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Buying silence, manufacturing consent

By Manshi Asher

The Himachal government has notified that the 1% free power to be made available for ‘local area development’ by hydropower producers would be distributed as annual cash transfers to ‘project-affected’ families. Is it trying to buy people’s silence in the face of increasing community opposition to hydroelectric projects?

Destruction of mountainsides

On October 5, 2011, the Himachal Pradesh government’s Multi-Purpose Projects and Power Department issued a notification stating that the 1% free power to be made available for “local area development” by hydropower producers would be distributed annually as cash transfers to project-affected families. This notification, a revision of the earlier Local Area Development Fund guidelines under the state’s hydropower policy 2006, comes at a time when several spontaneous grassroots agitations have emerged at sites of hydroelectric projects.

Calling itself the ‘Hydropower State’, Himachal Pradesh is second in line after Arunachal Pradesh with a hydropower potential of about 21,000 MW. The installed capacity of hydropower projects has seen a 20-fold rise, going up to 6,370 MW in the last 10 years. More than 4,000 MW-capacity projects are under construction, and implementation agreements for several more have been signed in the recent past. According to reports, the remaining capacity to be tapped is now around 43%.

What has motivated the government to introduce the new guideline at this stage?

In the last five years, as state rhetoric about development faded and the impacts became more real and visible, project-affected communities have been putting their foot down. Be it a small project like the 4.5 MW Hul hydro in the Saal valley of Chamba or the 265 MW integrated Kashang project and Jaypee’s 1,000 MW project in Kinnaur -- all have met with serious local protests, even the stalling of work on grounds of livelihood losses, environmental violations or poor compensation packages. At such a time, the government’s move towards direct cash transfers is a calculated strategy to get people to fall in line. This is clear from the notification which states: “The developer will be entitled to claim compensation for the delays and financial losses (in commissioning of the project) due to work stoppage on account of agitation by local people during construction of the project. The financial loss to the developer will be deducted from the revenue which shall accrue from 1% free power and will be paid to the developer.”

Deepak Sannan, Principal Secretary, Multi-Purpose Projects and Power Department, Himachal Pradesh, feels however that this is an incorrect assessment. “The protests are not because people are adversely affected. People see that they are not getting any direct benefits, and stalling of work is used as a method to extract money. Our new policy will reassure them that they do not need to use tactics for extraction by giving them consistent benefits and making them the stakeholders.”

Notwithstanding, the new policy has come in rather late in the day and, as the principal secretary himself suggests, will probably be applicable only to new projects. People affected by existing projects or those for which MoUs have already been signed are unlikely to be the “beneficiaries”.

Before presuming, however, that this is a win-win situation for everyone involved, there is need for some clarity on the actual implications of the seemingly positive policy revision. In order to understand things fully we must first spell out the nature of the impact of these hydropower projects, and define the meaning of the term ‘project-affected’ in this context.

Hydroelectric projects in Himachal Pradesh

Run-of-the-river projects: Upstream vs downstream, big vs small

One of the major features of the frenzied pace of hydro development in Himachal Pradesh has been a shift to ‘run-of-the-river’ projects from major reservoir-based projects known commonly as dams, especially in areas with a steep gradient. Today, hundreds of such micro, small, medium (ranging from 5 MW to 100 MW) and large run-of-the-river hydro projects are coming up across the state, even at high altitudes. These projects involve the building of a barrage (with smaller reservoirs) at the point where the river is diverted into a tunnel (drilled into the mountain) to be dropped back into the source river (or, in some cases, a different river/stream) later. The power house is built at the point where the river drops back into its source.

Unlike a reservoir-based hydroelectric project, or what we commonly call a ‘large dam’, in the plains or downstream areas, a run-of-the-river project in the mountains does not involve the same scale of direct displacement as the submergence areas are smaller and habitations mostly exist on the mountain slopes. Thus, the lands that are acquired are also smaller in area, mostly for the power house site, project colonies, dumping of debris and other construction activities.

Rakesh Lohumi, a journalist with the Tribune,illustrates the implication of the new policy in the context of upstream versus downstream projects: “In the 66 MW Dhaula Sidh project, to be located in the relatively gentler hill areas of Hamirpur, about 3,250 families spread over 14 affected panchayats will get the benefit, with each household getting a meagre Rs 3,000 annually. Whereas in a sparsely populated district like Lahaul and Spiti, a 3,400 MW project will fetch each household a whopping Rs 1.60 lakh annually, even though only a few families from the panchayat may be affected.”

Such a comparison can also be made between large and small projects. While large hydro projects of more than 100 MW (located mostly on major rivers) have a higher capacity, their direct socio-economic impacts are smaller simply because larger rivers like the Sutlej, Ravi or Beas are not directly used by communities. On the other hand, smaller projects, though apparently harmless and portrayed as generating clean energy, appear to have a more direct impact on the day-to-day lives of people because they are built on smaller streams which are used for irrigation, drinking water, running watermills, and fishing by local communities. So, while there may be an inverse relationship between project capacity and direct livelihood loss, it is ultimately the size of the project that will determine the size of compensation paid (rather than the nature of the impact).

