Comment

Damned by development

“Residents blamed muck deposition from the Srinagar hydroelectric project for raising the Alaknanda river bed, which flooded the downstream areas of the town.” Picture shows soldiers repairing a footbridge during the 2013 floods.   | Photo Credit: DANISH SIDDIQUI

Chaaen, a village atop a hill in the picturesque Alaknanda Valley, is infamous for getting a hydroelectric project into trouble. I first visited the village last year while covering the >worst flood disaster Uttarakhand had witnessed.

On June 26, 2013, as I stood at Narendra Singh’s verandah in Chaaen, I noticed how the walls had developed cracks and the verandah itself stood at a minor angle.

“The reason,” Narendra explained, “is that the land beneath is sinking. In 2007, the tunnel of the Vishnuprayag hydroelectric project (400 MW) that passes under the hill, on which Chaaen stands, had started leaking.”

Project authorities, however, denied any leakage.

The evidence of disaster was visible across the village — there were dried springs, perished agriculture and sinking land. And this was not the only village in the State where all this could be seen.

I learnt about the problems created by dams in Srinagar town, a part of which got buried as the Alaknanda River gushed past the area. The residents blamed muck deposition from the Srinagar hydroelectric project (330 MW) for raising the river bed, which eventually flooded the downstream areas of the town.

Local residents in every village I visited pointed an accusing finger at the dams being constructed as responsible for the massive floods. At Govindghat, residents complained about the damage to the Vishnuprayag hydroelectric project’s barrage. Kushal Singh Rawat, who lived a kilometre downstream of the barrage, recalled: “In Lambagar, the entire market... around 40 stores, agricultural land, vehicles, houses, a primary school, the Panchayat Bhawan... all got swept away.”



The State seems keen on building large hydroelectric projects to fulfil its lopsided development agenda



A year later, an ongoing case in the Supreme Court has brought back attention to questions of the viability of hydroelectric projects in Uttarakhand. In the most recent development, the Union Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEFCC) submitted an affidavit in the Supreme Court on December 5 accepting that the hydroelectric projects “aggravated the impact of floods.”

While the MoEFCC’s stance has been welcomed by environmentalists, it has delivered a blow to the Uttarakhand government and the companies building these projects as the State’s development agenda is linked to its capacity to generate hydroelectric power.

In the backdrop of the 2013 Uttarakhand flood, the Supreme Court had directed the Union Environment Ministry to >constitute an expert body to assess whether hydroelectric projects, both those existing and those under construction, have contributed to the environmental degradation in the State and, if so, to what extent, and also whether it has contributed to the disaster.

In the same order, the Supreme Court also ordered the Ministry to examine whether the 24 projects mentioned by the Wildlife Institute of India in its report are causing significant impact on the biodiversity of Alaknanda and Bhagirathi river basins.

The expert body submitted its report — the >Chopra Committee Report — to the MoEF in April this year. A member of the Central Electricity Authority (CEA) and another of the Central Water Commission (CWC), who disagreed with the expert body, >submitted a separate report to the MoEF.

While the Chopra Committee report elucidated the catastrophic role played by the hydroelectric projects during the deluge, the CEA-CWC report mentioned there was “no link, direct or indirect, between the developments of hydroelectric projects with the Uttarakhand tragedy.”

In the December 5 affidavit, the MoEFCC dismissed the CEA-CWC report. The proceedings in the Supreme Court therefore are now based on the findings, observations, and recommendations of the Chopra Committee report.

What the report says

The Chopra Committee Report presents a strong case against projects between 2,200 and 2,500 metres above the sea level — paraglacial regions — which have loose glacial debris (moraines) which when carried downstream can be disastrous, as was witnessed in the Vishnuprayag project, during the 2013 deluge. Some of the projects among the 24 lie in the paraglacial regions.

The report states that intensive debris was brought to the hydropower projects along with the river water due to flash floods. The report quotes data from a geochemical analysis which shows significant presence of muck from the Srinagar project. According to the analysis, the muck from the dam site was present in a quantity that varied between 47 per cent near the dam site to 23 per cent in the downstream areas.

Though the CWC, the State, and the THDC (Tehri Hydro Development Corporation) officials claimed that the Tehri dam saved places such as Rishikesh and Hardwar from getting flooded during the deluge, the expert body states in its report that the Tehri dam has not been designed for the purpose of flood control and can retain water only up to their Full Reservoir Level (FRL). The report states that during the pre-monsoon time the reservoir has the capacity to retain the waters and save the downstream areas from getting flooded, but in the year 2010, the water levels had risen beyond the permitted FRL and the upstream areas like Chinyalisaur were inundated.

Skewed development agenda

Though the Union Environment Ministry acknowledges the damage caused by hydroelectric projects in its submission to the Supreme Court, the State’s hydroelectric project-driven development agenda has remained unchanged. “The State has planned an ambitious programme to develop 450 hydropower projects to harness its potential of 27,039 MW,” the Chopra Committee report states. So, the State seems keen on building large hydroelectric projects to fulfil its lopsided development agenda.

From the list of 24 projects, the discussion in the Supreme Court has now come down to six projects: Lata Tapovan (171 MW), Alaknanda Badrinath (300 MW), Kotlibhel 1A (195 MW), Jhelum Tamak (128 MW), Bhyundar Ganga (24.8 MW), and Khirao Ganga (4.5 MW) — and amidst all the development plans the issue of disaster mitigation has taken a back seat.

The hazards of the current project of dam building in Uttarakhand have already been laid out in several reports. It is unfortunate that the risks are known, but ignored by governments and companies building dams. It is hoped that the court will deliver justice now.

kavita.upadhyay@thehindu.co.in

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Printable version | Apr 14, 2021 8:00:04 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/comment-article-damned-by-development/article6694851.ece

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