Himachal Pradesh in Northern India is foremost among Indian states in pushing large hydropower projects. It has operating hydropower projects with total installed capacity of 7970 MW, under construction hydropower with 2216 MW and largest capacity projects under consideration for clearances. As this review of Hydropower development in Himachal Pradesh in 2015 shows, HP has also started facing the consequences of too many projects, with fragile Kinnaur area facing multiple disasters in 2015, including the penstock burst disaster at Sorang HEP. However, the Expert Appraisal Committee on Union Ministry of Environment and Forests continues to sanction more projects. In 2015, the committee recommended first stage clearance to 219 MW Luhri Project on Sutlej river and 210 MW Purthi Project on Chenab river. During the year, the 800 MW Kol Dam project was commissioned, and as our separate review of hydropower projects commissioned in 2015 shows, the project faced large number of serious problems and continues to face them even post commissioning.
Ailing Hydropower Sector Several hydropower assets in Himachal Pradesh and other hilly states are up for sale, as many independent power producers that have taken up hydropower projects are facing execution risks, mounting debt and liquidity issues. The challenges faced by the sector are compounded by the market condition of low electricity tariffs in the recent years.
State Electricity Boards are averse to buying electricity from the National Hydroelectric Power Corporation Ltd.’s (HPCL) projects because of high tariffs. The primary reason behind high tariffs is time and cost overruns.
Although the hydropower companies in Himachal Pradesh are running losses and producing surplus power, yet the state and the central governments continue to have very ambitious hydropower targets.
Government push for more hydropower The Directorate of Energy (DoE), Govt of Himachal Pradesh had advertised 37 power projects in Himachal Pradesh worth 1,137 MW seeking bids from the power companies on a build, own, operate and transfer (BOOT) basis in July 2014. As many as 11 of these projects are located in the Chenab basin, seven in the Ravi basin in Chamba district and 11 projects in the flood-ravaged tribal Kinnaur district, where the tribals are already up in arms against the power projects. The government got just one bid for the 98 MW Stingri project in Lahaul, as the deadline for bids expired in December 2014. The deadline was extended till March 31, 2015. The Independent Power Producers (IPPs) claimed that the projects were unviable because of being located in remote areas.
Again, the government got just two bids as the deadline expired on March 31. On May 6, the DoE extended the deadline till May 30 and proposed easing of the allotment policy relaxing norms of upfront premium, bank guarantee and signing of the implementation agreement to woo power firms. The DoE proposed that the fine on delay would not be charged if the delay is not attributable to the firm; the upfront premium be reduced; the bank guarantee of Rs 2 crore per MW be reduced and replaced with a cap of a maximum of Rs 20 lakh. This is despite the fact that one megawatt of electricity costs Rs 7 crore to Rs 10 crore and even more in the remote Chenab basin.
Throughout the year, various media reports wrongly projected hydropower as the best hope to improve India’s capacity to meet energy demands while being a non-polluting source (in fact they are responsible for severe methane emissions, showing how ill-informed the media reports were). Some of the benefits attributed to using hydropower are that they offset reliance on fossil fuels and are not under risk of fuel price hike, but this ignores the huge social and environmental impacts of the projects. They are said to be the ideal solution for meeting peak demand, as they are relatively easier to switch on and off, compared with thermal sources. However meeting peeking demand requires optimal use of existing plants, not coming up with more plants, but unfortunately no one is making any efforts in that direction. They are also said to have a longer life than other renewable ones, but other renewable capacities can be rebuilt at the same locations, which is not possible for hydro projects.
Expanding the electricity user base in the country is constantly taken as a ground for pushing hydropower, as around 280 million in India do not have access to electricity. But these grid connected hydropower projects never benefit the local populations. In any case, such large hydropower projects are not the best way to make electricity accessible to those that do not have access currently. The protests of locals trying to safeguard their villages and livelihoods and the concerns of environmentalists are quelled in the name of the greater ‘national interest’.
