Ask policy planners in Uttarakhand the need for so many dams to be constructed in the State, and they will tell you the structures are necessary for power generation and prosperity. But the policy has backfired terribly
This March, I had the occasion to visit Srinagar, Garhwal. There I witnessed some of the immediate consequences of building cascades of dams for the pecuniary benefits of the State (read, local officials). When I argued, “Why were there so many dams? I was told that, if the Union Government does not go for dams and generate power, it would have to annually release Rs 10,000 crore to Rs 15,000 crore as Central assistance. The Union Government wants power and the State, hard cash; dams bring a win-win situation. But what about the rivers which, at some places, have started disappearing?
Projects currently underway were supposed to increase the hydro-power capacity of the State to 12,235MW. A total of 95 hydro-power projects were being built or planned on different rivers converging in the Alaknanda and Bhagirathi basin of Uttarakhand. Nobody really cared if environmentalists like former IIT professor GD Agrawal or before him Sunderlal Bahuguna were opposing the wild contagion of concrete infrastructures. They were labeled ‘anti-development’; ‘development’ being the new god of the Himalayas.
It is not that the officials were unaware that since 2005, when Tehri dam’s reservoir filled up, the flow of the Bhagirathi had reduced drastically. I then wrote a note: “When there will no more rivers to worship, no more jobs for the local population, people will have to migrate to the cities.” My friend Michel Danino’s book, The Lost River: On the Trail of the Sarasvati, is a mind-opener on the fate of the mythic Saraswati river. Taking into account the latest research in fields as different as satellite imagery, archeology, linguistics, paleontology or mythology, Danino has explained: “The Indian subcontinent was the scene of dramatic upheavals a few thousand years ago. The Northwest region entered an arid phase, and erosion coupled with tectonic events played havoc with river course. One of them (the Sarasvati) disappeared.” Now, humanity has progressed; it can build its own tectonic events!
After the June 16 torrential rains, we have not lost rivers (though the course of some have changed), but in several cases the wild construction of dams has triggered much more destruction, increasing the misery of the locals. A few days after the downpour, The Hindu reported: “The national highway between Dehradun and Srinagar [Garhwal] is currently broken at Byasi and Devprayag, with silt measuring upto 10 ft covering an enormous area, in Uttarakhand’s Pauri district. According to the residents of Shakti Vihar, an area in Srinagar, this disaster occurred on June 17 at around 3am when the Srinagar dam authorities lifted the dam gates.” A resident told the newspaper: “The rainfall on June 16 was so much that the water reached up to our knees, and to add to it, the dam authorities released water without a prior warning.” Did they panic? Enquiries, if any, will tell us. The water from upstream swept the debris lying around the dam construction site and deposited a huge amount of silt tens of kilometers downstream. The water level was three to four metres higher than any previous floods.
The question asked by each commentator was: Was it predictable? In 2009, after studying the hydro-electric projects in Uttarakhand, a State Audit of the Comptroller and Auditor-General explained: “With the creation of Uttarakhand in November 2000, its hydro-power potential was recognised as key to the development of the State. The Government chalked out an ambitious plan to harness its hydro-power potential through the concerted efforts of both the State and the private sector.” A State policy was formulated in October 2002; with the dams, the needs of the State but also those of the ‘starved northern grid’ could be taken care of. According to the CAG report, most of the projects faced problems associated with land acquisition, forest clearances and enhancement in project capacities. But did anybody read the report? Certainly not the planners and their contractors — they were too busy making money. Indeed, ‘dam is money’, whether in Uttarakhand, in Sikkim or in Arunachal Pradesh.
The CAG had warned: “The State’s policy on hydro-power projects was silent on the vital issue of maintaining downstream flow in the diversion reach, …physical verification of four out of five operational projects, showed that river-beds downstream had almost completely dried up.” A new Saraswati in the making! The Auditors also remarked: “Negligence of environmental concerns was obvious as the muck generated from excavation and construction activities, was being openly dumped into the rivers contributing to increase in the turbidity of water.” It has now happened on a large scale after the June 16 and 17 torrential rains.
ForThe Hindu article, a resident told the reporter: “Though residents were saved, cattle were killed under the silt. Quintals of fish that the river brought along are also rotting under the debris.” It appears that every person passing by the site could smell the rotten flesh. The CAG had concluded: “The individual and cumulative impact on the downstream river flow should be seriously considered to ensure that the projects do not result in disastrous impact on the environment.” Now, it is too late. Yet, it was supposed to be a win-win situation!
As information triggers through about the Himalayan devastation, news of the Vishnuprayag Hydro-electric Project was posted on the blog of two well-known environmentalists, Vimalbhai and Briharshraj Tadiyal. Remember, Vishnuprayag is one of the Panch Prayags (five confluences) of the Alaknanda river, and lies at the confluence of Alaknanda and Dhauliganga between Joshimath and Badrinath. It is located in Chamoli district of Uttarakhand. According to legend, Rishi Narada had a vision of Vishnu while meditating there. Of course, all this is not real, it is only mythology. Concrete alone is real nowadays. The environmentalists wrote: “When the waters rose, dam authorities failed to open all the gates of the dam. Due to this, a two km long reservoir was formed upstream of the dam. Pressure from the water broke the dam and went on to wipe out the Lambagad village market.” In 2012 already, some shops in Lambagad had been washed away when water was released inadvertently by the dam authorities. This time, the deluge from the upper reaches of Alaknanda buried the 400 MW Vishnupyrag HEP. Will the Government of Uttarakhand continue with its dam policy? Will politicians and ‘developers’ resist getting rich quickly?
Tragically, the same situation is bound to happen, probably on a larger scale, in Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh. And what about the string of dams being built by the Chinese on the Yarlung Tsangpo (Siang/Brahmaputra) in Tibet? And if China constructs its purported mega-dam, where will the debris go? Will the situation be different on the Roof of the World than in Uttarakhand? It is probably worse due to the higher seismicity.
Has Mr Shivshankar Menon, the National Security Adviser, discussed the issue with his Chinese counterpart during their recent meeting in Beijing?”