Because of its hydropower resources and the origin of the mighty Ganga and Yamuna rivers, Uttarakhand was conceived to be the “Power State” of India at the time of its formation in 2000. However, down the 16 years the generation of electricity has remained close to 3,000 MW, a far cry from what had been envisaged. And with opposition to executing power projects because of the environmental concerns of experts and activists, the “Power State” continues to remain a pipe dream. A Bureaucracy Today report.
As per an estimate by the Uttarakhand Jal Vidyut Nigam Limited (UJVNL), a Government agency for producing hydropower, the State has a potential to generate 30,000 megawatts of power. But the present generation is only around 3,000 megawatts.
Uttarakhand has already seen immense delay in the completion of the Tehri Dam project and the lingering rehabilitation issues have made the State wary of undertaking massive hydroelectric projects. The feasibility study for the Tehri Dam was started in the year 1961 and the design was made in 1972 for a 600-megawatt project. Construction work started in 1978 and Russian assistance was received in 1986. After delays and a change of the design, the first phase of the Tehri Dam was completed in the year 2006 which is now producing 1,000 MW of electricity.
A private company, Shrawanthi Energy, was to set up a 225-megawatt power project in Kashipur. That was to be the first gas-based project in Uttarakhand. Though this project was being seen as the first step towards easing the State’s dependence on hydropower, it has still not taken off.
After calamities struck Uttarakhand in 2013, the focus again shifted to hydropower projects in the State. Some environmental activists blamed growing construction, human activity in the hills and power projects for the calamities. They put forth the view that though the disaster was not man-made and was natural, it was exacerbated by human activity and building of hydropower projects that brought the debris in the rivers.
Since the State has seen opposition to undertaking hydropower projects, 56 such schemes have been scrapped for their irregularities.
Environmental activist GD Aggarwal or Swami Gyanswaroop Sanand who is a former Professor of the IIT, Kanpur, sat on a dharna in 2009 against the building of dams and hydropower projects on river Ganga. He suspended the dharna after the Central Government stopped work on the Lohari Nagpala hydroelectric project on the Bhagirathi river.
MINISTRY PANEL RECOMMENDATION
The Environment Ministry formed an 11-member panel to assess the impact of hydropower projects on the upper reaches of the Ganga. The panel gave a report in April 2014 saying that 24 hydropower projects should be scrapped in Uttarakhand in view of their presence in fragile regions. These projects had been given clearance between 2005 and 2010 and had the capacity of generating 2,944 megawatts of electricity. They had to have an estimated expenditure of Rs 30,000 crore.
These 24 projects include building dams on the Bal Ganga, GohnaTaal, Birahi Ganga, Rishi Ganga and Alaknanda, rivers.
The panel report said these projects were causing irreversible damage to the environment and would lead to landslides. The Supreme Court ordered a blanket stay on the construction of three of the 24 hydropower projects after the flood devastation of Uttarakhand in 2013.
In an affidavit filed in the Supreme Court in December 2014 by the Ministry of Environment and Forest, the Central Government admitted that the power projects had caused irreversible damage to the environment and had a direct or indirect impact on the aggravation of the flood situation in Uttarakhand. The affidavit said the maximum damage was witnessed in places located upstream or downstream of these projects.
In August 2015, the Environment Ministry set up a third committee of experts to review the necessity of the hydropower projects. The Ravi Chopra-Vinod Tare Committee had warned against six projects which are on the Lata Tapovan, Jhelum Tamak, Alaknanda Badrinath, Kotlibhel, Khirao Ganga and Bhyundar Ganga river basins. The promoters of the projects presented design modifications which were supported by the Environment Ministry.
In January 2016, the Uttarakhand Government recommended in the Supreme Court the implementation/ operating of three of the six hydropower projects that were suggested by the panel to be cancelled due to their biodiversity-related impact on the Alaknanda and Bhagirathi river basins. The Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change recommended the commissioning of the NTPC’s Lata Tapovan (171 MW), Khirao Ganga and Bhyundar Ganga projects.
After the hullabaloo on the big projects issues, the Government is now shifting its focus to small hydropower projects as they do not cause much problem to the environment. Till now only 170 MW of small hydropower projects have been developed in Uttarakhand.
Uma Kant Panwar, Principal Secretary (Energy), Uttarakhand, says the State has great potential for generating hydropower and we are making efforts to increase the installed capacity. “The Ministry of Water Resources will be submitting an affidavit in the Supreme Court on the issue of 24 power projects that have been held up. We are now concentrating on small hydropower projects due to their acceptability and also due to the fact that they do not cause any damage to the environment or the water bodies on which they are built,” opines Panwar.
BHAGIRATHI STRETCH AN ECO-SENSITIVE ZONE
It is also pertinent to mention here that the Centre has also declared the first 100-km stretch of the Bhagirathi river (that later forms the Ganga) in Uttarkasha as an eco-sensitive zone where human activity such as construction will be regulated. This move has dealt a blow to implementing 1,750 megawatts hydropower projects in this area. It also asked for a design modification in the rest of the three projects. The Ministry also sought nine-month time to complete the study on nine other hydropower projects.
The State Government announced its policy for the development of micro and mini hydropower projects in 2015. The Government has made the Uttarakhand Renewable Energy Development Agency (UREDA) a nodal body for the implementation of this policy in Uttarakhand. According to a notification of the Ministry, no prior environmental clearance will be required for these projects as they come under the category of environment-friendly projects.
In a report titled “Environmental impacts of hydropower projects in Uttarakhand: Governance and Audit issues”, Ravi Chopra of the People’s Science Institute says the pre- project construction of approach roads leads to land acquisition, displacement, and a loss of land, home and livelihood.
A CAG report states that of the 48 projects allotted between 1993 and 2006 having a capacity of 2,423 MW, only five were completed till March 2009 with a capacity of 418 megawatts.
A study on the Tehri Dam showed a serious impact on biodiversity with the loss of riverine ecosystem along the rim of the Tehri reservoir. There were landslides due to repeated raising and lowering of the water level in the Tehri Reservoir. The report said there was a sinking of land at Chayeen village in Chamoli district after the commissioning of the Vishnuprayag Hydroelectric project. The social impacts included the drying of springs and damage to homes due to blasting for construction work.
Chopra thus calls for cancellation of the 23 recommended projects, no construction of dams in paraglacial zones and legislating of eco zones in the Ganga river system.
He says that environmental flows of dams must be guaranteed. “There should be monitoring by local communities. Projects must be sanctioned only after their approval by the affected Gram Sabhas. He also stresses the need to reassess the hydropower potential keeping the environmental and social aspects.
Environmental activist Anil Joshi says, “The bigger hydropower projects are said to be economically viable, but their ecological losses outweigh the gains. Any given project has a timeline, but ecology has no timeline and it can be damaged forever.”