Impact of hydropower projects The hydropower projects in Himachal Pradesh are mostly run of the river projects. The river water is diverted through an underground headrace tunnel which provides the head for the water to fall through. The fall is used to extract energy by means of turbines located in underground powerhouses deep inside the hills. The blasting of the hills required to lay the steeply falling head race tunnel and the construction of underground power houses and the reservoir at the head, greatly disturbs the fragile ecological balance in the mountainous regions of Himachal Pradesh. The river dries up as its water is diverted over long stretches and landslides are caused as the hill is blasted damaging forests, roads, houses, water sources and farmland in the villages.
Every large hydro project is expected to conduct the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) of that project alone, which is known to be a dishonest, cut and paste effort in most cases. It is done in isolation, no effort has been made to do carrying capacity, cumulative impact assessment to know how many projects can be constructed in a river basin. In particular, the Sutlej basin of Kinnaur district has become an example of how bumper-to-bumper projects can spell doom. Projects that have started functioning have already blocked the flow of Sutlej. The absence of fish above Rampur till Karcham and Tapri is indicative of the adverse effect of structures which have obstructed the connectivity of the river. The locals fear that when the remaining projects would start functioning, no water would flow downstream affecting the aquatic life and livelihood of people living along the river. There is a need to have basin wise study. Senior scientists have recommended that the number of projects in each basin should be decided on the basis of the carrying capacity of the basin and overlapping of projects should be prevented by maintaining flowing river for a distance of at least 7 km between each project.
A panel of experts set up by the Department of Energy of the Himachal government, Panel of Environmental and Social Experts (PESE), to make an independent evaluation of the impact of 38 hydropower projects in the valley of the Sutlej came up with its report in February 2015. The panel said that popular opposition to large hydel power projects on the Sutlej is being fanned by the government’s indifference to the problems of the people, loss of livelihoods and destruction of the environment.
The panel also studied the draft Cumulative Environment Impact Assessment (CEIA) report prepared on the directions of the union Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change. The report said that the CEIA’s conclusions were not supported by facts and figures. It said that some of the institutions tasked with studying the impact of hydropower development didn’t even meet the local people. Residents of Kinnaur, the Spiti valley, Mandi and Shimla districts have alleged that the CEIA consultants did not study the impact of indiscriminate blasting and loss of forests and farmlands on sources of drinking water such as natural springs. They have rejected the assessment as a “fraudulent exercise”.
Protesters have been especially agitated over assessments of the minimum distance between projects, and the minimum volume of flow in the channel during the dry season. The PESE questioned whether the CEIA recommendation of an average gap of 500 m between two projects as being sufficient for the river to recuperate, is based on any scientific calculation.
The panel also noted the stiff opposition from the people of the Spiti valley to the construction of any hydel projects in view of its fragile environment. Four hydel projects with a combined capacity of 635 MW are planned in the Spiti river, a tributary of the Sutlej. The opposition of the people of Spiti is included in the CEIA summary as a brief last point, which states that the trans-Himalayan zone should be a “no-go” area for hydel projects, but is not included in its final recommendations.
Himachal Pradesh falls in Seismic Zones 4 and 5 – a region classified as highly vulnerable to high-intensity quakes. Large-scale construction of dams in the Himalayas has alarmed geological experts. Himalayan Environmental Studies and Conservation Organization founder and Padma Shri awardee Dr Anil Prakash Joshi, at a conference in Shimla on November 4, 2015 said that policy makers have not learnt from the tragedies in Kedarnath, Nepal and Pakistan. There will be unparalleled damage if an earthquake strikes the region. Joshi said that even though locals have often confronted government officials over construction of dams, the government has constantly supported large constructions without thinking about the consequences on local people and nature. Himachal Pradesh University vice-chancellor A D N Bajpai said an earthquake could destroy the entire Kinnaur district of Himachal Pradesh because of the number of tunnels there.
On March 10, 2015, a massive landslide triggered by heavy rains damaged the Saal hydropower project of the Himachal Pradesh State Electricity Board (HPSEB) in Chamba district. The landslide caused the entire hill to ‘break’ away, leading to more than 80 per cent damage as the four-way, penstock, powerhouse and control room were completely buried under tons of debris.
