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Hydropower in Uttarakhand: Is 'Development' the Real Objective?

A perusal of environment impact assessments for hydel projects in Uttarakhand brings out various deficiencies in the reports, and the unstudied manner in which such projects have been embarked upon. That many more of such projects have been proposed points to the muddled direction adopted for energy supply, reminding us of the hydropower story in the United States.

COMMENTARYEconomic & Political Weekly EPW october 11, 200819Hydropower in Uttarakhand: Is ‘Development’ the Real Objective?Dunu RoyA perusal of environment impact assessments for hydel projects in Uttarakhand brings out various deficiencies in the reports, and the unstudied manner in which such projects have been embarked upon. That many more of such projects have been proposed points to the muddled direction adopted for energy supply, reminding us of the hydropower story in the United States.Almost 200 hydel projects are being proposed in Uttarakhand, all on the Ganga and its tributaries. These projects are being called “run of the river” (ROR) schemes. But the rivers are actually being diverted into tunnels from weirs and dams and one tunnel follows another in a sequential cascade. Hence, the water of entire valleys will no longer flow through the rivers, but through tun-nels, and will only be seen intermittently when it appears for power generation.The realROR scheme is one in which the impeller is driven by the flow of the natu-ral stream. There are only 26 such schemes proposed in the state. The remaining can-not be calledROR and they shall generate about 18,000MW of electricity. Currently the state generates about 3,000MW (with another 2,000MW available from the centre) for a total population that is about two-thirds that of Delhi, which receives almost the same amount of power. So it is not the shortage of power that is the main concern for Uttarakhand – 90 per cent of whose energy requirement is met from traditional fuels.In 2007, the governments of Uttara-khand and Himachal Pradesh had com-missioned Hydro Tasmania to review the hydroelectric projects in both states. This New Zealand firm has no experience of Himalayan ecology, yet their specialists assessed that the three challenges facing the projects were geological (earthquakes, etc), hydrological (flow, flood, etc), and very large silt loads – that forces even big “ROR” projects like Nathpa Jhakri (1,000MW) in Himachal to shutdown during the rainy season. Technical “experts” have, of course, dis-missed these concerns. But if even 1 per cent of the projected Rs 50,000 crore investment is earmarked for technical advice, then Rs 500 crore is enough to produce many “expert” supporters. At stake also is the $ 300 million “facility” provid-ed by the Asian Development Bank(ADB). According to Hydro Tasmania, most of the private firms which have bid for the projects are not only unfamiliar with Uttarakhand but have no experience with hydroelectric projects. Impact AssessmentData for the 200 projects is not available in the public domain. But Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) reports for six hydel projects of Bhilangana, Tapoban-Vishnugad, Vishnugad-Pipalkoti, Loharinag-Pala, Pala-Maneri, and Kotli-Behl (three sub-projects) have been acquired and ex-amined by independent analysts. Of these three are storage schemes. These EIAs have been prepared by firms like Acres International Corporation (Amherst, NY), Water and Power Consultancy Services (WAPCOS), RITES, for firms like Swati Power, Tehri Hydro Development Corpo-ration, Uttaranchal Jal Vidyut Nigam, National Thermal Power Corporation, and National Hydro Power Corporation. What do these six EIAs have in com-mon? Firstly, all of them have clearly been prepared for obtaining the requisite envi-ronmental clearance. But in half the cases, the project as implemented is not the same as was designed for environmental assess-ment. Capacity has doubled, with corre-sponding increases in costs, discharges, siphon and tunnel lengths, weir heights, number of turbines, lengths of desiltation chambers, but without any new EIAs. The basis for establishing the structure, capacity, and technology of the dam, spillway, and drainage are not mentioned in mostEIAs.All the dam sites fall within Seismic Zone IV bordering ZoneV, or in Zone V near central thrusts, where even hard quartzites and granite gneisses are found to be shattered, jointed, and sheared. The tunnels (two, 13 km long) pass directly through seismically disturbed and geo-logically active zones comprising quartzite with biotite schist, interbedded and inter-banded with grey slates and dolomite/limestones. Generally, other sites or a “no project” option have not been considered. There is no mention of reservoir-induced seismicity or documentation of existing or potential seismic or geological damage.Dunu Roy ( is known for his outstanding work in rural development and in spreading environmental awareness.
