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The Sindhol power struggle

By Ranjan K Panda

Three more hydropower plants on the Mahanadi, which already has the Hirakud dam, will mean that the river will be dammed four times in a 100-km stretch, virtually killing it. To what lengths is the government prepared to go to serve the interests of water-guzzling industry, ask communities and activists who are strongly resisting the Sindhol project

 People’s resistance to Sindhol

On July 21, when the Orissa government signed an agreement with the Orissa Hydro Power Corporation (OHPC) and the National Hydro Power Corporation (NHPC), to set up three hydropower plants along the Mahanadi river, covering three western districts of the state, it virtually struck a dormant beehive. The project, located at Deogaon, Kapasira and Godhaneswar, is slated to generate 320 MW of hydropower, at an investment cost of Rs 2,600 crore.

Local people, who were earlier displaced by Hirakud, Asia’s longest earthen dam (many of them are still to be compensated), were quick to smell a conspiracy. It seemed quite clear that the government was once again planning to push them aside in favour of mining and industry. What made it worse was that the government had supposedly shelved the project in the wake of serious public outrage. 

And so the anger resurfaced. In just under 40 days, hundreds of protests in various forms sprung up throughout Orissa’s western region. Rallies, mashaal yatras, strikes, public hearings by the people -- almost all forms of peaceful resistance have been tried.

Interestingly, local leaders of the ruling Biju Janata Dal (BJD) have come out in open support of the protesters. Immediately after signing the MoU, state energy minister Atanu Sabyasachi Nayak, on the back foot, declared: “The plants will not come up if the people don’t want them.”

But the people aren’t buying this. “We have lost all faith in this government as their intentions are dubious,” says Professor Durga Prasad Nayak, an octogenarian social activist. “Thousands of displaced families from the Hirakud dam that was built in the 1950s are yet to be compensated, and the other ill-effects of the dams have been borne by our people all these decades. This second project will worsen the situation and we are sure the government has dubious intentions about this project as well,” he says. “This will be another project which will be built in the name of development but will wreak havoc on the local people and the environment,” he adds.

This time around, the issues are not confined to displacement and submergence. People fear that the Sindhol project is another step in Orissa’s aggressive path to industrialisation that aims to provide water to existing and upcoming industries in the area at the cost of local people and the environment. In a first reaction to the latest agreement, Water Initiatives, Orissa (WIO), a leading civil society coalition that has been working with water and climate change issues for over two decades, in Orissa, stated: “With the Mahanadi already reaching a stressful condition, and the Hirakud dam continuously failing to generate the power it was designed to, this seems to be a project which will fail by design so that the water that’s stored can be used by the upcoming industries and power plants.” Professor Arttabandhu Mishra of WIO says: “The Mahanadi divides coal and bauxite reserves. The government has always wanted to mine bauxite from the sacred Gandamardhan hills, and people have successfully fought it so far. However, this time the plan seems to be clearly mandated to mine Gandamardhan again and bring the bauxite load through water tunnels to the place where the first barrage is being planned under the Sindhol project. Coal is already there and can come from the other side. Both ways, the minerals are less than 100 km away and can be very easily transported to this place where water can be reserved for aluminium production.”

This view has been echoed by local leaders and people. There are a number of thermal power plants coming up in this non-industrialised belt, and they will all need huge amounts of water to run. “After we vigorously resisted the move to divert water from Hirakud to industries, the government may have planned this new move thinking it would not face strong resistance as these are all thinly populated areas with sparsely located villages,” says Saroj, an advisor to the Sambalpur Zilla Krushak Surakhya Sangathan. 

Things are a little more complicated this time as the government is under severe pressure from industry which it has been luring with the promise of ‘surplus water’. “The government has signed hundreds of agreements with water-guzzling industries, and it is under pressure to supply water to these industries. There are more factors working against this round of the project being pushed; the government will definitely try to crush the people’s movements more aggressively than before,” says Saroj.

Sambalpur MLA Jaya Narayan Mishra believes the MoU was signed without any discussion with local people and representatives, and that the project is meant solely to provide water to industry. “When people in the locality need irrigation because this is a drought-prone area, there is no point pushing for power projects,” says Professor Mishra. “We at WIO have already questioned the government about the need for generating more power when the state is power-surplus. Peak demand in Orissa is about 4,000 MW; we are generating much more than that already by making people suffer in the respective localities of the power plants, most of which are coal-fired,” he says. 

Designed to fail

Despite the energy minister saying the project would be a clean energy project, he has not been able to show people the actual design. There is no detailed project report (DPR) available in the public domain either, despite demands from every quarter. Information on the OHPC website has been found to be outdated and confusing.

According to the government, the Sindhol Power Complex comprises three run-of-the-river schemes downstream of the Hirakud dam. The scheme will utilise the drop in riverbed above 14 mt, 26 mt, and 18 mt, at Sindhol I, II and III respectively, within a span of 95 km from Chiplima P H. Going by this, and the designs that were prepared in 2006, the cost of the project was Rs 2,431.70 crore.

