Facing universal censure after the sudden release of water from a dam resulting in the death of 24 students of an engineering college and a tour operator from Hyderabad, the Himachal Pradesh government seems to be headed for further trouble.
A government report on the incident, submitted to the high court, has pointed out that gross negligence flowed from the state-run 126 MW Larji hydropower project.
Even worse, informed sources said, was the fact that while the Larji project had been asked to reduce generation on the day of the tragedy, plant officials shut it down. As a result of this, the water that had built up in its reservoir had to be released, leading to the sudden surge in the Beas river.
The project authorities, says the report, abruptly discharged 450 cusecs into the Beas river June 8. The students, who were on a holiday trip to Manali and standing on the boulders in the river bed for a picture-postcard shoot, were caught unawares when strong rapid current carried them away.
Official sources told IANS that the high court, which directed the state to file a status report in the court by June 24 about the steps it initiated after the completion of the probe, might expand the scope of the probe as standard operating procedure for release of water from the dam is also not being adequately followed by most of the hydro projects in the state.
Himachal Pradesh, one of the country's largest hydropower producers, has more than 150 micro and mega run-of-the-river projects in private and public sectors.
An equal number of such projects are in various stages of construction. These are located mainly on the Satluj, Beas, Ravi, Yamuna and Chenab rivers and their tributaries.
There was a systemic failure in releasing water into the Beas without a warning from the Larji project, and the warning system itself was inadequate, said a government inquiry report submitted to a division bench of Chief Justice Mansoor Ahmad Mir and Justice Tarlok Singh Chauhan.
Divisional commissioner Onkar Sharma, who was probing the tragedy that led to the death of the students, informed the high court through the report that the discharge of water from the project into the river was raised to 450 cubic metres per second (cumecs) from 20 cumecs within one hour.
"There are no standard operating procedures related to release of water from the barrage. The officers involved in powerhouse operation and those handling barrage operations are not working in tandem...," the report said.
"The warning system is also inadequate. All this constitutes a systemic failure," said the probe report.
The report also picked holes in the working of the state load dispatch centre.
It said the load dispatch centre directed two state-run projects - Largi and Bhava (120 MW) - to reduce generation on the day of the tragedy, whereas the 300 MW Baspa project owned by Jaiprakash Hydro Power Ltd was allowed to run at full capacity.
"The state load dispatch centre should have looked into the issue of pro-rata basis load shedding across the state," it said.
The CPI-M has already sought the high court's intervention to investigate the Largi plant's decision to completely shut its generation.
CPI-M state secretariat member Tikender Singh Panwar, in a missive to the high court June 12, said on the day of the tragedy there was overproduction of electricity taking place (in the country) and the state was asked (by the national load dispatch centre) to reduce the production from its plants.
"The share of less production could have been borne by many state hydropower producers, including the public sector and private companies. But the state load dispatch centre, which is responsible to shed the load, asked only Larji, a public sector company, for a complete shutdown. Why?"
He said: "Simply because there have been indications of the state load dispatch centre officials, allegedly bribed by private (hydro companies). Each of the private and public sector companies could have been asked to at least shut one turbine and the desired result (less production) could have been achieved."
Official sources said earlier a major tragedy was averted when the reservoir of an upcoming private hydropower project burst on the outskirts of the Manali tourist resort on Jan 12.
The newly-built reservoir of the 4.8 MW Aleo hydropower project being constructed by the Aleo Manali Hydropower Pvt Ltd burst during a trial.
However, there was no casualty as the water of the collapsed dam entered the Beas river downstream.
After calamity stuck Uttarakhand last year, environmental activists had demanded a moratorium on all new hydropower projects located in the Satluj and Chenab river basins till a study on the cumulative impact of the projects on the fragile ecology and livelihoods is done.
Six green groups, in an open letter to chief minister Virbhadra Singh, said: "Creating tunnels of several kilometres length and carrying out 24x7 construction will continue to play a destructive role if all the 30-odd projects planned in the Satluj basin are allowed to be constructed."
The letter also pointed out that the Lahaul-Spiti district is another region of concern, where more than 20 hydropower projects have been planned in the Chenab river basin.
Thus, the state government could be heading for a double whammy.