The hot water sulphur springs of Tatta Pani in Mandi district alongwith 41 villages were submerged due to construction of 800 MW Kol Dam project in Bilaspur district of Himachal Pradesh. The state government is now trying to restore the hot water springs by boring the hot water beds through pipes. The dam was commissioned in 2015. The project continues to face serious problems at every level. The project submerged more area than had been approved by the clearances granted to the project. The project was opposed by people who were displaced or lost their livelihoods.
Urni Landslides: The inhabitants of tribal district of Kinnaur have repeatedly been facing road blockages at Urni dhank on NH 22 due to landslides. In March, with the Sutlej River swelling up due to rains and snow, the temporary alternate routes from the other bank of the river were also blocked. The locals under the banner of Him Lok Jagriti Manch (HLJM) and Karcham Wangtoo Sangarsh Samiti, Kinnaur, have demanded acquiring the tunnel II of the Karcham-Wangtoo power project for use by the road traffic.
On June 20, the HP High Court issued notices to the Central and the state governments on the issue of poor condition of roads in Kinnaur. Due to active and heavy landslides, traveling on this road had become very dangerous and risky. The order was filed on a PIL which alleged that the roads were badly damaged due to indiscriminate, erratic and unscientific blasting by the JP Company constructing the Karcham Wangtoo Hydel Project.
A study by the Geological Survey of India wrongly blamed the landslides in Urni village, Kinnaur district on the horticultural and agricultural activities in the region. The study observed that in the Kinnaur valley, agriculture is practiced on steep slopes having thin soil cover. The irrigation water acts as lubricating agent in this structurally fragile slope triggering landslide action. The study said that the landslide at Urni was a result of reactivation of the old Urni landslide, due to changes in the rainfall and snowfall pattern in the preceding two years which caused fluctuations in the soil moisture and instability in the rocks. The study also recognized that the highway had been widened at the location of the landslide and the steep slope at the location had destabilized the old landslide. The natural question here is that if the area was landslide prone in the past and if the slopes were structurally fragile then why were these factors not considered at the time of allowing the Karcham Wangtoo project to come up?
There has been no effort by the state government or the Ministry of Environment to recognise that there exists a linkage between the destabilisation of slopes and construction activities of the hydropower projects. In the case of landslides, which are being linked to an increase in rainfall or irrigation methods, the government has been providing relief packages. “The demand that we have been making is that the affected people should be given compensation, not relief. Had there been no project activity the impact of even a natural calamity or heavy rainfall would not be so drastic,” said R S Negi, a senior citizen of Kinnaur and member of Him Lok Jagriti Manch, a forum that has been raising issues of local rights over resources.
Negligence of companies: Besides the impacts of the construction of the hydropower projects in fragile regions, the negligence of the constructing companies, cost-cutting measures and the lack of safeguards in the constructions have increased the vulnerability to disasters.
A major fire broke out in a transformer of the underground powerhouse of the 120 MW Sanjay Jalvidyut Pariyojna (SJP) near Bhaba Nagar in Kinnaur district. The project did not have a fire tender or water sprinklers and its operators had no anti-fire gears or foaming system to inert the flammable oil surface or to douse the fire. The underground powerhouse burnt for 27 hours beginning the morning of Jan 22, 2015. The incident brought to light the poor fire-fighting and preventive measures in the board-run, private and public sector power projects, which have underground powerhouses in the state.
Karcham Wangtoo Thousands of tribals, including project-affected people, workers, students, women’s groups and farmers from Kinnaur district joined the anti-JP company Jan Andolan at Tapri in Kinnaur district on Feb 24, 2015. The protestors gave a call to get back the land that had been illegally acquired by the JP company, including apple orchards. They claimed that not even bona fide non-tribal farmers from Himachal were entitled to acquire tribal land in the state. Farmers demanded proper rehabilitation and compensation for the loss caused to the farmers and the ecology by the projects. Farmers said that many villages could be wiped out of existence due to landslides caused by the unscientific cutting of the steep fragile hill slopes of Kinnaur. Due to unscientific and heavy blasting the entire hill on the right bank of the Sutlej river has become vulnerable to landslides and the road is hardly being restored. Similarly, the arterial roads connecting to villages like Meeru and Urni have become prone to landslips.
