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A Year Since Chamoli Disaster, Himachal’s Dam-Building Spree Unabated

A Year Since Chamoli Disaster, Himachal’s Dam-Building Spree Unabated

Landslides downstream of the 300-MW Baspa project in Sangla Valley, Kinnaur. Photo: Sumit Mahar

  • A year since the tragedy in Chamoli, it’s hard not to look to the neighbouring state of Himachal Pradesh and anticipate similar disasters, given the ongoing dam-building spree.
  • Unsafe construction practices have destroyed property and taken the lives of many workers in more than a dozen accidents at project sites in the last decade alone.
  • But every time a disaster unfolds, the burden of establishing its ‘scientific’ relationship with project construction is thrust on the local community.

Last year on this day, bone-chilling images emerged from a tragic disaster in the Himalaya. A group of workers desperate to save their lives were huddled under the roof of the Tapovan Dam barrage in Chamoli, Uttarakhand, even as a deluge roared over them. Someone had captured the sight on camera and it played on loop on news channels.

On February 7, 2021, a large mass of rock and ice from Ronti peak avalanched into the Rishiganga, Dhauliganga and Alaknanda rivers, causing their waters to flood and destroy local dams and villages. More than 200 people were killed in the tragedy.

One of the ‘features’ of the disaster was that it was compounded by large-scale dam construction activities downstream in the Rishiganga river valley: the swelling water toppled concrete and metal structures, and as it raged through the valley building momentum, the debris it carried rendered it more destructive.

Now, a year since Chamoli, it’s hard not to look to the neighbouring state of Himachal Pradesh and anticipate similar disasters, given the latter’s ongoing dam-building spree.

Manufacturing a hazardscape

As 2021 was coming to a close, the residents of Jharauta, a village in the remote tribal region of Bharmour in Chamba district, Himachal Pradesh, were spending sleepless nights. Water had been triggering landslides and cracks in their forests, fields and their homes.

Ten years ago, as the proposal for the 180-MW Bajoli Holi hydroelectric project was being laid out, the local Gaddi populace had warned of impending risks considering the region’s loose rocks. Local women organised a month-long sit-in at a spot in an oak forest that is today on the cusp of sliding down. They demanded that the project tunnel be shifted to the Ravi river’s right bank as originally planned, instead of to the left, where the extant design placed it.

But the project proponent, GMR Group, refused on cost grounds and built the project tunnel on the left bank.

Water seepage began between December 17 and 19, when project authorities were testing the 14-km tunnel.

At the Bajoli Holi project site. Photo: Manshi Asher

A few kilometres downstream of the Bajoli project is NHPC’s 231-MW Chamera III hydroelectric power project. In 2012, at the time of commissioning, seepage in the surge shaft led to landslides that damaged houses and set large stones in motion, disrupting local roads, and lives, for the next five years.

In NHPCs’s 800-MW Parbati stage II project, which has been under construction for over two decades, a breach in 2017 caused seepage near the surge shaft and power house during tests. The residents of nearby Bhenbal village slept in the open for fear of a landslide, even as the leakage destroyed their crops. A few days later, cracks also appeared near the neighbouring village, located along the tunnel. The project has been under repair since then.

In May last year, four workers lost their lives when they were carrying out drilling operations in the tunnel and a wedge from the roof fell on them. Another dozen or so accidents of similar nature have played out in the last decade at hydroelectric power project sites in Himachal Pradesh alone.

Run-of-the-river hydropower dams typically involve extensive underground quarrying to build a tunnel through the mountain, using the drill-blast method. The flow of the river is then diverted from the dam, at the head of the project, into the tunnel before being pumped into turbines at the powerhouse, which is at the tail. In many cases the power house is also located underground. This type of construction, especially in the Himalaya, is ridden with risks to the lives of workers, local residents and their property – from the time of construction to long after commissioning.

A ‘Landslide Hazard Risk Assessment’ study that the Himachal Pradesh Disaster Management Cell published in March 2015 found that “close to 67 hydropower stations are under threat of landslide hazard risk and 10 mega hydropower stations are in the medium and high-risk landslide area”.

Most operational and under-construction hydropower projects in the state fall in its red zone – areas highly vulnerable to various hazards. Faulty impact assessment during planning and negligence of safety measures at the time of construction are big problems – but they are only exacerbated by the scale and nature of construction in the Himalayan landscape.

‘No means no’

In project after project, communities in affected areas have pointed out wrong siting and raised red flags about potential land destabilisation. The loss of underground springs and forests have come up repeatedly as well. However, every time a hazard unfolds, the burden of establishing its ‘scientific’ relationship with project construction is thrust on the local community.

One elderly resident of a project-affected area once told the author’s organisation, “All the underground activity is invisible. How are we to tell what is going on under the mountain? All we can do is experience and report the impact. The company has the machines, they have the access to the underground sites and they are the ones who even claim to have the expertise, and still they are not accountable!”

This is why, in the high altitude tribal district of Kinnaur, which had a spate of disastrous landslides in the monsoon of 2021, the youth have initiated a campaign called ‘No Means No’. They are demanding a complete halt to further dam construction in the district. The government has built projects worth 3,000 MW in this region since 1990, and more are underway. Campaign members and their supporters say their elders have engaged enough with various regulatory agencies and courts, and that their cumulative sense of loss and emerging threats to their existence has encouraged them to put their foot down.

A protest in Kinnaur by the ‘No Means No’ campaign, ahead of the COP26 climate talks in Glasgow. Photo: ‘No Means No’ campaign

At the helm of the ‘No means No’ campaign are six panchayats that will be affected by the proposed 804-MW Jangi Thopan Powari hydroelectric power project, to be constructed by the public sector undertaking SJVN. The construction will happen on the precarious Khadra Dhang, a preexisting landslide zone, on the left bank of the Sutlej river, and residents are certain that their land won’t be able to bear the work.

A few months ago, over a thousand voters boycotted a Lok Sabha by-election in protest. They are likely to impress their demands on political representatives at the upcoming Vidhan Sabha elections at the end of this year.

New India

Meanwhile, unfazed by the opposition to mega-dams, and driven by the desire for ‘green growth’, the state cabinet recently passed a new energy policy. Up to October 2021, Himachal Pradesh had more than 160 dams worth 10,948 MW – apparently about 45% of the potential.

“The energy sector has to undergo a strict scrutiny to fulfil the promise of adequacy, reliability, quality standards and environmental friendliness topped with economy,” the policy document reads. It guarantees a ‘single window’ for clearances, and says nothing about the financial, environmental or social costs of the ‘green energy’ in the works.

According to an August 2021 Parliamentary Standing Committee report, as of November 2020, 24 of 37 hydroelectric power projects under-construction in the country were delayed and faced cost overruns of more than Rs 30,000 crore. Nine of these projects were in Himachal Pradesh, delayed by “geological factors”. In the last two decades, no project (barring one) in Himachal has been commissioned without delays and cost overruns. So we should ask: who is paying for this transition to a climate-friendly new India?

The pomp and show at Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to the state on December 27, 2021, to launch four new hydroelectric power projects, sufficed to muffle this question – but only until the next big disaster.

Manshi Asher is a researcher-activist associated with Himachal based Himdhara Collective.

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