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Hydropower versus Mother Nature

Environment versus development debate acquires a deeper meaning vis-à-vis hydropower projects

Policy Pulse
Publish Date: Jun 22 2016 7:13PM | Updated Date: Jun 23 2016 12:08PM

Hydropower versus Mother Nature

Two recent decisions of the National Green Tribunal (NGT) has once more brought to the fore the debate on hydro-electric projects (HEPs) in the Himalayas. In the first, the NGT suspended the environmental clearance given to a project in Tawang district of Arunachal Pradesh while in the second, the green tribunal reiterated the power of gram sabha (village council) of a village in Himachal Pradesh in deciding whether or not the villagers want a hydro-electric project in their neighbourhood.


While the NGT decisions did bring cheers to environmentalists, it also underscored the fact as to how the Government machinery almost always tries to subvert the system for the benefit of those with vested interests: corporates, politicians and bureaucrats. 


In Tawang, the Green Tribunal suspended the environmental clearance given to the proposed 780 MW Naymjang Chhu HEP, barrage for which was to be located right next to the wintering spot of the endangered black-necked cranes. NGT came down heavily as the application for environmental clearance did not even mention the adverse impact of the proposed barrage on the black necked cranes’ winter habitat. Tawang was again in news soon after. Two youth were killed allegedly in police firing during a protest march organised in support of a monk who was leading the movement against Tawang’s hydropower projects.


In Himachal Pradesh’s Lippa village in Kinnaur district, the NGT recognized the rights of the village under the Forest Rights Act (FRA). The small village of 1000-odd population fought for seven years after which the NGT directed the government to ensure that prior to the forest clearance for 130 MW Kashang integrated HEP, it should first obtain clearance of the gram sabha as it becomes a question of villagers’ livelihood and at times the very existence. 


The very existence of the river as an ecological entity is under threat. “For instance, in Himachal Pradesh, there are a number of cascade dams/barrages proposed on the main river and its tributaries. As a result, the river flows through the tunnels or is dammed for almost 90% of its stretch. It is no river if it does not flow continuously,” says Prakash Bhandari of Himachal Pradesh based Himdhara, an Environmental Research and Action Collective.


After the then UPA Government announced the Policy on Hydro Power Development, 2008 in March 2008, states across the Himalayas witnessed a mad rush to sign MoUs – apart from those run by State agencies – with private players for big, small and micro HEPs. For instance, Himachal Pradesh alone had 300 plus projects over the years while the number in Arunachal Pradesh ran into thousands. Some took off, many met with hurdles of all kinds. The policy was introduced with an aim to encourage hydropower projects to reduce India’s dependence on thermal power. It offered increased compensation to those displaced by the projects and also allowed the private proponent to sell up to 40 percent of power generated “to anybody at any price.” 


Result: The famous Dam Rush as it was called. For instance, by 2009, Arunachal Pradesh alone had signed 153 MoUs to generate over 40,000 MW of electricity. In 2015, the State Chief Minister announced it had signed pacts with proponents to commission 160 projects of 45,000 MW capacity.


The numbers speak 


Things have not gone as per plan. There are scores of pending HEPs for one reason or the other. According to the data from Central Electricity Authority (CEA), as of March 31, 2016, the all India installed capacity (in MW) of power stations was: 

2,10,675.04 Thermal  (1,85,172.88 Coal, 24,508.63 Gas & 993.53 Diesel) 

5,780.00 Nuclear

42,783.42 Hydropower

38,821.51 Renewable energy

2,98,059.97 Total  


It clearly shows hydropower (42,783.42 MW) formed 14.35 % of the total power installed (2,98,059.97 MW). There was a time about two years ago when 50-odd large HEPs were under construction in the Himalayas alone with a cumulative capacity of about 15,000 MW. The CEA had then said that about 35 of these would be completed and commissioned during the 12th Five Year Plan period and rest (with capacity 5,000-off MW) to go beyond it. 