Whatever the design, any project of this kind will have severe socio-economic and ecological consequences. “The designs of the barrages that one can interpret from the available information are the designs of large dams as defined by the World Commission on Dams, and will have devastating impacts on the river’s ecology,” warns WIO. As a WIO analysis points out: “The first barrage is just 19 km from Chiplima -- the second power plant of the Hirakud dam project. The second is about 36 km from the first one, and the third is about the same distance from the second one. That means three barrages within a span of 75 km. Considering the already existing Hirakud dam, the Mahanadi will be dammed four times within a 100 km stretch! This will kill the river by halting its natural flow and destroying the oxygen it requires to dilute the heavy pollutants it receives from Hirakud’s upper catchment -- from the many industries that have come up, and from urban habitations. It will also restrict the movement and breeding of fish, submerge the world-famous leaning temple at Huma, and increase the regularity of floods in a hitherto flood-free zone.” Even if they go in for a run-of-the-river project, there are bound to be ecological and other impacts.

Himanshu Thakkar of the New Delhi-based South Asian Network on Dams, Rivers and People (SANDRP), says: “After large storage dams were opposed all over, the government has been promoting run-of-the-river projects, claiming that these are eco-friendly. This is a misnomer: these projects involve a lot of destructive methods to divert the flow of rivers through tunnels, such as the blasting of rocks, and could induce geological changes. Such projects will negatively impact all nearby streams,” he says. “It is also important to know that the NHPC has not been successful in dam projects anywhere except with the Himalayan rivers. The state government should have carried out proper studies of the NHPC’s capabilities and the problems its projects have encountered, before signing the agreement. This means not much serious thought has gone into the exercise.”

Then there is the larger issue of the ‘surplus water’ of the Mahanadi river. Studying the Hirakud dam and its performance over the years would determine the success or failure of hydroelectric projects downstream. An analysis by WIO claims that the annual average rainfall in the basin above the Hirakud dam was 1,381 mm when the dam was designed. However, by 2003 it had already reduced by as much as 249 mm, to 1,132 mm. Each year, the reservoir’s capacity to hold water drops by 0.4%; while the original capacity was 4.72 million acre feet (MAF), it has dropped to 3.92 MAF. The dam is already being criticised for not being able to meet irrigation and power generation demands; full reservoir level (FRL) has been a dream for decades. Dam authorities recently even changed -- in a non-transparent manner -- the minimum level storage to favour industries that now have an influential stake in the waters of Hirakud. 

Chhattisgarh is already aggressively drawing water from the Mahanadi via several dams and barrages. A report by the New Delhi-based Centre for Science and Environment says that while the state is drawing about 1,000 million cubic metres (MCM) of water at the moment, for industry and other projects, by the time the total industrialisation plan using water from the Mahanadi is complete, it will draw a whopping 3,700 MCM of water from the river.

Observation at Kasdol, near Raipur, has shown that the Mahanadi’s water flow has drastically reduced over the last 10 years: from 3,000-10,000 MCM to only 1,528 MCM. That’s why the Chhattisgarh government has already charted an ambitious plan of building around 600 check-dams to obstruct about 30% of the available flow. This could result in the Mahanadi dying in the upper catchment itself, translating to a drop in power production and irrigation from Hirakud. Except for the monsoon, which is becoming more and more erratic, the Mahanadi will stay dry throughout the year. The Sindhol project, therefore, is a design that’s doomed to fail.

Now, the government says the design has changed and it will have reduced impact. However, the power generation capacity has actually increased to 320 MW from the originally planned 300 MW. It also says that the current investment is Rs 2,600 crore. Simple calculations show that this is a proportionate cost escalation of the same design. With a time lapse of about half-a-decade, and an increase in capacity, the cost would, in fact, have increased by at least 20-30%, even for the same design, because of inflation. One can surmise from this, therefore, that the government does not have a new design. 

In 2003, the chief minister gave an assurance that the project was no longer under consideration. However, records with the OHPC say the project has always been under consideration. The business of preparing the DPR, and rehabilitation and resettlement plans, were indeed going on, as the following note from the OHPC confirms: ‘The matter has been discussed in the 79th OHPC board meeting held on 15.12.2006, wherein it was discussed to take up the project with the NHPC. The same has been moved to the Government of Orissa for necessary actions vide this office letter No 876 dated 05.02.07. Meanwhile, the OHPC had requested NHPC/WAPCOS to submit the DPR. The NHPC denied a preliminary offer received from WAPCOS. Our views have been intimated to them and a reply is awaited.’ Local MLAs have no idea whether the DPR was ever prepared or indeed if any new design is available.

It is the non-availability of the DPR that people have been highlighting from the start. “How can the government sign the agreement without making the project design public,” asks Sahu. It’s things like this that make people in the region believe that the government is playing a dirty political game rather than mooting a genuine hydroelectric project. “We just can’t take it from the mouth of a minister that there will be no displacement, no submergence of agricultural land, nothing like that when there is no such project existing in the world that has not had any negative impacts,” says Saroj. “The government has only one agenda: to reserve water for industry,” Sahu alleges. 

The only thing left for people who are going to be affected by the project is to hope that this is not a run-of-the-river project as stated on the OHPC website, but a reservoir project that will store water for upcoming industries and power plants, most of which the government has already planned. Strong resistance, that began the day the MoU for Sindhol was signed, forced the government to declare that it would install lift irrigation points on the reservoirs to provide irrigation as well. But people remain sceptical: “These are false promises. If the government were concerned about irrigation it would have gone in for small irrigation projects across the stretch, not a power project. We need to grow our food first, but they need the power. We are not ready to suffer for the politicians and their corporate masters,” says Sahu who warns of continuing the fight if the government does not stop the project once and for all.

(Ranjan K Panda is a writer, researcher and environmentalist. He is a recipient of the NDTV Green Hero award)

Infochange News & Features, September 2011