Sunday, October 27, 2013

‘If Digged, 'Big Dam Scams' Could Be As Big As Coalgate’

By Uday Thakur / INN Live

Environmental journalist Urmi Bhattacharjee has released a research guide on dam-building in India. The report details the whole process of building dams on rivers, including their sanction and impact on life and livelihood. In conversation with INN Live, Bhattacharjee explains the politics of dams and the risks of building big dams without proper assessments.

Edited excerpts from an exclusive interview:
How did you think of a guide on dams?

The process of dam building in India is under-researched and still in a nascent stage. Though various states have drawn up plans to build dams for development, a lot of technical as well as policy issues still remain unresolved. Dams are often being sanctioned and commissioned without due diligence being done on the effects they may have on the environment, people, livelihood and biodiversity. 

While reporting on big dams, their socio-economic impacts, rehabilitation woes of people, I saw a lot of concerns regarding the sanctioning of dams, the exact protocol that needs to be followed for a dam to get sanctioned, whether these are scientific, etc. The Northeast — like many other dam building states — is facing a perennial tussle between the pro- and anti-dam lobbies. There is no consensus between the two groups and the polarity is increasing. 

India is yet to strike a proper balance between the need for power and protecting natural resources and people. Many on-ground activists do not have sufficient access to information on how dam-building works and the roles and responsibilities of nodal bodies like the Central Water Commission and the Central Electricity Authority. 

As a journalist I have been approached by many activists with queries, but I had no access to such information myself. I felt that concise documentation was required on the whole process. Coincidentally, a seminar was being organised on e-flows by International Rivers, a US-based NGO that works on the environmental and livelihood impacts of dam projects, and Aaranyak, a environment and wildlife research and advocacy body in Guwahati. There, it was informally decided that a guide to help ground activists must be prepared and International Rivers decided to undertake this project.

What are the politics of dams in India today?

Dam-building is seen as a money minting business in India. The politics is multilayered. Take the example of Arunachal Pradesh.  In the absence of a water sharing treaty or water management protocol with China, India wanted to establish its first-user rights before China, which is also trying to dam the rivers. 

This was initially seen as strategic diplomacy, but it perhaps doesn’t have a long-term solution. In Sino-Indian relations, water has become an issue, but it seems that both India and China want to shy away. In the national and regional levels, we have seen that damming of a river in one state often has serious consequences on the neighbouring state. You have the UPA in power in the Centre and the Congress in Arunachal Pradesh and Assam, but we often find the governments at loggerheads on the big dam issue with the Center caught in the middle. 

Policies like taking money upfront by state governments even before the dam proposals get the necessary clearances clearly show that the government’s main agenda is to accumulate money. A lot has been said on the coal scam. But if we accumulate and estimate the loss to the country in various scattered big dam scams, it will be perhaps be as big as the Coalgate scam.

Is hydel power less taxing on the environment than other forms of conventional energy?

I wouldn’t exactly put it that way. Hydel power, if seen from a sustainable livelihood perspective, is way more feasible that trying to build big dams of over 600 MW in size. Small hydro and mini hydro projects are certainly less taxing on the environment. A simple run-of the river project can help generate a good amount of electricity. For instance, to sustain a less populated place like Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh, as little as 5 MW electricity is enough, but people are trying to generate a lot more power by building at least 15 mini and big dams to generate power for elsewhere. 

But, with an increasing energy need for industrial and domestic consumption, there is a demand for hydel power. Wouldn’t your ideas impede development?

I am not against growth and development. But what I feel is our country is yet to arrive at a balance between growth and natural resources. It is important that we define development the right way. If we build dams to generate a certain amount of power and fell a lot of trees, then I guess we lose more than we gain. 

We lose forest cover and biodiversity that depends on the forest and indigenous people also lose their livelihood. The biggest concern is that, until even about a year ago, the government felt no need to do a complete impact (cumulative impact) assessment on dam sites. This includes a study on the detailed impact on downstream areas, forests, biodiversity, impact on climate change, etc. But, now, the telling effect of the lack of a cumulative impact study is being seen in many places. 

Though the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) committee has said that in future they would conduct a cumulative impact assessment before erecting a new dam, they were completely blank on what needs to be done in those sites where clearance has already been given without such a study.

