Monday, January 10, 2011

Notes from travels V - Karchham-Wangtoo

There are many reasons why one would drop everything and leave for Karchham-Wangtoo on the first day of the first year of a new decade.
One, to learn how to pronounce Karchham (it's not 'Kaar-chum', it's 'Kur-chhum') and Two, to learn that Karchham-Wangtoo is not a hyphenated proper noun like Jolie-Pitt but two different villages in the Kinnaur district of Himachal Pradesh, 60 kms short of the Tibetan - I'm sorry - Chinese border.
But if you're really lucky, then you'll have a third reason to visit Karchham Wangtoo in the dead of winter when temperatures go down to minus Holy-Fuck-I-Can't-Feel-My-Face and the wind chill factor reaches What-Do-I-Need-My-Nose-For: to see how far you can go in selling your soul to the Devil.

Couldn't You Just Eat That Sky?

Karchham-Wangtoo is the site for a spanking new 1000 MW hydel power project - one of the largest of its kind built entirely by a single private sector entity. It is situated in very tough terrain, nestled within a narrow gorge that seems just wide enough for the Sutlej to flow. Or so you would think. But more on that later.

The road from Delhi to Karchham-Wangtoo is long & arduous. It is especially tortuous if you get motion sickness (you'd better be ready for a minimum 12 hours of mountain driving, not counting the 6 hours of driving through the plains). En route, you will encounter several hairpin bends, high-altitude roads that can only accommodate one vehicle at a time, crazed Himachali drivers that insist on testing this fact in cars that hurtle at you sporting stickers like 'Silent Killer' and the more-than-occasional underage driver in the 11-13 age group.
If you have a driver, who only listens to Miss Pooja's bhangra mixes, then chances of survival become even slimmer.

The Driver Of This Truck Has Not Completed Class 5 - Because He Is Only 8
Such was the treacherous journey that my colleagues and I undertook in order to make a film on the Karchham-Wangtoo dam.
While my driver told us about Miss Pooja's illustrious past (she was a schoolteacher before opting for stardom), I deliberated on how I could make myself feel less like a scumbag for participating in a film about a dam. Big dams are 'evil', they displace local communities and often cause irreparable damage to the environment. So far, things had been fairly straightforward in my mind - Dams: bad, Me: not so much.
But then someone waved a cheque at me and here I was, researching why this dam could be classified as a megastructure. As our vehicle lurched about, keeping time with the turmoil in my stomach, I decided that the only way I could live with myself was if I allowed this trip to be a learning experience and was honest about what I saw, heard & read.

The Main Dam Site of the Karchham-Wangtoo Project on the Sutlej River

Much of my guilt was taken care of when we got out of our car and were slapped straight in the face by the biting cold wind. The weather promised to be punishing. Good.
The work began almost instantly with the group assembling in the line producer's room to get piss drunk. As the vodka warmed our insides, the evening began to play out in the predictable manner of all outdoor shoot drinking sessions.
"Yaar, when I worked with So-And-So-Big-Bollywood-Producer we downed 12 shots of vodka in a single sitting. Then Sexy-Actress got sick and puked in the loo after which her Old-Enough-To-Be-Her-Father boyfriend slapped her & carted her away."
"Yaar, Amitabh Bacchan is sleeping with *insert Young Hot Actress' name*..."
"Arey, even Abhishekh is sleeping with *insert same Young Hot Actress' name*..."
"Bloody corruption...*grumble* *grumble*..."

We retired early. It was going to be a tough week ahead.


"First things first, this is a run-of-the-river project, madam." That is what everyone told me. This meant that the project did not create massive catchment areas which drowned villages & settlements. The river was merely diverted along a gradient & made to gather enough momentum to create electricity when it hit the turbines downstream. The water was then returned to the river, almost as if nothing happened at all. 'Simple and elegant, creating virtually no disturbance in the river system'. I tried to breathe easy: could it be that not all dams are all evil, all of the time? It was beginning to look that way...specially since the fish wouldn't talk to me.

