The cost of development in the Himalayas must be re-evaluated in light of the recent Chamoli disaster. Several private companies have started the construction of hydel power projects in the fragile Himalayan ecosystem without adequate care for the environment. The government must review its development policies in the region and if needed scrap them, writes DR. SOMU.
DISASTER struck Uttarakhand’s Chamoli district after a portion of the Nanda Devi glacier broke off. The sudden flood in Dhauli Ganga, Rishi Ganga and Alaknanda tributaries of Ganga caused the death of scores of labourers. Several people are still missing as they were trapped in tunnels when the water came gushing in. Two power projects, NTPC’s Tapovan-Vishnugad hydel project and the Rishi Ganga Hydel Project were extensively damaged alongside adjoining villages.
The Chamoli tragedy brings back the memory of the June 2013 Kedarnath flash floods in the Mandakini river due to the melting of the Chorabari glacier. It resulted in the death of nearly 5,000 people.
These tragic events show that now more than ever, we need a development strategy for the Himalayas that takes into account the vulnerability of the region as well as the need for environmental protection. There is no doubt that the fragile Himalayan ecosystem needs economic growth, however, this development cannot come at the cost of the environment.
A different approach based on the sustainable use of the region’s resources for development and local livelihood security is required.
The Himalayan mountain range is a fragile ecosystem stretched over an area of 741,706 sq. km. It is home to rivers like Indus, Ganges and Brahmaputra that flow through India, China, Pakistan, Nepal, and Bangladesh. In northern India, the Ganges basin provides irrigation facilities for private lands, however, this has contributed to 156,300 hectares of agricultural land being destroyed in Chamoli. The water from high glaciers and mountains is a rich source for the generation of hydroelectricity.
The Cost of Development
Resources have to be discussed, both in terms of their opportunities and as well as the potential for destruction, in terms of the threat to both ecology and economy.
Currently, there is a mad rush to build run-of-the-river projects and dams across the region. Four countries, namely, India, Pakistan, Nepal and China of the Hindukush Himalayan region have a hydroelectric potential of 334 GW.
All Himalayan states are awarding hydroelectric projects to private companies at a break neck speed. Uttarakhand on the Ganga basin alone has identified projects adding up to nearly 10,000 MW of power and plans for 70-odd ventures.
Power generation is a huge source of revenue generation for the state, but it comes at the cost of destroying lives, livelihood, and an entire ecosystem. According to reliable scientific data, Himalayas are the world’s major biodiversity hotspot, home to 10,000 plants, 300 animals, 977 birds and 269 fish species. Sadly, out of this due to excessive human intervention, deforestation and diversion of rivers, 31.6 percent plants, 12 percent animals, 33 percent fresh water fish and 15 percent bird species are already extinct.
Despite growing climate threats, there is a rush towards large-scale privatisation of natural resources. Rivers as part of neoliberal reforms have contributed to a hydropower boom from the 2000s. Public rivers have been contracted out to private investors with financial support and tax breaks from the government.
As part of the implementation of several neoliberal economic policies, community assets and resources such as rivers are converted to commodities. They have been gifted away cheaply to crony capitalists for the construction of hydel power projects. Under India’s 2008 hydropower policy, developers had offered concessions to private companies that insulated them from risk and helped them maximize profit.
During the last decade, the Uttarakhand government had given approval to the construction of over a dozen hydroelectric projects (HEPs) mostly in the private sector. The state also has 17 major HEPs — including the one involving India’s tallest dam in Tehri on the Bhagirathi, Maneri Bhali HEP (Stage I and II), Chilla HEP, and Chibro HEP.
In the neighbouring state, Himachal Pradesh government has recently signed MoUs for five mega projects in Lahaul, home to over 100 glaciers, including Himachal’s largest glacier Bada Shigri, with SJVNL and NTPC. Nearly 16 mega hydel projects are proposed for the Chenab basin, which has a highly sensitive and fragile ecosystem. In Lahaul and Pangi valley with combined power generation of over 5,000 MW.
The Chipko movement or Chipko Andolan, was a nonviolent social and ecological movement launched by rural villagers. Started in 1973 in the Dehradun district of erstwhile united UP, now Uttarakhand, it spread fast throughout the Indian Himalayan region. Women protested commercial logging and deforestation by hugging trees. Throughout the 1980s, many protests were focused against the construction of the Tehri dam. Various popular struggles including Chipko Andolan resulted in the enactment of the forest conservation act, 1980 and the forest rights act, 2006 endowing rights to tribal people as the custodians of forests.
The Need to Review
Ignoring the opinion of scientists and experts who have expressed that over-exploitation of rivers and rampant damming for hydroelectric projects (HEPs) could be one of the biggest factors responsible for the Chamoli disaster.
The Char Dham committee was not alone in its view on hydro projects in the fragile Himalayan ecosystem. An expert committee of the Supreme Court on the 2013 Kedarnath deluge had also warned the authorities not to construct any hydropower plant in the upper Himalayas.
Earlier, Hemant Dhyani, a member of the Char Dham committee had said, “not heeding to all warnings of the experts, rampant construction was carried out in the sensitive zones even after the 2013 Kedarnath and now the present Chamoli deluges. Notably, two dozen hydropower plants of Uttarakhand were rejected by the Supreme Court after the expert panel report.”
The Kedarnath expert committee had warned regarding the excessive exploitation of vulnerable regions and the need to re-evaluate the hydel energy projects in Uttarakhand. The report also objected to HEPs at an altitude of over 2000 metres. It stated that the ‘river-bed profile’ across major projects in Uttarakhand has changed significantly, suggesting the possibility of disasters in the future.
Surprisingly, despite the government’s much-advertised success in achieving 100 percent electrification of all villages in the Tehri region only 50 percent are actually operational. History shows that the construction of large dams apart from serious damage to the region’s ecosystem also uproots the local population and affects their livelihoods. As there is a problem in the electrification of remote mountainous regions, small hydropower projects (below 25 MW) are preferable, however, without damaging the local ecosystems.
The floods in Uttarakhand were exacerbated because of the poor construction of hydropower projects by inexperienced private players. These projects must be reviewed and if needed scrapped. The policy for water-based energy in the Himalayan ecosystem needs to be carefully balanced to ensure that growth does not come at the cost of the environment and livelihood security of the local population. (IPA Service)
(The views of the author are personal.)