Activists question govt's move to push on with Uttarakhand hydel projects
The environment ministry said in a statement that it has come up with a common policy for the seven under-construction hydropower projects in the higher reaches of Uttarakhand, a move that gains significance in the wake of the February 7 glacial lake overflow flood in the Rishi Ganga valley.
The policy, which is to be presented in the Supreme Court in July, has been drafted by the environment, power and Jal Shakti ministries.
One of the seven projects is National Thermal Power Corporations’ 520 MW Tapovan Vishnugad project that has been completely destroyed following the flood on February 7 and which will have to be rebuilt. As of Tuesday, the bodies of 17 workers have been recovered and 123 are missing at the Tapovan Vishnugad site.
The list includes the 444 MW Vishnugad Pipalkoti, a few kilometres downstream of Tapovan; the 99 MW Singoli Bhatwari; and the 76MW Phata Byung projects.
The Tapovan Vishnugad project is in a so-called paraglacial zone (above 2,000 metres in Uttarakhand), while the Vishnugad Pipalkoti, Singoli Bhatwari and Phata Byung projects are located in areas bordering paraglacial zones. These are landscapes that are extremely vulnerable to changes in geology related to glacial retreat. All also partially bore the brunt of the 2013 flood or floods that came before.
The apex court, in its order dated January 24, 2015, in the Alaknanda Hydro Power Co. Ltd Versus Anuj Joshi & Ors, sought a common policy framework from the environment, power and Jal Shakti ministries for implementation of projects in the upper reaches of the Ganga (Alaknanda and Bhagirathi Basin).
“A common policy framework has been arrived at with consensus on the implementation of the following seven under-construction projects,” a statement from the environment ministry said.
Hydropower projects impact ecological flow in the Ganga and they can amplify disasters from extreme weather events as was seen in the February 7 glacial flood. Ecological flow is the minimum flow needed in a river to sustain life. Dams and hydropower projects create barriers to this flow.
Experts hope that the February 7 flood will be the last such reminder of the risks associated with hydropower projects in these regions.
The impact of the February 7 disaster would have been manifold had the flash floods impacted Vishnugad Pipalkoti, which is under-construction a few kilometres downstream of the Tapovan Vishnugad project. Further downstream of Pipalkoti is the Srinagar hydroelectric project of 330 MW, which is already generating electricity but is vulnerable to upstream floods.
In 2013, the apex court ruled that no new hydroelectric power projects should be set up in the state of Uttarakhand. In all, 69 projects were envisaged in the region, and 24 were granted environmental clearance. These clearances were also stayed by the SC. The court sought a detailed and scientific assessment of the cumulative impact of hydropower plants in the state.
Following the SC order, a committee headed by Ravi Chopra, director of the People’s Science Institute, submitted a detailed report which warned that a glacial retreat in the state, coupled with structures built for hydroelectricity generation and dams, could lead to large-scale disasters downstream.
“We (the committee) had recommended that 23 of the 24 hydropower projects should be cancelled. My opinion is that those under-construction should also be cancelled. Tapovan Vishnugad is already destroyed and will take years to be commissioned... Vishnugad Pipalkoti is again very close to the para-glacial zone and extremely vulnerable. Why would the government want to commission these?” said Chopra.
The 2013 court order came in the wake of the Kedarnath flash floods.
“The under-construction and existing dams were the reasons for the escalated damage and impact of the 2013 disaster. The same phenomenon was seen in Asi-Ganga flash flood of 2012 and also in the recent Uttarakhand tragedy in Rishi and Dhauli Ganga. These dams must be cancelled with immediate effect and the existing dams too must be systematically decommissioned in phases...” said Mallika Bhanot, an activist from Ganga Ahvaan.
Following submission of the committee’s report, the top court ordered a stay on 24 hydropower projects.
The February 7 disaster has also raised concerns about disaster preparedness. For example, early warnings weren’t triggered both at the 13.2 MW Rishi Ganga project and the Tapovan Vishnugad project even though systems were in place according to officials at the disaster site.
“We had a complete system of emergency measures. But water came with such volume and speed that reaction time was nil,” said a senior NTPC official who asked not to be named.
“The abnormality this time was that the water level was even higher than the place where people are supposed to stand after climbing rescue ladders. Our project was 76 per cent complete and we never imagined a disaster of this scale. But NTPC has no thoughts of abandoning this project,” he added. The damage to Tapovan Vishnugad is to the extent of around ₹1,500 crore. Locals here also have polarised views on the impact of hydropower projects.
“Not a single person from this village has benefitted from the hydropower projects. They haven’t given us any jobs. They have only pushed us towards disaster,” said Bharat Singh, a resident of Raini village, known for Goura Devi, a Chipko movement icon and Mahila Mangal Dal leader.
But Bhimsingh Rawat, a cab driver in Joshimath who also does farming during lean tourist seasons, said such projects have helped. “Before hydropower projects came, people across this area were poverty-stricken. Let’s not be impractical. Hydropower has brought money to this state. Can’t they function with better warning systems?” he said.
On Tuesday, at the Tapovan Vishnugad site, rescue workers were searching for bodies, and medical teams were collecting DNA samples from relatives to match body parts retrieved.
“For the past eight days, we have been waiting here from morning to evening in the hope that my brother and four workers installing a machine in the NTPC tunnel are found. I can’t imagine the horror of a disaster like this burying them in a tunnel. How can NTPC have no early warning? Who will answer these questions?” asked Mukesh Dhiman from Saharanpur.