‘No coordination, greed’: Buried in Himachal rubble, questions over hydropower projects

The flash floods point to serious lapses in dam management and flood monitoring.

WrittenBy:Hridayesh Joshi

The mournful silence along Sainj valley, about 50 kilometres from Himachal Pradesh’s Kullu, is broken only by the rumble of the Pin Parvati river and bulldozers in the distance. Bustling settlements have now been replaced by silt and boulders – brought on by the recent floods – and their inhabitants lodged in tents, staring at debris and hoping for adequate compensation. 

Nirmala Devi, a 42-year-old resident of Sainj, said villages nearby have seen a similar impact. “More than 40 buildings, including shops and homes, were destroyed by flash floods. Many people don’t have anything left…Our lives have been ruined.”

Sainj is a tehsil in Himachal’s Kullu where a century-old market served as a trade centre for 15 panchayats.

But the recent floods have taken away not just homes and jobs, but also the land of those dependent on farming, said Dinesh Kumar, a 28-year-old from Baker village.

Mahesh Sharma, a social activist, said the Sainj valley is home to around 25,000 people. “The destruction along the river bank has been taken note of with the administration having taken some steps. But there is yet to be a proper estimate of the damage in the remote villages which have been cut off due to heavy rains.”

Dams responsible

Villagers in the valley blamed the National Hydroelectric Power Corporation for the rise in the river level and the damage due to it. They said a dam linked to a 520 megawatt NHPC project had suddenly released water between July 8 and July 10, without warning.

Taradevi, a villager from Sainj, said, “The rubble from the construction work being undertaken in the valley is dumped in the river. When the dam opened its gates, there was a major rise in the river’s water level which caused this damage.”

The sudden release of dam water and the unscientific construction of roads in this sensitive Himalayan region has repeatedly faced questions. Read Newslaundry reports from Pandoh and about highway construction to know more. 

Himachal Pradesh today has more than 130 power projects, with a gross production capacity of over 10,800 megawatts. In line with plans to increase this number to 1,000 projects with an expected capacity of 22,000 MWs by 2030, an array of dams have been set up along the Satluj, Vyas, Rabi and Parvati and their tributaries. 

The state government’s Himachal Pradesh Power Corporation Limited itself aims to have an over 3,800 MW capacity with its current, under-construction and proposed projects.

Admitting that hydropower dams aggravated the flood situation across the state, Deputy Chief Minister Mukesh Agnihotri said the development model of the hills needs to be reconsidered. The minister said the state hosts a large number of hydroelectric projects by the SJVN, NHPC, HPPCL, BBMB and other private and government firms.

“It’s true that these projects give the state a large amount of power and revenue, but should there be more power projects and reservoirs? The hydropower dams in Himachal were never filled up with so much water. When it rose beyond a point, the companies could either save their dams or the people. They rang the alarm and released the water. Many villages were washed away.”

Manshi Asher, co-founder of Himdhara, an organisation working in Himachal Pradesh, blames the disaster on the sidelining of norms by infrastructure projects. Be it highway construction or hydroelectric projects, mountains and forests are being cut off indiscriminately without following the set norms, she alleged. The debris from the construction work is not disposed of properly and is thrown into the river.

Asher said it’s not the first flood in Himachal, but the scale raises doubts. “The scale at which it is happening should make us think whether it is purely a natural calamity or because of these (hydroelectric) dams as well. I think we need to accept that even though these incidents are partly happening due to climate change, the damage has increased manifold due to various policy lapses.”

“Flooding is not a problem. That is a natural hazard. But when you create obstruction in the path of the flowing river and do not monitor or follow the safety measures, disasters happen. The disastrous impacts we are witnessing are due to intervention in the path of the river, the land use change and lack of regulation,” she said.

A village in Sainj valley destroyed by floods.
Serious questions have been raised about the construction and operation of the hydropower projects.

Hydropower firms evade accountability

There have been several questions surrounding the role of hydropower firms. 

Social activist Guman Singh, who is part of the Himalaya Niti Abhiyan, said that the Sainj region alone is home to about six major and three dozen small and micro hydel projects. He claimed the dam management does not control water despite alerts during heavy rains.

“There is no coordination among these hydropower companies. And due to the greed for more power production (during monsoon), they ignore the alerts by the administration and do not release the water in time. When there is a flood situation and their dams overflow, all of them open the gates (of all the dams) together and the disaster happens in the villages downstream.” 

Asked about these allegations, the NHPC denied that it had any role in the disaster. “We shut off the Parvati-3 power station (in Sainj valley) because there was a lot of silt. It’s not generating power at the moment,” an NHPC official told Newslaundry.

On claims made by locals, the official said the company has followed the standard operating procedure.

“The NHPC worked as per stipulated norms and guidelines. We can’t hold the water in the dam. We have to release it as per the manual. There are a lot of areas which do not have any dams but have seen destruction, including Bhuntar, Kullu and Manali. It’s not correct to say that only the areas with dams were ruined.”

Kullu deputy commissioner Ashutosh Garg said there are clear provisions for reservoir management under the Dam Safety Act and “we have ordered an enquiry to find out the role of these hydropower dams in the disaster”. 

“When I visited these villages, I too found deep public resentment (against the hydropower dams). We will have to see if the standard operating procedure was followed at the time of floods. The facts will be revealed only after the inquiry is done.”

Lack of flood forecasting systems

In India, the Central Water Commission under the Jal Shakti ministry is assigned the role of flood forecasting by monitoring river water levels.

However, the commission has failed to provide any such significant inputs over the last decade even as floods wreaked havoc across several states, including the 2013 Uttarakhand tragedy which left around 6,000 dead.

The CWC has 199 flood forecasting stations across the country, of which 151 calculate river water levels while 48 estimate the inflow. 

Notably, Himachal Pradesh doesn’t have a CWC station. 

CWC executive engineer Prakash Chandra admitted the lack of a single such station across the hill state but said that the responsibility to monitor floods lies with the state’s disaster management department.

Himanshu Thakkar, coordinator of the South Asia Network for Dam River and People, said there is a “lot of ad-hocism in our country” regarding flood forecasting and early warning. “This attitude needs to change and responsibility should be fixed through the National Disaster Management Act.”

“Be it the Uttarakhand floods of 2013 or the Kashmir floods in 2014, the devastating floods of Himachal, and in Punjab this year; in each of these episodes, the CWC did not forecast the floods. Every time they are asked why they could not forecast, they say in each instance the state government did not seek a forecast so we did not do it. This ad-hocism is proving to be too costly and the risks are going to be worse with each passing year.”  

Thakkar said the CWC is not the right agency for flood forecasting as it does a lot of work – from sanctioning large dams and reservoirs to making rules, monitoring, and giving permissions – and many of these roles are contradictory. “This creates a conflict of interest and hence we have been demanding that a completely independent and neutral body be given the responsibility of flood forecasting and monitoring of rivers and reservoirs.”

Also see
article image‘Hit worse than Covid’: Despair shrouds Himachal’s orchards and hotels after flood


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