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A dam big scandal

The Ganga is in danger of falling victim to over-reach, greed and corruption, writes Kumkum Dasgupta.

india Updated: Jun 17, 2010 00:16 IST
Kumkum Dasgupta

Politicians love photo-ops. So I wasn’t very surprised to see Uttarakhand’s Chief Minister Ramesh Pokhriyal take a dip in the Ganga during the Maha Kumbh and then hold a Cabinet meeting on its banks. He apparently wanted to raise awareness about Ganga pollution and demand a ‘world heritage’ tag for the national river.

But at Srinagar, a small town on the banks of the Alaknanda in Pauri Garhwal district, Uttarakhand, Pokhriyal’s dip hardly created a ripple. Many see his concern for the river as a sham as they feel Uttarakhand’s dam-building spree on the Bhagirathi, Alaknanda and Ganga will eventually ‘kill’ the nation’s lifeline. The Bhagirathi and Alaknanda meet at Devprayag to form the Ganga. According to a 2009 government list, 558 dams are under construction or being surveyed in the state.

Their fears and concerns have been corroborated by a recent Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) report. Yet to be placed in the Assembly, the report is severely critical of the bumper-to-bumper dams and state that large stretches of the river will dry up if these hydroelectric power projects (HEP) are built. The issue has become controversial. The CM’s protocol officer Ajay Bisht told me, “I can set up an interview with CM-saab if you want to discuss the Kumbh Mela. But he won’t talk about the HEPs.” The CM considers the ‘successful completion’ of this year’s Mela a feather in his cap.

But the irony is that while Pokhriyal wants positive press for his Kumbh management, he is missing (or is he?) the link that exists between the Ganga’s health and its associated religious congregations like the Kumbh. In fact, for the first time, religious leaders at the Mela this year protested against the HEPs.

According to the CAG, some projects, outrageous as it may sound, have gone to cycle manufacturers, paan masala firms and garment manufacturers who have no prior experience in building any HEPs, leave alone building them in seismic zones like the Himalayas. The state, too, a senior CAG official said, has lost out on revenue. According to its power policy, HEPs generating 100 MW and above will have to pay a royalty of Rs 5 crore a year. Any project less than that will pay Rs 5 lakh only. As a result, the CAG official added, most of the 55 power projects are below 100 MW.

Uttarakhand’s power policy of 2006 also benefits the project developers. It allows a private player to divert up to 90 per cent of the river water to power the turbines, leaving only 10 per cent to flow in the natural course of the river. The worldwide norm, the official added, is to divert a maximum of 75 per cent of water from a river to prevent it from drying and to maintain its natural course.

The fact that corners were cut to make way for certain companies became clear once again on May 20 when the government removed its power advisor and Chairman of its Jal Vidyut Nigam, Yogendra Prasad. Prasad later told PTI that he was removed because he refused to be a part of the “irregularities being done by the government” in the allotment of HEPs.

The people fear that the dams will affect their access to water and livelihood resources. Others have complained about night blasting, cracks appearing in their houses and also of the dubious environmental impact assessments (EIAs) that were done to get clearances. With the retreating Gangotri glacier and now the dams, the struggle for water, they fear, will become acute. A study done on the impact of Maneri Bhali 1 project, that has been functioning for 30 years, shows that the fields, which once grew cash crops, are now dry.

And then, there is always the probability of an earthquake. “Post Muzaffarabad-Kashmir earthquake [2006], geologists and seismologists agree that the area between Kashmir and Kathmandu will see a major earthquake (8-plus on the Richter scale) as the ‘seismic quiets’ indicate a build-up of seismic pressure,” says Sreedhar R, a geologist.

Proponents of HEPs always use the ‘power-for-development’ logic. In 2009, the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers & People conducted a study of 208 large HEPs and found that 89 per cent were operating below capacity and about half generated less than 50 per cent of the planned power output. Economist Bharat Jhunjhunwala, who has conducted

a cost-benefit analysis of dams, says, “Hydropower sometimes looks a cheaper and greener option because the social costs are not factored into the costs.”

The jury is still out on HEPs. But why is there such a rush in clearing HEPs in the bio-diverse states of India? The CAG report needs to be placed in the public domain for proper discussion. Questions need to be asked about how and why the Ministry of Environment and Forests cleared some of these projects.

Because the next time Pokhriyal takes a dip, he surely doesn’t want to be covered in muck — the riverine kind.