Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Utt'khand: Hydro Power Displacing People, Destroying Lives

By Rakesh Agrawal (Guest Writer)

There has been an unexpected thought out rush to build hydroelectric power projects in Uttarakhand without assessing the ecological, social or economic costs of their implementation. The government is not even sure of how many projects are planned and of what capacity. Written well before the recent destructive floods hit the state, this article shows the extent and nature of the developmentalist disease which has afflicted our planners and policymakers. It will provide some background to the debates on the link between the damage to the environment and the destruction caused by the floods.
Policymakers have a “grand vision” of turning Uttarakhand, an ecologically fragile and sensitive Himalayan state, into an Urja Pradesh (energy state) and have planned 558 dams and hydroelectricity projects (HEPs) on its rivers to produce thousands of megawatts (MW) of electricity, most of which will be sold outside the state.

The ex-chief minister, Ramesh Pokhariyal Nishank of the Bharatiya Janata Party, tried to sell this dream to the people of the state, promising them employment and “development”, unmindful of the grave ecological and human disaster it would cause. With all these dams and “run-of-the-river” projects, the rivers of the state, including the Ganges, will flow inside tunnels and the present river streams will run dry. Uttarakhand, also called the “water tower of India”, will be bereft of water. It will also displace thousands of people from their homes and destroy their fields and forests. The resulting mass migration will create massive unemployment through the loss of extant livelihoods, which the few low-end and menial jobs for locals from these “development” projects will hardly recompense.

Even the new chief minister Vijay Bahuguna of the Congress is pursuing the same line and is a vocal supporter of dams and HEPs. He wants to revive all these projects under the misplaced notion that they are the pillars and symbols of development and are necessary to yield power. This reflects the mindset of policymakers, cutting across party lines, where “development” should be pursued at all cost, irrespective of its impact on the poor, deprived and have-nots. This paradigm of development is being followed all over the country and not just confined to Uttarakhand. It has resulted in the displacement of a few crore people due to mega projects of all sorts. Dams and HEPs are the biggest culprits as they have displaced about three-fourths of all project-affected people, while only a quarter of those thus displaced have been resettled.

Hydropower Development
The picture of Uttarakhand is no different. However, there is a discrepancy in the government’s own data about the status of dams and HEPs and a total lack of reliable information about people affected, displaced and resettled by these projects. It raises more questions than it provides answers.

In Uttarakhand 558 dams and HEPs have been planned that will convert 1,152 km of river length into underground canals. The Uttarakhand Jal Vidyut Nigam Limited (UJVNL), the state government’s nodal agency to construct, run and operate HEPs in the state, provides only outdated data. It claims that the total number of projects – ongoing, under construction and planned – is only 290. These include those in the small (less than 1 MW), medium (between 1 and 25 MW) and large (above 25 MW) categories. However, the chief minister’s office claims there are 557 HEPs in Uttarakhand.1

Further, discrepancy in UJVNL data can be spotted. While it mentions 104 projects2 being developed by state, central and private sectors, the separate list of all these three sectors adds up to just 953 and if we add up those being developed by different agencies – UJVNL, Uttarakhand rural electricity development agency, a central sector as well as private sector – this number jumps to 137. The matter does not just end here. When it talks about the projects under operation, it lists 43 projects, ignoring the fact that three large projects have been cancelled by the National Ganga River Basin Authority (NGRBA) in 2010. Ravi Chopra, the director of People’s Science Institute, a Dehradun-based public interest organisation, and a member of the NGRBA has also underlined the shocking state of government’s own information and has used the Right to Information (RTI) Act through which he received a list of 557 projects – existing, under-construction and planned – from the chief minister’s office.

There were 113 projects in this RTI list which were common to the UJVNL list. If we combine the remaining 177 from the UJVNL list with those listed in the RTI, the total number of HEPs – planned, under construction and existing – comes to a whopping 734! Out of them, 155 projects are listed with an installed capacity of 5MW or more. Subsequently, a public interest litigation (PIL) was filed against 56 HEPs in the Uttarakhand High Court in 2011 and the government, instead of arguing its case, cancelled the registration of all these 56 HEPs one day prior to the hearing. So now there are 678 HEPs (if we take the full figure of 734 we arrived at) and not 557 existing, under construction and planned HEPs in the state.