COMMENTARYEconomic & Political Weekly EPW october 11, 200821and submergence areas. There is no assessment of the impact on health and environmental diseases. The likely losses of fuelwood, pasture, and other common resources have not been estimated. In most of the EIAs, the quarry locations are not specified, nor is there any account-ing of release of oils, greases, PCBs, and heavy metals, and possible impacts. No measures for reservoir management or catchment area treatment or restoration of quarries have been specified. There are no disaster management plans and the resultant cumulative effects of river water diversion for various hydroelectric projects have not been assessed for the river valley as well as for downstream projects, al-though structures have existed now for several decades on both the Yamuna and Ganga to begin assessing these impacts.Sops to PromotersOn the other hand, liberal tax holidays have been offered to the promoters, along with protection of dividends and equity and full repatriation of profits and liberal power purchase agreements. The principal promoters stand to make sub-stantial profits with comparably low investments. Cheap sources of energy have been promised for local consumption (without specifying how many villages are connected to the grid), but there is no cost benefit analysis. Even the direct economic benefitsto the local people in terms of employment and other facilities have not been computed.The US StoryIt should be instructive to examine the record of the United States in this regard because much of the Indian “develop-ment” agenda is based on what the US has done. “Cadillac Desert”, authored by Marc Reisner in 1986, effectively docu-ments the competition in dam building between the Core of Engineers (1794), and the Bureau of Reclamation (1902), who have built over 2,50,000 dams in the US alone, of which 50,000 are “major” works, and 2,000 are really big dams. As the book vividly illustrates, most ofthesecameup because of the nexus between politicians, bureaucrats, and constructioncompanies, ignoring all economic and environmental considerations.The first imperative was for irrigation (for “reclamation” of arid lands). For instance, by 1918, the irrigated area in the San Fernando valley had increased from 3,000 to 75,000 acres. But by 1927, the bu-reau realised that one-third of reclama-tion farmers had sold out because water bills were too high and speculators had taken over the land. Also, in 1928 the StFrancis Dam collapsed and Los Angeles had to pay $ 15 million in damages. It was at this time that hydroelectricity revenues were used to subsidise irrigation, although studies revealed that the bureau was really working on behalf of the wealthy and powerful.Franklin Roosevelt was elected president and announced the “new deal” in 1933 to authorise multiple construction works at one go, many of them river basin projects. The bureau expanded almost overnight from 3,000 to 20,000 employees. And by the 1940s the bureau had conceived of “river basin accounting” – that is, pooling the revenues from all projects in a basin into a common fund, including irrigation, power, navigation, recreation, etc, to enable one to subsidise the other. How-ever, a similar approach was not adopted with regard to environmental and social impacts. Between 1932 and 1962 the bureau built 228 such river basin projects.By then, citizens’ protests had begun mounting over environmental issues. In 1952 the Sierra Club appointed its first paid chief executive officer and by early 1960s data showed that the Colorado was carrying an incredible 6300 ppm of saltsasa result of overexploitation of its waters – a fact that led to extensive political negotiations with Mexico. In 1965 a Sierra Club report indicated that the bureau was capturing revenue from older large dams to pay for more expensive new ones, and it launched a massive public advertising campaign against the Grand Canyon dam in particular and large dams in general. Many communities were sending petitions against the degradation of the rivers.Consequently, in 1966 Congress passed the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act and in 1969 the National Environmental Policy Act was enacted requiring all projects to prepare EIAs, when Texas voters rejected an appro-priation of $ 3.5 billion for the Texas Water Plan. In the early 1970s farmers voted against a diversion scheme, analysts be-gan writing critiques of these projects, and Jimmy Carter, as governor of Georgia, had to veto a large dam on environmental grounds, while Ronald Reagan, governor of California, shot down another one. These environmental issues eventually translated into economics. By the time Carter became president in 1977 the US debt had crossed $1 trillion and the fed-eral water bureaucracies alone were spending $ 5 billion per annum. Carter tried to cut funding for water projects, Congress even rejected the list of dams for funding, but the pressure from the con-struction companies was so high that Carter had to finally sign the bill. He mus-tered up enough strength to veto some projects only in 1979.In response, by 1967 the bureau had begun moving out of the US to build dams EPW on JSTORThe Economic and Political Weekly is now on JSTOR. Past issues of EPW from 1966 to 2002 are currently loaded on JSTOR archives. Institutions with access to JSTOR can read and download all EPW articles from 1966 onwards at these archives. EPW issues will be available on JSTOR with a moving wall of five years.Readers can visit for more information.Please note: While access to EPW on JSTOR archives are available only to participating institutions, EPW has been working to digitise its issues going back first to 1966 and ultimately to 1949 (Economic Weekly). The first batch of an expanded archives will be available on the EPW site from January 2009. These will cover 1989 to the latest issue, and by April 2009 they should extend up to January 1949. These archives will be available to all subscribers of EPW.

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