Excuse Me Sir, There's A Hole In Your Himalayas
Someone turned my attention to the imposing mountains towering over the river and said: "Can you believe there are 44 kms of tunnelling inside that mountain? Isn't that remarkable?"
And it was. It really, really was. When you looked at the scale of what human beings have been able to do: to tame the mighty Sutlej and make a mountain bend to their will, there was something awe-inspiring about it all. But it was also terrifying. The word that kept coming to me as I entered the tunnels was 'Audacity'. The audacity it takes for human beings to 'tame' nature and make it 'bend' to ones will was not easy for me to reconcile.

The Powerhouse Inside The Mountain: But For Lack Of Cellphone Signal, Perfect For A Bond Villain's Lair

Inside the tunnels it was like a Hindi Belt convention. Hardly any of the skilled & unskilled labour were from local areas. Most were from UP & Bihar. There were no reported labour strikes, no disgruntled workers' movements. There was also a lack of trade unions. I saw men working in deep, cavernous & claustrophobic environments, doing 12 hour shifts of backbreaking work in very dangerous conditions. I learned there had been more fatalities associated with this project than had been admitted to in press releases.
These were not exceptional facts. Every construction site in this country looks & feels the same. I have seen my share of building & road constructions and read enough articles & op-eds about our nation being built on the backs of the poorest of the poor; but to witness it in the production of a dam so massive in scale & economics was more than a little depressing. Before my week-long trip was over, there would be two more fatalities on the site - that I would know of.
More Tunnel, Less Talk
All this while I was also acutely aware of being the only female, not just in my all-male crew, but also on this mountain where there were 9,000-odd construction workers, engineers and managers: none of whom were (discernibly) women. I was always the odd one out. I was also menstruating.
Readers, have you ever menstruated in the Headrace Tunnel of a major power project? Well, I wouldn't recommend it. For one thing, these tunnels were only prepared for one kind of flow - that of the Sutlej. For another, these tunnels did not have anything else besides tunnel.
When discretely asked what one did when one needed to go, my producer informed me that I'd have to walk along the length of the 17 km tunnel until I reached an unlit patch and just 'go for it'. Kindly, he offered to stand guard and so I set off.
(To those who have never been inside a tunnel, I'd advise singing loudly to oneself to prevent any kind of freaking out. It also doesn't help to imagine the engineers suddenly turning a knob, drowning you instantly in a bazillion cumecs of river.)

Upon reaching an unlit portion of the tunnel, I did the needful and turned to go back. That's when I realised I had nowhere to dispose the tampon. Suddenly I was confronted with a terrible choice: Wrap the grotesque item in paper and carry it back in my handbag. Or leave it wrapped there neatly, hoping someone would clear it before the waters carried it into the billion-crore rupee turbines that could not withstand particles over 0.02 mm.
I made the choice & it wasn't pretty but here is what I plan to say in my press release: In my own small way, I helped Nature get hers back.

Tampon Tunnel: Girl Goes Vigilante

So we turned back. We had achieved our goals. Besides, our crew had not eaten non-vegetarian food in over a week. It was time.
I braced myself for the long drive & prayed that there would be no mishaps on our way back down. Our driver had benefited greatly from having done nothing but sleep for the entire duration of our trip and was now fresh as a daisy. He turned the volume of his car stereo right up. For the rest of the way, an amorous singer implored the lady with the 'nasheelee aankhein' to let him take her 'San Fransisco te Fresno' in his Mercedes Bhains.
Pitstop: Fagu

Fresh snow had fallen the night before. Everyone regressed to the age of 6 & jumped out of the car to go play.
Having never seen snow before in my life, I reconsidered my decision to vomit from motion sickness. Grinning foolishly, I jumped into the white fluff and instantly sank 2 feet. Took two people to help dig me out.

Surprisingly, Maruti 800s Do Very Well Here.

