The bilateral talks between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Nepal Prime Minister Sushil Koirala during the former’s recent Nepal visit included an agreement to restart work on the 5,600 MW Pancheshwar multipurpose project. This has aroused strong opposition from environmentalists and anti-dam activists.
Speaking to The Hindu about the project, earlier this month, Himanshu Thakkar, coordinator of the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People (SANDRP) had pointed out that the project, which would generate hydropower for India and Nepal, provide benefits through irrigation and flood mitigation, was proposed in a fragile zone and could have major ecological and social impacts.
Geographical issues regarding the project also have been questioned over the years. ‘Between 1992 and 2006, over 10 earthquakes with a magnitude exceeding 5 (on the Richter scale) have had their epicenter within a radius of 10 kilometres around the site of the proposed Pancheshwar Dam, making the Pancheshwar Dam vulnerable to damage in an earthquake,’ a research report published in the year 2010 and titled The proposed Pancheshwar Dam, India/Nepal: A preliminary ecosystem services assessment of likely outcomes, states.
In India, the project lies within the State of Uttarakhand, which shares international border with Nepal. The State has a 1000 MW Tehri dam which was strongly protested for its impacts, which have now begun to surface.
The unresolved issues of the Tehri dam has raised questions about the feasibility of large dams in the area. Vimal Bhai, convenor of the Matu Jansangthan, an organisation that works on dam related issues, said, “The rehabilitation process of the Tehri dam affected has not been completed yet. Many people are still fighting cases for compensation. This raises serious doubt about handling of rehabilitation and compensation related issues during the construction of big projects, here.”
The Pancheshwar project, which is proposed on the Mahakali river, was a part of the 1996 India-Nepal Mahakali Treaty. The project was a controversial one and other than the opposition of the environmentalists, and anti-dam activists, the project was strongly opposed by the Maoists in Nepal.
According to the 2010 research report, the Indo-Nepal Mahakali Treaty was seen in Nepal an undue result of pressures from India and the US.
‘A Joint Project Office set up in 1999 failed to resolve the cross-border dispute and was dissolved in 2002. Another Joint Group of Experts was set up in 2004, but political unrest in Nepal has derailed its progress,’ the report states.
During Mr Modi’s Nepal visit it was agreed upon by the two governments that a Pancheshwar Development Authority would be set up within six months, and after finalising the Detailed Project Report (DPR) the project work would begin within a year.
Though Chief Minister Harish Rawat appreciated the step taken Mr Modi’s to restart work on the stalled project, he said the Centre must address the issues of the State before going ahead with the project.
The proposed ‘storage’ dam is to be built on the Indo-Nepal border in Champawat district. According to the State government data, the dam would submerge 60 villages and would affect 19,700 people in Uttarakhand. In Nepal, the dam would submerge 14 villages, affecting a population of 11,466. However, this has been contested as an underestimated number by people of both the countries. The 2010 research report states that more than 82,000 people in the immediate area of the proposed Pancheshwar project, and more than 84 lakh people in the wider catchment would be affected by it.