Leaders raised the pathetic state of affairs of local development under local area development authority (LADA) funds and catchment area development fund and promise of free electricity to tribals as per state hydro policy. As per the policy of the government, the project management is supposed to spend 1% of the cost on the local area development and the amount has to be deposited with the government. Although the project was commissioned in 2011, the payment of the LADA funds was still being finalised in June 2015 when the state government allowed the sale of the project subject to honour of pending liabilities.
Exploitation of Workers: About 1,300 workers of the Jaypee Workers’ Union of 1,000 MW Karcham-Wangtoo and 300 MW Baspa-II projects in the tribal Kinnaur district went on strike for 112 days starting January 2015. The workers had demanded – a Rs 1400 wage hike bringing them at par with Satluj Jal Vidyut Nigam Ltd. (SJVNL) workers in the Nathpa Jakhri project, immediate downstream of the Karcham Wangtoo HEP, regularisation of workers and implementation of the Factories Act. The workers said that the management of Jai Prakash Vidyut Ltd. (JPVL) had not paid even 10 % of what the SJVNL and HPSEB-run Sanjay Vidyut Yojana located in the same Sutlej basin were paying to its workers.
On January 25, 2015, the JPVL hiked wages by Rs 300 but the workers termed the hike as peanuts. In response, more than 250 policemen were deployed at the venue. Citing ‘law and order’ concerns, the SP, Kinnaur, asked the striking workers to vacate the premises. Section 144 was imposed at the camps and continued for over two months although the strike had been peaceful, the weather conditions were harsh and many workers had fallen ill after having been shunted out of their camps.
The workers were also demanding justice for the families of the workers who had died while working on the project. One of the leaders alleged that many workers had died and even FIRs were not registered in some of the cases. The leader cited an example of a worker, Nirmal Singh, who died in April 2009 after falling, while at work. The workers had demanded an inquiry into the incident but the post-mortem was not conducted and the medical report was fiddled with, they charged.
The striking workers alleged that the company was illegally recruiting fresh workers as the company sought the government’s intervention to allow and provide protection to the company to carry a workforce of 150 to the trouble-torn project sites for “overdue maintenance work”.
On Nov 29, 2015, a blast killed at least two workers and injured 5 others at the site of the 450 MW Shongtong-Karcham project in Kinnaur district being constructed by Himachal Pradesh Power Corporation Limited (HPPCL). The blast occurred when an engineer was inspecting a dynamite installed to carry out a blast at the site.
Three engineers were killed on June 14, 2015 while conducting repairs at the powerhouse of 2 MW Rongtong hydropower project in Kaza sub-division of Lahaul-Spiti district. They were swept by a heavy current of water released when a technical snag developed while doing maintenance work in the powerhouse. Local villagers rescued some other workers at the site. The hydropower project had not been functional for the preceding six months and repair was being carried out. The project was started during winters but due to breaking of pipes, power generation had halted.
Bad business practices: On Aug 12, 2015, NHPC temporarily shut down its 231 MW Chamera-III project in Chamba district due to landslides after heavy rains in the region. The NHPC on Dec 14, 2015 temporarily shut down its 520 MW Parbati project in Kullu district for a long 2 month period, until February 2016, for carrying out repair and maintenance. The units of this project were commissioned very recently, in 2014, by the government owned Bharat Heavy Electricals Limited. It seems suspicious why the project had to be shut down for over two months, so soon after commissioning.
The HPPCL had been carrying out illegal constructions in the clearance zone of the ammunition point of the Indian Army at Powari in Kinnaur district for its Shongtong-Karcham Hydropower Project. A huge quantum of ammunition and explosive is stored at the Army’s unit at Powari which could cause havoc in case of any mishap. In 2005, the central government had issued a notification restricting construction in the clearance zone – within 1200 yards of the periphery of the point. The HPPCL went ahead and allotted the project to a company, which commenced construction work despite several objections raised by the Army between 2007 and 2013. Finally, on May 31 2015, the High Court restrained the HPPCL from carrying out any construction activity in the zone.