Why is regulation of dams and hydel power projects required?

Regulations are needed to make sure that the number of dams coming up doesn’t lead to a detrimental effect on other resources like biodiversity, wildlife, even humans. Many vital aspects of dam-building are still unclear in our country and also across the globe. For instance, there are no studies on the impact of changing climate on dams (that leads to phenomenon like the cloud burst in Uttarakhand). 

I have spoken to many researchers, including from the IITs and other premiere environment research bodies, but none of them could say how cloud burst can have an impact on dams. But how much a cloud burst can affect a dam is well documented in one of the world’s most terrible disasters of dam collapse in China — the Banqiao Dam collapse due to a cloud burst where 60 dams collapsed in the same stream and killed over a lakh people. A cloudburst led to a rainfall of more than one year in a single day. Dam spillways proved insufficient and collapsed. 

What is worse, there are no clear studies on the impact of earthquakes on dams. This is highly risky since many researchers have time and again warned of a possible collapse of dam structures in earthquake-prone zones like Northeast India. Building a dam without an assessment of these risks could have devastating consequences. Regulations are a must to assess the cumulative feasibility of a place. 

What has the practice in India been of handing out projects involving dams across rivers? Have many such dams been responsible for triggering off large and low-scale disasters?

The main problem is cloud bursts, which is believed to be a climate change induced phenomenon. No weather prediction system is sophisticated enough to predict their occurrence. Currently, projects are being cleared without a proper study on this phenomenon. States like Arunachal Pradesh have approved more than 150 mega dam projects that are in various stages of clearances. Enough has already been written on how they have harmed the environment.

What does your paper remove from the existing system?

Although dam proponents have time and again rued the delay in various clearances, citing huge losses, the government is quite fast to clear such projects. Taking time before giving clearance to such big projects is not a bad thing, if the delay is caused by research to assess the consequences. Moreover, if a flaw in the dam or any negative impact is observed later, it could be extremely expensive to correct it. So even if clearances take time, they are worth the wait. 

You also talk about decommissioning of dams. Is that a small price to pay for sustainable development? How many such dams should be decommissioned?

In the US, dams that are deemed structurally unfit are decommissioned. But in India, no nodal body has taken any step to decommission dams. A lot of activists have time and again pressed for the decommissioning of dams like the Dumbur Dam in Tripura and Mullaperiyar Dam in Kerala. Officials in the CWC and CEA have mostly maintained that decommissioning is not needed at all because of the huge cost in building a dam.

Can dams be built at a low cost then?

We clearly need more expertise on this. These issues are currently not very high on the government’s agenda as I’ve understood from my interactions with various officials.

How do we ascertain transparency in dam projects that are either private or public private partnership (PPP) ventures? 

It is very difficult to know detailed proceedings of private developers. The onus is on the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF), which should make available all proceedings on their website, including the sanctioning, appraisal and clearances. Private projects are tuned making money and state governments are lured financially towards fast-track clearances of these projects. 

As a result, vital factors like environment, people, rehabilitation, public hearings, etc, get ignored. Based on my experiences, I can say that it is almost next to impossible to talk to a private developer irrespective of whether one is an activist, journalist or researcher. 

The Supreme Court has asked for a study on the effect of dams on the Ganga in Uttarakhand. Is there any way to ascertain how much damage is/has been done by dams?

During my study I figured out that bodies like the Sandarp, Matu Ganga, Himdhara and others have done commendable work on assessing the effect of dams in dam sites. Ground activists and concerned people also sporadically assess the impact, but the government has taken no step to assess any negative impact. 

As an environmental journalist, what long-term effects have you noticed that dams have on the biodiversity? How do you connect the two?

On the biggest long-term effects is displacing forest cover, as seen in the Tipaimukh Hydroelectric Project in Manipur, where over 78 lakh trees were felled to make way for this 1,500 MW controversial project. Another is the destruction of wildlife habitats. 

The black-necked crane is a sacred bird in Arunachal Pradesh’s Tawang. From the time dam constructions have started, locals have said that this bird has stopped visiting the place. This is just to cite an example. In almost all dam sites, biodiversity would invariably suffer. 

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