The wretched and the dammed

The upper Yamuna valley — where the Lakhwar-Vyasi Power Project is located — is picturesque, green and cradled by mountains. It’s also a disaster waiting to happen.

ByIshan Kukreti
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The wretched and the dammed
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For the Tomars of Juddo in Uttarakhand, the Lakhwar Vyasi Power Project has been a life-changer. The rehabilitation money that they’ve got from the government for their land has turned the Tomars from small farmers to shop owners. Sardar Singh Tomar owns a general store in Juddo, his son Ras Pal owns a restaurant. "We were given around Rs 60,000 initially when the land was acquired in 1987," said Sardar Singh. "Now we have received an added Sahayata Anudan of Rs 6 lakh. Sahi chal raha hai (It’s going well)."

His son, however, has a niggling concern. There’s a crack on his wall, just as there are cracks on the walls of many houses in Juddo. And it’s not because the construction is cheap. It’s because the blasts carried out at the site of the proposed Vyasi dam.

Forty seven miles from Dehradun, the central government is gambling with the lives of people — not just of Uttarakhand, but of Uttar Pradesh and Delhi too.

Image credit: Ishan Kukreti

The construction of the 420MW Lakhwar-Vyasi Power Project in Juddo is putting at stake the lives and property of people in downstream areas. Since work started in November 2013, cracks have appeared on the houses in Juddo and debris from the construction site is being dumped into Yamuna. Locals also claim that substandard material is used to build the dam. A case has been filed against the project in the National Green Tribunal (NGT). According to one of the petitioners in the case, Manoj Mishra of the NGO Yamuna JiyeAbhiyaan, the impact of the project could reach as far as Delhi, the first major city on the Yamuna.

Situated in the landslide-prone, lesser Himalayan region on the Upper Yamuna valley, the Lakhwar-Vyasi Hydro Power Project consists of two dams: a 192-meter high Lakhwar Multipurpose 300 MW dam at Lohari, and the 80-meter high Vyasi dam of 120 MW at Juddo. The construction of the project first started in 1987 and was undertaken by the Jaypee Group under the Uttar Pradesh Irrigation Department. In 1992, Jaypee abruptly pulled out of the project, stating lack of funds as a reason, and work on the site came to a grinding halt. It restarted on Vyasi dam –construction of Lakhwar is yet to resume — in November 2013, with the head of the dam being constructed by Gammon India at Juddo. At Hathiyari, which is less than a mile away, National Projects Construction Corporation Limited (NPCC)is building the power house which will contain two turbines of 60 MW each.

The powerhouse site being excavated at Hathiyari, Uttarakhand. Image credit: Ishan Kukreti

Once completed,the Vyasi dam will submerge the entire habited area of Lohari village and farmlands of Bihar, Baghi and Dindal villages. In addition to the threat posed by such mega hydropower projects to the local environment and ecology — deforestation, destruction of animal habitat and the impact on the flow of the river — there is the risky location of the Lakhwar-Vyasi dams. The region is seismically active and the rocks here are weak, which makes the possibility of any structural damage to the dam an imminent threat.

Landslides are a common phenomenon along the Upper Yamuna Valley. Image credit: Ishan Kukreti

General manager of Uttarakhand Jal Vidyut Nigam (UJVN), Rajeev Aggarwal believes dams are needed to store water for drinking and irrigation use so that the water is not “wasted” when they follow their natural path and wind their way out to the ocean. “There are many ways to store rainwater, like wells, ponds, baoli, and people have been doing it since before dams were invented,” argued Mishra, adding that the river water going into the oceans is the natural completion of water cycle while dams are unnatural obstructions.

The Lakhwar-Vyasi dams have been challenged in the NGT by Yamuna Jiye Abhiyaan and Bhim Singh Rawat of South Asian Network on Dams, Rivers and People. Aside from the threats the dams pose, it’s claimed that the project lacks the necessary environmental clearance that is required under the Environment Impact Assessment Notification (EIAN) of 2006. This is partly because the project began in 1987 when the dangerous implications of hydropower mega dams were not known and partly because it’s now become two different dams: the Vyasi hydropower project and the Lakhwar Multipurpose Project. “The fact that environment clearance was given to Vyasi, the authorities will have to get it for Lakhwar too,” Rawat said, maintaining that the clearance given to the project in 1987 was merely an administrative one.

Public consultation, one of the four main steps in the assessment process of a project according to EIAN 2006, was never carried out for Lakhwar dam. As a result, there’s very little awareness among the locals of what dangers are posed by these two constructions. For them, it’s a sign of development and a chance to make some money by selling their farmland.

The ambitious ones — particularly young men — invariably do what Ram did: look to towns and cities like Vikasnagar and Dehradun for a future. For those who stay, agriculture is backbreaking work with few gains. Virandra Singh Panwar, a farmer, said he had a 12-kg peti (box) of mangoes, and the amount he was getting for it was Rs 110. “I spent six years growing the mango trees. The peti costs Rs. 15. I have to pay for the transport and then I get Rs 110. How is this justified?” he asked.