However, circa 2016, as against the target of about 10,000 MW during the 12th Plan period, only about 3,811 MW target has been met. 


The entire Himalayas is a seismic zone and increasing number of hydropower projects can be catastrophic to say the least. In Himachal Pradesh that has the largest number of projects under completion or recently commissioned HEPs, the serious irreversible impacts of the haphazard construction are already visible. Breached tunnels leading to villages being washed off and flash floods downstream, landslides in the fragile eco-sensitive zone and changes in the local ecology as and when water is impounded are some of the major problems. Moreover, the projects are turning less and less viable as rising global temperature is causing lot of climatic changes thus resulting in lesser but erratic precipitation and equally unpredictable and less snow fall. This in turn is reducing the glaciers’ strength and leading to lesser ecological flows, a foremost cause for not meeting the targeted capacity generation for HEPs. 


Change of party, no change in stance


Two months ago, during a media award function, Jairam Ramesh, who was the earlier Minister for Environment, Forests and Climate Change, said when he was trying to halt construction of dams on the holy Ganga, his staunchest supporter came not from his party but from the Opposition – Uma Bharti. “And now when she has become a minister, she has changed. She now wants to build dams,” he told a bemused gathering. The reason reportedly Bharti told Jairam was: There are certain compulsions when one is in the Government. “Now, I am in the Government.” 


But it is not just Uma Bharti, the individual. Even her party – the BJP – has changed stance. The BJP, when it was in Opposition, had come out with a white paper on Arunachal Pradesh’s HEPs and alleged corruption at the highest level. It had actually become the saffron party’s rallying point ahead of the elections in Arunachal Pradesh. But during the two years since 2014, the Modi Government has not taken action against a single project proponent or the politician alleged to have been involved. 


“Neither Prakash Javadekar (Minister for Environment, Forests and Climate Change) nor Uma Bharti (Minister for Water Resources) seem to be serious about the Himalayas and the rivers,” says Anil Joshi of Dehradun-based Himalayan Environmental Studies and Conservation Organisation (the HESCO). 


First define what you mean by development, Joshi asserts. That is something which leaves much to be desired.


The Government is, in fact, pushing for dams as storage too. A case in point is the 40 MW Renuka HEP and another called 130 MW Lakhwar Vyasi project. Last week, Bharti announced during a surface cleaning campaign for Yamuna that Delhi needs Lakhvar Vyasi’s storage and that she will push the project herself. The NGT had already refused to revoke the environmental clearance given to the 40 MW Renuka hydro-power project, again, meant more as a storage scheme for storing monsoon precipitation to be supplied to Delhi in lean months, than provide supply to the people on whose land it is built.    


Bharti, least of all her Ministry or the Government, never made any options assessment. Delhi’s water footprint is unusually high compared to other parts of the country and the national capital city robs its neighbour of their share of water. Delhi really does not need any outside water and should ideally learn to conserve its natural monsoon bounties, which experts have already shown, is sufficient for itself. 


Questioning the hydropower greed 


It is just too obvious that the babudom in connivance with the politicians is hell bent on constructing Himalayan projects. De-centralised smaller projects that will not submerge whatever little fertile land is available in the hills, a project that will not uproot people living there for centuries are clear no-no.  


Going by the track record of such projects – right from the Bhakra Nangal project – there is not a single example across India, especially in the Himalayas, where the project affected people (PAP) are happily and satisfactorily rehabilitated and resettled. If we look at the governance aspect – the hydropower sector has failed miserably and the problems faced by stakeholders, especially the vulnerable section, continue to be the same year after year. Rehabilitation and resettlement continue to be the biggest problem. 


But it is not just the question of rehab and resettlement. Especially in the Himalayas, the terrain is a major hindrance for timely completion of the projects. Besides the lack of roads and missing power lines, the increasingly aware communities and alert activists drawing attention of the NGT towards lackadaisical attitude vis-à-vis environmental concerns are also naturally leading to delays and cost escalation.