I was beginning to enjoy myself, a fact which troubled me greatly. Thankfully the road from Narkanda onwards became real shit and everyone was miserable again. The next 6-8 hours were spent in sheer agony. Naturally, upon reaching the plains, we made a beeline for the first Domino's we could find. As my city-bred insides gratefully ingested the plastic pizza, the vestigial shards of my Karchham-Wangtoo experience began to slip away. No more clay on my shoes & no more wet nose. When the wind blew, it did not try to tip me over the side of a mountain.

Now I have a cache of recorded interviews & photographs and I must spin a story. In the past, I've used words and images to further the agendas of clients who've asked me to script for them. But this one's not about weddings, holiday destinations or cooking recipes. This one's big and the truth - whatever it is - has consequences that boggle my mind.
I've never been more confused in my life. I am not looking forward to this at all.


  1. That was quite an engrossing read. I started reading it assuming it'd be a Kinnaur travelog - I'm glad it turned out to be that and more. I have been reading about several hydel projects in HP - but had no idea that one of them could be adjectivized with such superlatives as "largest" :)

    But hey - you could have made the account less gross by leaving out the vomiting and tampon parts - and concentrated instead on the scenery and apple orchards, couldn't you? :D

  2. My callousness worries me. I sympathized more with your tampon troubles than I did with the two construction workers.

    Traveling in rural India is always an interesting experience -the little details you have dwelt upon are what make this travelogue wonderfully honest and engaging.

  3. Not related, but I came across this statistic which stated that India has an alarming number (the highest in the world) of women suffering from cervical cancer simply because there are no toilets. Apparently, women are forced to go only before sunrise and after sunset.

  4. @Kiran: My next blog post will have no mention of tampons or puke. I promise.

    @Bandragirl: Still waiting to be able to drop a comment on your blog!!
    ...also, just to clarify, I don't blame the construction site for having no loo facilities for women since there are no women working or living there. It was my bad luck.
    But yeah, toilets for women are woefully in short supply across this country. It's something I've noticed wherever I've traveled.
    Thanks again for dropping by :)

  5. ROFLAUNTFLO! This is superb stuff. What a well-written travelogue! And welcome back.

    Paraphrasing Monsieur Crichton: The Earth does not give a fuck about us. The Earth will be there long after we are gone. We shouldn't worry about the Earth, we should worry about the effect of our actions on ourselves.

  6. Thank you daddysan! And yes...what troubled me the most was that when Nature decides enough is enough then there will be hell to pay in this region.
    But then on the other hand, I now have new found gratitude for every time I turn a switch and the lights come on.

  7. Great story! Every time I visit a hill station with beautiful scenery and a bunch of sparsely populated houses with electricity and winding roads, I always get confused which is most amazing - the power of nature or man's ability to manipulate that power, conquer and dwell in that place!! I am leaning towards man's ability!

  8. Fabulous read. Of course, my mind got hooked to "tampons" and wouldn't let go. I wanted to call you immediately and ask, where did you get your supply? The chemist shops here have had none for months now. And being on a documentary shoot, is hell without these. Imagine having to dispose of a sanitary napkin. :)

    OK, so having grossed out other people some more. Back to - really fab read.

  9. @Arun: Thanks for reading. Respect your opinion. After all, man's ability to realise fantastical things has allowed us basic amenities like power. But still, when you're there, you do think about how much human beings have overrun nature. It's a tough one...

    @Banno: My commiserations. I used to use good ol' Johnson & Johnson but for the last 2 years I've been asking my sister to bring me a hefty stash every time she visits from the US. I would not be able to survive shoots without them. Don't you live in Bombay? How can there be no OB's there? Worst comes to worst, send me your contact details and I will courier you a stash. No jokes.

  10. No, tampons used to be easily available, Mumbai, Pune, everywhere. Last few months there have been some supply issues from the company, so the chemists say. :(

  11. Succintly written, beautiful photographs! There is an identical tunnel near Pong dam, and when I saw it, the same thoughts crossed my mind - the audacity of human beings to tame nature..

    The description of cold was, as I have said before, so douglas adams-like. Miss pooja and the Bachchan mashup had me in splits. Too good. Enjoyed reading it!

  12. Thank you for appreciating the photos - they were taken with a cellphone camera, so I'm especially proud of them :)