Once the Lakhwar dam is completed, the nearby River Aglar will disappear completely in its 20-kilometer long reservoir. The river is famous for the endangered fish Mahaseer (Tor putitora). With the river joining the stagnant reservoir, the Mahaseer, being a fresh water fish, will definitely disappear. The locals, however, don’t really care.Their focus is upon hardships that the rivers can’t ease. "Nobody benefits from this river," said Panwar of the Yamuna. “Our farms are up on the hills and the water is down in the valley. We can’t use it for irrigation. At least I’ll get some money after my land is acquired. I’ll go to Vikasnagar and start a shop."

Confluence of Rivers Yamuna and Aglar. Image credit: Ishan Kukreti

The Vayasi dam, according to Aggarwal, will be constructed by 2017. The work, which was going on smoothly was hampered by the rains, which Aggarwal said were more than expected. The dam site at Juddo is currently submerged under 20 meters of rainwater. The construction of the Lakhwar dam at Lohari, about a mile from Juddo, will begin after Vyasi dam is built.

Barely half a kilometre from Vyasi dam in Hathyari, truckloads of debris are regularly dumped into the river Yamuna. From a distance, the ash grey mound looks like a volcano, cooling down.

Debris from Hathiyari powerhouse site. Image credit: Ishan Kukreti

When it rains, with every downpour, the mound melts slowly into the river. The ongoing rains in Uttarakhand have increased Yamuna’s water level. Locals say that a huge chunk of the piled debris has been washed into the river as a result. The project manager of NPCC for the Hathiyari power house, RK Aggarwal, told Newslaundry that there’s nothing wrong with their dumping process.  "The debris is prevented from going into the river by a wall. When the level of debris exceeds that of the wall, we increase its height,” he said. However, when Newslaundry visited Hathiyari, we found no wall to prevent the debris from flowing into the river at the dumping site.

Ideally a wall separates debris from the river. Here it’s nowhere to be seen. Image credit: Ishan Kukreti

Nearby, in Lohari village, whose habited area will be completely submerged in the reservoir of Vyasi dam, there are concerns among the 13 families that live here about the quality of raw material being made at the crusher plant one mile away. “The sand has to be washed properly before being used for construction,” said  Sohan Lal Tomar, postman by profession and a resident of Lohari. “Earlier at the Jaypee crusher, there was a water sprinkler which released a thick six-inch stream of water on the raw material. However, no such mechanism is used now.” Mahesh Tomar, also from Lohari, added to this. “They don’t have an ice plant, which is used to make raw material resistant to low temperature. And they started constructing the dam!” he said. “One of the blocks of the dam has already developed cracks."

Lohari village, on the left of the river. Image credit: Ishan Kukreti

Site manager Mehboob Ali of Gammon India dismissed the locals’ concern as unwarranted. He agreed that things were not up to the mark initially, but claimed this has changed. “Earlier we did not have a water sprinkling facility,” said Ali. “Those things have been fixed now.” He said the crack was on a temporary structure that has been built to let the rain water collect – it’s some 20 meters deep – on the dam foundation site and will not impact the final dam structure.

Aggarwal also rubbished the locals’ allegations. “The UJVN has its quality check unit in place and constantly maintains the standard of the material,” he insisted. He said the ice plant is “almost ready” and will be functional as soon as the site is ready for construction. When asked about the seismicity of the region and how it can impact the dam and the people in the area, he said that this was an alarmist concern. He pointed out that there has been no precedence of earthquake in the area and therefore, the dams will not pose any threat to anyone.

However, not everyone is as confident about the dams being safe. The project lies near the Main Central Thrust (MCT) zone where the Indian tectonic plate is going under the Eurasian tectonic plate along the Himalayas, making it seismically very active. Geologist KS Valdiya, a Padma Shri and Padma Bhushan award winner, maintains that the seismicity of Uttarakhand is being ignored by the government to tap into the hydropower potential of the region. "The height of the dam makes it very risky in the region. Moreover, the spillway capacity of Lakhwar dam is inadequate at 8,000 cusecs as the Probable Maximum Flood (PMF) level in the area is 18,000 cusecs," HimanshuThakkar, coordinator of South Asian Network on Dams, Rivers and People said. He added that due to global warming the PMF level is likely to rise even further, making the dam highly vulnerable to catastrophic damage in case of a flood situation. “It’s an invitation to disaster,” Thakkar said bluntly. According to Thakkar, even the clarification on Dam Break Analysis sought by the Environment Impact Assessment Authority’s (EIAA) Expert Appraisal Committee meeting on August 16, 2007 remains to this date "incomplete, inadequate and far from satisfactory".

The seismic activity in the area has also made the rocks in the region weak, making the mountains landslide-prone. Construction activity of the dams like excavation, making tunnels through the mountains, blasts on the site etc here will further weaken the rocks, making the dams vulnerable to structural mishaps, apart from making the region unsafe to live or travel through.

The flooded dam site at Juddo. Image credit: Ishan Kukreti

Despite all these environmental implications of the Lakhwar-Vyasi project, barring a few, all the locals in the region are in favour of the project. Those disgruntled are so because of rate of reimbursement for land. "The impact assessment reports that the public consultation is based on are in English. The locals are not able to understand it and therefore the real nature of the impact is never know," Thakkar said.

Those who do betray a sense of unease, like local schoolteacher Nishant, also have an unnervingly fatalistic point of view: “We say that we are killing the river, harming the river but it’s wrong. River has been there for always, you can’t harm a river. The river will find a way to break free. And when it does that, we will suffer, as we did in 2013.”

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