For instance, HEPs require a lot of submergence of forest land in the hills. Environmental Impact Assessment studying ecology, seismicity, catchment areas, flora and fauna likely to be disturbed etc. and forest clearance are mandatory. But in almost entirely hilly areas such as Himachal Pradesh or Arunachal Pradesh, there is hardly any land that the Government owns that can be given for compensation. So Rehabilitation and Resettlement exercise becomes a big and time consuming headache for the governments.  


Despite all this, the Government seems to be pushing hydropower projects with much gusto. Tawang, entirely a hill district, has very limited land for agriculture and grazing. The proposed tunnel locations run right below the fertile stretches and most populated villages. Lama Lobsang Gyatso of Tawang’s Save Mon Region Federation (SMRF), an organization of monks that is running a movement against the proposed HEPs in Tawang district, informs the local Monpa community has given clearance for two projects - New Melling (90 MW) and Mago Chhu (95 MW) where very little grazing land and no agriculture land would be affected. “Instead of running these smoothly, the Government is hell bent on pushing another project that will affect 75 villages,” Gyatso says.     


Rising solar energy


India has, as part of its pledge to reduce polluting gases made at the United Nations Climate Change Summit, set an ambitious 100 GW of solar power target by 2022. Central Government, various State governments are increasingly taking steps to meet the solar targets, possibly before time.


The time taken to commission a solar power plant and a HEP says it all. It takes about 10 years for developing a large size hydropower project from planning to commission-ing. The construction period of large projects can easily go beyond five years even if there are no local protests. Small, decentralized solar energy plants take much less time for setting up and are any day a better option.       


So the question is: If de-centralised solar plants can be installed in much lesser time and almost at rates that are going down on a regular basis, why push for HEPs that destroy forests and disturb the fragile Himalayas?


Need for strengthening the monitoring of compliance


On May 11, talking at an event organised by a Marathi channel to commemorate two years of Modi Government, Prakash Javadekar, the Minister for Environment, Forest and Climate Change, narrated an anecdote. Some industrialist, who was a project proponent met Javadekar and started cribbing about the delay in project clearance. “I tried telling him that there are certain conditions that need to be fulfilled and only then any project is given clearance. He immediately said, ‘put any condition but accord clearance’.” 


“Any condition?” the minister asked. “Yes, any condition,” the proponent said.


The only reason he was willing, Javadekar conceded, was he was sure there was no monitoring for compliance of those conditions.  


“This”, said Javadekar, “we plan to change. With the help of technology, we are putting in place a system that will enable us to know step by step status of any project.” 


The missing system for monitoring is one of the reasons that forest or environmental clearances granted to several projects are routinely challenged in the NGT. But even before the monitoring stage, granting an approval is a time consuming process if carried out with due diligence, which is clearly not being done. So every now and then, there are cases in the NGT challenging either the environmental impact assessment, the social impact assessment or the cumulative impact assessment. Public consultation has been reduced to farcical meetings and these are more often than not being challenged.


Incidentally, Javadekar, at the same event, reiterated his earlier announcement of bringing down the time for granting approval to infrastructure projects to 100 days for ease of business and avoiding delay to keep costs in check.  


“As it is, most clearances are open to legal challenges. If the Ministry is lenient while clearing the projects faster, there would be increased litigation,” says Himanshu Thakkar of South Asia Network for Dams, River and People (SANDRP). 


Thakkar warns: “We have already witnessed Kashmir floods in 2014 and before that the Uttarakhand tragedy in 2013. It we have not yet learnt anything, we are inviting disaster.” 


Joshi has a suggestion: Knowing what we have saved/grown and what we have lost will at least prepare us better for any cataclysmic situation. “Just as we calculate GDP, every year we also need to calculate gross environmental product (GEP).” 


Nivedita Khandekar is a Delhi based independent journalist. She writes on environmental and developmental issues. She can be reached at or follow her on twitter @nivedita_Him