Here it is important to remember that a river is not just as a body of water; it is a wholesome entity of water, silt and organic matter and the HEPs, when fully operational, will reduce them to nothing more than a canal of sterile water in Uttarakhand. The clearest example of this is the river Ganga whose sediment, as a study conducted by the National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI) finds, has traces of radioactive elements and heavy metals like uranium, thorium, zinc, lead and copper that gives it its legendary self-cleansing property (NEERI 2012). Now, because of these HEPs, the Ganga sediment gets trapped and when its water is released by the sluices of the projects, it is largely bereft of this property.4

Dams and People
Even with the number of project-affected people, there is no reliable data available with the Uttarakhand government which maintains a stoic silence on this. The state government considers only those displaced or where villages lie in the vicinity of tunnels to be among the “affected” people. But many villages lie above or below the length of these tunnels and people living in these villages are also affected since their homes also develop cracks and water sources in these villages dry up. Further, the mountain sides get weakened by the blasting and give rise to landsides. This becomes a permanent threat to people living below and above these dams and HEPs.

Just a glimpse on the route through which the Ganga flows is an eye-opener. Here, an area spread over about 45 km from Maneri to Dharasu has become parched, leaving just a 100-km long stretch. But, harbingers of “development” are determined to put obstacles in this natural inflow zone of the river as the projects like Pala-Maneri, Loharinagpala, Bhaironghati-I and Bhaironghati-II have been planned precisely on this stretch that will terminate the very existence of the Ganga. This mighty river will be reduced to an underground canal flowing almost entirely inside tunnels, visible only at a few spots.

This is against the declared policy of the Government of Uttarakhand that only run-of-the-river projects will be made. Run-of-the-river projects are built alongside the natural river flow without disturbing it. This refers to mini- and micro-hydroelectricity plants like those on gharats (traditional watermills) where river water is not diverted and no tunnel and reservoir are created. However, the present run-of-the-river projects are massive and involve diverting the entire river inside sub-mountainous tunnels and drying up the original riverbed.

Now, if we only talk about the two mega projects: one in Garhwal and another in Kumaon – Tehri and Dhauliganga projects – we will come to know the destruction they have caused and benefits they would yield. These projects have been constructed with the purpose of flood control and generation of HEP.

The Tehri dam is on the Bhagirathi river, which is a tributary of the Ganga. The dam measures 855 feet in height and is believed to be the fifth tallest dam in the entire world. It was designed to produce 2,400 MW of electricity.5 The Tehri dam is located in the seismic gap of the central Himalayas, which is known to be a major geologic fault zone. The region is highly earthquake-prone and along with reservoir-induced seismicity, the danger of this dam being hit by a major earthquake is quite high.

Even if the danger of the earthquake is in the realm of probability, this HEP is producing less than 30% of its installed capacity of 2,400 MW. This is the same dam that displaced thousands of people and was instrumental in creating a huge flood in Tehri in 2012. The Dhauliganga dam and power plant has been constructed near Dharchula in the Pithoragarh district on the border triangle between India, Nepal and China of the Indian Himalayas by the National Hydroelectric Power Corporation (NHPC).6

This concrete-faced rock-filled dam has a height of 56 metres and a crown length of 270 m. The dam axis is sited at a V-type valley with very steep side slopes. The rock layer is formed of biotite gneiss and augen gneiss with streaks of mica schist that are not very strong. This mega-project displaced more than one lakh people, many of whom were relocated to urban outer fringes in cities like Dehradun, Haridwar and Rishikesh where, deprived of their natural and social networks, many sold their newly allotted lands at throwaway prices. While these oustees are now reduced to menial and daily-wage labour, those they sold their land to have become very rich as the land prices in these colonies have shot up.

Of the thousands who lost their land and were displaced, this project has provided regular employment to 162 local people and one member each of 36 affected households. There are many households in a number of villages in the Tawa Ghat area in Pithoragarh district that are even now waiting for resettlement since 2005; rehabilitation will come later.

The government that had cleared major HEPs on the upper reaches of Ganga has had to suspend work on them because of overwhelming opposition in the state, particularly after the devastation created by the 2012 monsoon. If the work on these projects restarts, it will not only reduce the river into a dry canal, it will also result in further massive displacement of people and loss of their land and livelihood, besides submerging large areas resulting in loss of forests and biodiversity.