In April 2015, the Central Electricity Authority (CEA), the authority that grants techno-economic clearances (TEC) to projects, wrote to the Central Electricity Regulatory Commission that the project capacity of the Karcham Wangtoo hydropower project in Kinnaur district will have to be maintained at 1,000 MW. The project had been running at 1,200 MW capacity which is 20% higher than the 1,000 MW approved under the TEC granted to its developer, JPVL. Earlier, the CEA had sent a show-cause notice to JPVL for violating TEC conditions in the Karcham Wangtoo project. Both the CEA and the Himachal Pradesh state Government had expressed safety concerns on allowing the plant to operate at 1,200 MW capacity.
Protests against small hydro: Tribals from Panvi village in Kinnaur held a protest demonstration outside the Directorate of Energy in Shimla against the construction of the 9 MW Ralla-Taranda hydro project on Nov 24, 2015. The fear of losing their houses and a government primary school forced the Panvi tribals to march to the state capital Shimla. They said the blasting for the construction of the underground powerhouse and the tunnel of the 9 MW Ralla-Taranda project would render them homeless. They have now constituted the Panvi Bachao Sangharsh Samiti to save their village located above the Panvi Khud, a tributary of the Sutlej river in Kinnaur. They also submitted a memorandum to Chief Minister Virbhadra Singh, asking him to order the scrapping of the project.
Such protests also question the legitimacy of the current environment governance regime where all projects below 25 MW are considered environmentally benign and hence not requiring environmental clearance, environmental impact assessment, environment management plan, public consultations, environmental appraisal, monitoring or compliance. There is an urgent need to change this situation, requiring all projects above 1 MW to be included for such scrutiny. This is particularly urgent in states like Himachal Pradesh as a large number of small hydropower projects are being constructed and proposed here.
Conclusion: 2015 has seen numerous disasters caused by hydropower projects in Himachal Pradesh, yet the government has not taken any steps to ensure that such events do not repeat in the future. The only acts of the government have been to promote hydropower projects and attract investments by relaxing norms. For every large hydropower project, a detailed project report is prepared and clearances are required from various government agencies. The CEA gives techno-economic approval, the Central Water Commission (CWC) approves the hydrology design, safety and cost estimates, the Central Soil and Material Research Station (CSMRS) approves the construction material aspects and the Geological Survey of India (GSI) looks into the geological aspects. It is shocking that despite there being such requirements on paper, hydropower projects are allowed in places which are fragile, vulnerable to disasters and completely devastated by the construction activities, even without basic assessments. The overruns in time and cost only suggest that the bureaucratic decisions are flawed. The government has displayed a complete lack of will in regulating the acts of the developers undertaking these projects and has demonstrated absolute disregard for the rights of the locals of the project sites and also for the sustainability of the environment or even the projects. The government and construction companies try to convince the locals to consent to these projects by offering some influential local people contracts or employment at the project site. However, the companies exploit their workers exposing them to dangerous conditions causing many casualties and fatalities and pay meagre wages. The government looks the other way as these companies flout labour laws and takes note only when it has to intervene to assist the management to repress protesting workers.
Why are so many projects being proposed in Himachal Pradesh although many projects have been in the pipeline for years and completed projects are generating at below the promised levels of generation and receiving low tariffs? In fact, currently operational projects are running inefficiently and not producing power to their capacity.
The model of functioning of business is such that it views natural resources as commodities and attempts to extract maximum surplus. Large hydropower projects are massive infrastructure projects which see investments from big business conglomerates. Such businesses are usually in a cosy relationship with the political class. The protests of powerless locals, poor EIAs and appraisal, flawed public hearings, lack of cumulative impact assessments, increased vulnerabilities, unsafe construction and operation or unfavourable reports of geological conditions stand little chance of any impact.
It is high time that there is an independent assessment of all the hydropower projects of the state, and the state government publishes a white paper on these issues. Until then, not only should new projects not be taken up, but under construction projects should also be stopped. Else, what is happening in Himachal Pradesh is surely a recipe for a disaster bigger than what happened in neighbouring Uttarakhand in June 2013.