No light at the end of the tunnel

Further, if we look closely at upstream or large hydro projects in major river basins we find another serious dichotomy. For instance, a massive project like Jaypee’s 1,000 MW Karchham Wangtoo project in Kinnaur required about 1,650 bighas of land from 31 families in two villages. While these numbers may seem insignificant compared to those displaced by projects downstream, they are misleading inasmuch as they do not count those affected by a key activity -- the construction of a tunnel. In the Karchham Wangtoo project, the tunnel is 17 km long and passes under six villages. A simple drill-and-blast method is used to dig into the fragile mountain at separate points (referred to as ‘adits’), until a large long quarry, a hollow space where the river will flow, is created. Commonsense and experience suggests that this activity has its own set of adverse environmental implications, which is probably why more than 800 petitioners from the six villages are now fighting a legal battle for compensation, claiming that the tunnel has affected water aquifers in the mountains and caused natural springs to dry up -- the only source of drinking water and irrigation for apple orchards.

Their claim is now being backed by the state’s irrigation and public health department. Rahul Saxena, an activist based in Himachal Pradesh, explains: “In response to a series of RTI applications filed by us the department has revealed that in villages located in the area affected by the Karchham Wangtoo project, by 2009 almost 43 out of 167, ie almost 26%, of water sources had dried up and in 67 sources, ie almost 40%, the discharge had reduced. Similar data has been provided for four other project sites in different parts of the state -- all revealing that villages located above the tunnel are indeed being impacted by the construction of these hydropower projects.”

While the government may claim that it will come up with alternative arrangements and schemes for water supply to these villages, it may not be in a position to relocate the villagers who encounter frequent landslides, erosion and cracks that have begun to appear in their houses as a result of the underground blasting activities. This is a common feature in areas where tunnelling work is being carried out. Yet the villages are excluded from the definition ‘project-affected’ in project reports, environment impact assessment studies and rehabilitation plans. And now the revised LADF guidelines as well. Although Deepak Sannan says villages where ‘any’ civil works are undertaken will become part of the ‘project-affected area’, the notification in its definition does not mention this.

In such a scenario, what will be the fate of the 78 villages in Mandi district that exist in the mountains that will be hollowed out in the process of constructing the world’s longest hydropower tunnel? The 750 MW, World Bank-funded Luhri hydroelectric project proposed to be built on the Sutlej river, spread over three districts (Kullu, Shimla and Mandi), will have a 38-km-long twin tunnel, 9 metres in diameter. The EIA report submitted by the project proponent merely mentions the number of villages in the proposed tunnel area. There is no assessment whatsoever of the socio-economic and environmental fallout of a tunnel of this magnitude in an area that is so geologically fragile.

On the other hand, the area considered ‘project-affected’ (on the left bank of the Sutlej) falls in Shimla district where its proponents have chosen to locate their ancillary activities, which include the project colony and other infrastructure. It is important to note that the people living here are economically better off and politically more influential. Communities affected by the tunnel on the right bank, however, are poorer and depend more on the forests and natural resources for their livelihood. They are not included on the list of project-affected families. “It’s a case of double discrimination. Not only are we expected to bear the brunt of the more destructive part of the project (the tunnel) but we are also being invisibilised and not even considered ‘project-affected’,” says Nek Ram Sharma of the Sutlej Bachao Sangharsh Samiti, Mandi. Sharma believes that the struggle of people affected by the tunnel is unlikely to receive support from the rest of the affected population, especially those whose lands are being acquired. “Apart from compensation for the land, there is an additional attraction of the cash from the 1% free power. This is divide-and-rule politics,” says Sharma.

This dynamic will also come into play because, under the new policy, the unit for declaring an area ‘project-affected’ will be the gram panchayat. For all families in all villages in a panchayat to receive the same or equal benefits despite being impacted differently will become a serious issue.

Silence on ecological impacts

According to a recent report by the Himachal Pradesh Forest Department, of the 9,147 hectares of forestland diverted towards non-forest use in the state in the last 20 years, almost 67%, ie about 6,154 hectares, has been for hydropower projects and transmission lines, indicating the extent of deforestation involved. Perhaps the most critical impact of drilling holes into the mountainside is borne by the mountain ecosystem, the forests and the river that will leave its original course and flow in tunnels instead of the riverbed. “A cascade of nearly 30 projects on the Sutlej would mean that in a few years time the entire river will disappear,” says R S Negi, a resident of Rekong Peo and founder of the Him Lok Jagriti Manch working towards protecting the rights of the people of Kinnaur. The cash transfer of 1% free power may amount to lakhs of rupees, but will it compensate for the irreversible damage to the riverine ecosystem and the loss of a river? This is the question the Himachal government should be pondering when it calls itself a ‘green’ state.

Lack of cumulative impact assessments for projects, absence of river basin planning, poor EIA reports, violations of environment and forest clearance laws, especially the maintenance of minimum river flow -- these are all issues that plague hydropower development in Himachal Pradesh today. The government has chosen to maintain a deafening silence on these issues. Instead, with the new policy, it is attempting to buy the silence of its people.

(Manshi Asher is a member of Him Dhara, Environment Research and Action Collective based in Himachal Pradesh)

Infochange News & Features, December 2011