Issue :   
January 2018 Edition of Power Politics is updated.         January 2018 Edition of Power Politics is updated.
Issue:Jan' 2018


Pancheshwar dam

Mahakali river

Anuradha Dutt

The Himalayas, those majestic citadels on India's northern borders, are today riddled with man-made tunnels; arid beds of rivers that have been diverted from their natural course or dried up in long stretches; and deforested terrain.
This alarming spectacle owes to the numerous hydroelectricity projects, commissioned by policymakers in tandem with private players, to meet the burgeoning urban and industrial need for power, and for irrigation purposes. In the process, cultural heritage and eco systems of inestimable value have been destroyed, and thousands of families displaced and traumatised.
Now, mounting demonstrationsagainst the proposed Pancheshwar dam on the Mahakali in Uttarakhand's Pithoragarh district, the river serving as a boundary between India and Nepal, evokes a sense of déjà vu.
Since the end of 1986, after then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi signed an agreement with USSR President Mikhail Gorbochev for part Soviet funding and technical assistance for the mammoth 290.5 metre-high Tehri dam, straddling the Bhagirathi Ganga and Bhilangana, angry inhabitants who were threatened with displacement, conservationists and seismologists in unison campaigned against the hydroelectricity scheme on humanitarian, environmental and scientific grounds. Soviet involvement was ended by dramatic political shifts..
The reservoir area is about 43 sq km, while the dam is located in a seismically active zone.
Protests still continue to occur. Decision-makers went ahead with the scheme in the face of increasing opposition, to submerge Old Tehri town, with residents being relocated against their will to New Tehri, and displaced people from many villages in the submergence areas trying to rebuild lives in Pathari in Haridwar and contiguous regions. Inefficient rehabilitation procedures added to their grievances.
It is said that history repeats itself. Policymakers have reportedly greensignalled the Pancheshwar dam, proposed two decades ago. WAPCOS Ltd, an Indian PSU under Union Ministry of Water Resources, River Development and Ganga Rejuvenation, is reported to have submitted the final draft of the detailed project report.
The dam will presumably be built as per the public-private partnership module like Sardar Sarovar dam over Narmada river and Tehri dam, both constructed via Jaiprakash Associates Ltd's involvement as a private player. However, this company's parent body Jaypee Group is at present mired in huge debts, and is under great pressure to repay bank loan.

Interview with Manoj Mishra, Yamuna Jiye Abhiyan Convenor and New Delhi-based environmentalist Q: Pancheshwar dam is much larger than Tehri dam. Nepal is projecting it as the world's largest dam. What are the hidden costs apart from the obvious destruction of ecology, wildlife and cultural heritage, and displacement of people?
River Mahakali (over which this dam is proposed) is amongst few undammed rivers in the Ganga system. Which means it is one of the few rivers that even today carry monsoonal flows to the river Ganga and finally to the Ganga Delta. The climate change impacts of this human intervention needs to be fully understood prior to any such further intervention. Q: Congress built Tehri dam. BJP wants to build Pancheshwar dam. Why? Well, this only the people hell bent on building it can respond. Q: List the viable and environmentally sustainable options for power generation to this huge hydroelectricity project.
In today's age when solar and wind power has become not only easily produced and at a much faster pace but is economically cheaper, there is no case whatsoever to go for any new hydroelectric projects. This is also true in the light of several existing hydroelectric projects going 'sick', requiring bail out by the state.

Civil rights groups are engaged in frenetic lobbying against the dam, which, as a 5040 megawatt multipurpose project, is touted as being much bigger – and by inference, more ruinous in terms of the human and environmental costs – than the 2,400 megawatt Tehri dam. Three 'Jan Sunwai' or public hearings, conducted between August 9 and August 17, 2017 have been dismissed as a farce by local people as these were held in the peak monsoon period, with landslides and heavy rains cutting off access to the venues.
Banners displayed by protestors outside Vikas Bhawan in the Pithoragarh district headquarters of Uttarakhand on August 11 declared: "Baandh nahi vikas chahiye" (We need development, not a dam).
Especially pertinent at this juncture is this excerpt from Prime Minister Narendra Modi's address to the British Parliament in November 2015 – "And, the motto of Sab Ka Saath, Sab Ka Vikas, is our vision of a nation, in which every citizen belongs, participates and prospers. It is not just a call for economic inclusion. It is also a celebration of our diversity; the creed for social harmony; and, a commitment to individual liberties and rights".
Public hearings, in light of the true spirit of the prime minister's assertion, on a project with such enormous ramifications as the Pancheshwar dam, which threatens to displace thousands of people; submerge vast areas in Pithoragarh, Champawat and Almora districts; and possibly submerge Jhulaghat town in Pithoragarh, need to be a genuine expression of the people's will.
The genesis of the project - a 293 metre-high rock fill dam, largest such dam in the world, downstream of the confluence of the Mahakali and Sarju rivers - lies in the signing of the Treaty on Integrated Development of Mahakali river between Nepal, then a Hindu monarchy, and India in February 1996. Pancheshwar Multipurpose Project on the Mahakali was the highlight.
The ruling regime's alleged propensity for appropriating old schemes is ill-advised in the present instance, given the factors that weigh against its feasibility. An additional factor is that numerous hydroelectricity projects, operating at a loss for various reasons, are in need of government bailout in order to revive their optimum power generation capacity. This fact was revealed by K.M. Singh, CMD, National Hydro Power Corporation in an interview given to Economic Times, June 13, 2017 ('Government bailout is required to revive the hydropower sector: KM Singh, CMD, NHPC').
As advanced countries veer towards environmentally sustainable energy options, it is a moot point why India would want to revive an old, potentially wasteful project that is being slammed by human rights bodies, conservationists and scientists who stress the earthquake hazards and sensitivity of fragile Himalayan terrain. The June 2013 devastation of Kedarnath and resultant deaths – estimated to be over 5,000 - by flash floods and landslides, blamed on indiscriminate colonisation of Mandakiniu river precincts and mountainside, is a tragic testimony to human folly.