In October 2012, because of massive landslides and floods created by the 2012 monsoon, the Ganga was overflowing the danger mark in Srinagar in Garhwal where it blocked the operation of the existing Maneri Bhali-I project and also created havoc in the Tehri project.

The example of a village nestled in an invigorating and picturesque Himalayan valley – Chaen in Chamoli district – tells us a lot about the destruction caused by an HEP. It has been totally devastated by the 400 MW Vishnuprayag Hydroelectricity Project, built by the J P Company. All 136 households have been affected; 20 houses have been totally destroyed, 25 have developed cracks and 27 households are forced to live like refugees in the railway reservation centre in Joshimath, the nearest town 12 km away, because of relentless explosions and tunnel-making by the company. Through all this, their pleas for resettlement have fallen on deaf ears.7

NGRBA members have also noted the inhuman condition created by the 600 MW Loharinag-Pala HEP in Uttarkashi district during a field tour in January 2010 where several houses in Salang hamlet of Tihar village had developed cracks due to blasting by National Thermal Power Corporation (NTPC) (Agrawal 2009). The affected households told the team that they had complained about this to the NTPC officials, but the company paid no attention (Chopra et al 2010).

Of the HEPs which are operating in the state, there are 34 projects commissioned by the state government with an estimated potential of 1,305.9 MW; there are three central government projects of 1,400 MW and eight private sector projects of 458.85 MW (ibid). In the state, especially its hill regions, rural electrification remains a low priority with only 15.5 MW supply.8

No precise data about the number of people displaced by the operational and under-construction HEPs in Uttarakhand is available, nor how much land is submerged. However, even assuming that only 2,000 villages, a bare minimum, have been affected by these projects and further assuming that only 100 persons have been affected in each village, we still reach a figure of about two lakh people or about 2% of the state’s current population. This is a very conservative estimate and the actual number will be much larger given that these HEPs destroy or dry up most traditional water-harvesting sources, a large number of houses develop cracks and mountain sides are damaged by landslides.

Current Scenario
Uttarakhand remains largely rural with 69.45% of its population living in villages and 58.39% of its workforce engaged in agriculture. But “agriculture land in the state has decreased from 7.91 lakh ha in 2009-10 to 7.41 lakh ha in 2011-12”, as revealed by Om Prakash, principal secretary (agriculture), Government of Uttarakhand. One can imagine how many more people will lose their primary livelihood if all the 558 proposed dams and HEPs are constructed. Although at 1.917%, the population growth rate is not alarming, large-scale migration of people from the hilly regions to the plains has been a constant factor and will only increase.

The total power demand in Uttarakhand is calculated at 2,400 MW but electricity production is just 1,300 MW. This is so because the installed HEPs in the state are working far below their capacity. For instance, if only the Tehri HEP was running at its full capacity, no other HEP would be needed in the state!

The demand for more and more power reverberates through the state. But the lion’s share of power consumption is from industries and urban extravaganzas like the airconditioned mega malls concentrated in the plains of Dehradun, Haridwar and Udhamsingh Nagar districts. More than 54% of power consumption was by the industries; domestic consumption and agriculture consumed only 27%.9 Less that 13% of the total electricity is consumed by the hill regions of the state.

The estimated shortfall of electricity in Uttarakhand is between 700 MW and 800 MW a day. There are more than 100 HEPs that have been constructed but are lying defunct. If these can be maintained and operated they will generate about 1,000 MW a day and the state will become power surplus. Then there will not be any need to construct any new HEPs.

Traditional fuels continue to meet about about 58.5% of the energy needs in the state. Wood is still used for cooking by more than half the total households (54.6%).10 Overall, fuel wood contributes to around 65% of the total energy requirement. Given this context of present day daily energy consumption in rural Uttarakhand, how much of people’s displacement, their loss of land and livelihood and the destruction of natural resources like land, water and forests is justified to produce power for the plains? This question needs an urgent and just answer, particularly from the supporters of HEPs.

(About the Writer: Rakesh Agrawal is a Dehradun-based researcher on natural resource management and grass-roots development.)