi uses simple hand tools to cultivate fields of rice, potatoes, wheat and millet and raises livestock to support her family and make a few thousand rupees a year. Women still wash their laundry on rocks in mountain streams and string it across their open-air houses made of bamboo and roofs made of grass. Unless a villager is seriously ill or injured, few make it off the mountain in their lifetime. After 41 years, Santoshi can count on one hand the number of times she has come off the mountain. Life in the mountains is all she knows.
But if government officials and economic developers from India and Nepal have their way, the water and Santoshi’s way of life will stop.
With visions of endless hydropower, irrigation for agriculture, flood management and jobs, proponents of a 269-meter high dam see this mountainous region as an untapped resource. They see the river as revenue.
Locals see it differently. They see their land and culture lost, and a sacred river being bottled up.
According to Ganesh Bahadur Rai, a local elder, more than 80 villages will be submerged and thousands of indigenous people displaced if the proposed dam is completed.
“If our home and land were flooded, we would have no choice — we would have to run into the hills,” Santoshi said.
Here in the mountainous districts of Dhankuta and Udaypur, far removed from policymakers and developers, the indigenous people are trying to make a stand.
In 2004, the governments of India and Nepal reinstated a decades-old interest in tapping the Sapta Koshi for hydropower. During this time, the governments established a Joint Commission Office located in Biratnagar, Nepal to conduct thorough research known as a Detailed Progress Report (DPR) as to the feasibility of the Koshi High Dam. It was supposed to be completed within 36 months.
The report is not yet complete. In 2006, villagers from the mountains formed a citizen’s awareness group known as the Koshi Committee to protest against the DPR and the construction of the Koshi High Dam. On occasion, the DPR officials have turned to armed escorts for protection. But still the DPR remains unfinished.
Though the committee is making its case peacefully, in extreme cases, some villagers are willing to spill blood to prevent the completion of the DPR and Koshi High Dam.
“We will fight and we are ready to die,” Dhanbahadur Rai said.
He admits there are some benefits to building a high dam, like hydroelectricity and irrigation. But he thinks the disadvantages, mainly the loss of the indigenous people’s way of life, far outweigh the advantages. “Although we have [a lot] of difficulties, we are happy with our life,” he said.
Years of political instability within Nepal have left the people skeptical of their government’s competency and decades of political tension between India and Nepal have left them suspicious of any agreements signed between the two countries. To most people here, India is viewed as a bully, wrongfully influencing the political parties of Nepal.
“Hydropower will be generated, but it will be taken by India,” Dhanbahadur said. “We will need to buy electricity from them.”
Rai noted that they would be willing to relocate if their demands for compensation were met. He said that ideally they would require compensation for what it would take to acquire new land and homes, as well as their lost land and homes, and funding to send their children to school. Ironically, compensation is one topic the DPR was designed to explore and establish; yet the villagers continue to obstruct its completion.
Another reason they are resistant is the fear that their culture and spiritual connection to the river will be washed away.
Downstream from the proposed dam site sits Barah Chhetra, where in Hindu scripture Ganesh came down and bathed on the banks of the Sapta Koshi River. It is the site of one of the holiest Hindu temples, a place for pilgrimage. Opponents of the dam say development in the region will bring roads to this temple, presently only accessible by a few hours' hike, which in turn will bring tourists and a high volume of traffic to the area, thus diminishing its sacredness.
“A lot of religious activity is done here, not only by Hindus,” said local innkeeper Kiran Rishab. “And a lot of Nepali ethnic groups perform their funerals on the banks of the river.”
Locals fear that when the dam is built, the water will stop flowing and their spiritual connection with the river will be destroyed.
“We treat the Sapta Koshi pure — like a god,” he said.
Though most villagers never step foot off the mountain, all of them fiercely hold onto a traditional lifestyle that is staring down modernization.
“The history of indigenous people will be lost,” said Shankar Prasad Tamang, a Koshi Committee spokesman.
While it often seems their fight is a contradiction to their general welfare, the mountainous people along the Sapta Koshi and its tributaries will continue to fight.
“Until now we are using our power peacefully, we are protesting without violence,” Tamang said. “But if the government tries to use bullets and guns to suppress the people … the Koshi Basin people are ready to die.”