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India pushes for its largest ever hydropower project despite concerns

  • India’s hydropower sector has come back into focus with the government clearing the path for the controversial, large-scale Dibang hydropower project in Arunachal Pradesh state.
  • The project, estimated to cost about $4 billion, is expected to be the highest dam in India once completed and aimed at preventing flooding in downstream areas. It’s controversial for its proposed felling of trees and possible impact on local communities, ecology, environment and wildlife of the area.
  • In its focus on the hydropower sector, the Indian government has also introduced a bill to parliament on dam safety, to regulate the more than 5,600 existing dams in India, some of them more than 100 years old, and the nearly 4,700 under construction.

Hydropower projects are back in focus in India, with the government declaring in the past sixth months that large hydropower projects would have renewable energy status. The government has also brought in a dam safety bill.

And now, it’s paved the way for the progress of the controversial 2,880-megawatt Dibang hydropower project in the northeastern state of Arunachal Pradesh, believed to be the largest hydroelectric project and highest dam to be constructed in India.

On July 17, the Cabinet Committee on Economic Affairs (CCEA), led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, approved the “expenditure on pre-investment activities and various clearances for Dibang Multipurpose Project (MPP) in Arunachal Pradesh” for an amount of 16 billion rupees ($232 million). The total estimated cost of the project is 280 billion rupees ($4 billion), with a timeline of nine years to completion from the receipt of government approval.

Envisaged as a storage-based hydroelectric project with flood moderation as the key objective, the Dibang MPP will be located on the eponymous river and valley district of Arunachal Pradesh, featuring a 278-meter (912-foot) concrete gravity dam. The construction of the dam, by the state-controlled National Hydroelectric Power Corporation (NHPC), is expected to prevent flooding in downstream areas.

With the environment, defense and the first level of forest clearance already in place, the project, as per an official statement, is awaiting final-stage forest clearance for investment approval from the government, which would enable the developers to provide compensation for land acquisition and resettlement of affected families, undertake compensatory afforestation, and other investments.

In addition to the mandated resettlement and rehabilitation (R&R) plan for affected families, the project proposes to invest 2.41 billion rupees ($35 million) on community and social development and addressing concerns raised by the local community during the public hearings. “It is also proposed to spend an amount of 32.7 million rupees [$475,000] on a plan for the protection of culture and identity of local people,” the statement added.

The project has been in the making for more than a decade now, with the then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh laying the foundation stone for it in 2008, and has been controversial throughout.

It would involve felling of more than 300,000 trees, which would disrupt the habitat of wildlife such as elephants (Elephas maximus), hoolock gibbons (Hoolock spp.), clouded leopards (Neofelis nebulosa), tigers (Panthera tigris), fishing cats (Prionailurus viverrinus), snow leopards (Panthera uncia) and Himalayan black bears (Ursus thibetanus laniger) that have the highest protection under the country’s wildlife laws.

The hydropower project will be located in the lower Dibang Valley, close to Mehao Wildlife Sanctuary in Arunachal Pradesh. Image by Rohit Naniwadekar via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0).

The project was previously rejected twice by the environment ministry’s forest advisory committee (FAC) — in July 2013 and April 2014 — on account of environmental and social concerns. In the first rejection, the FAC noted that “ecological, environmental and social costs of diversion of such a vast tract of forest land, which is a major source of livelihood of the tribal population of the state, will far outweigh the benefits likely to accrue from the project.”

In the second rejection, the FAC said the area had a large number of endemic and endangered flora and fauna. But the first stage of forest clearance was finally approved in September 2014 without any major change in the plan, likely due to pressure from other sections of the government.

A case against environment clearances associated with the Dibang project had even reached the National Green Tribunal, which hears environmental disputes, but was dismissed in November 2018.

The former secretary of the water resources ministry, Shashi Shekhar, said there were doubts about the Dibang project’s feasibility.

“Will the Dibang project be successful in serving the flood protection aspect?” Shekhar told Mongabay India. “I have serious doubts about that as it does not fit in the ecological knowledge and logic. The river carries snow-melt water and brings a huge amount of silt with it. The area also receives torrential rainfall and thus dislocates the soil and carries along with itself. It travels a short distance to reach Assam plains. Thus, any dam in the region there will soon get filled up with silt very soon. So, I have concerns about it.”

Indigenous people living in the area have also been voicing their concerns.

“There was a movement against the Dibang project but the Arunachal Pradesh government and the government of India successfully persuaded the locals to give up their land for proper compensation,” Ginko Lingi told Mongabay India. Lingi heads the Idu Mishmi Cultural and Literary Society, the apex body of the tribe of Dibang valley impacted by the hydropower project.

“But the NHPC now has gone to the court against the compensation decided for the tribal community by the Arunachal Pradesh government,” Lingi said. “They are not giving compensation. We will be writing a letter to the NHPC authorities appealing them to settle the compensation to people of the Dibang valley district to start their project.”

Large hydropower projects now a ‘renewable energy source’

In March 2019, the Indian government granted large hydropower projects the status of “renewable energy source.” Previously, only hydropower projects of less than 25 MW were considered renewable energy projects.

The measures announced by the government to promote the hydropower sector are expected to bolster India’s renewable power program. After this decision, the power generated from these projects can be brought under the non-solar renewable purchase obligation (RPO) and result in the better financial health of the projects.

India has hydropower potential of 145,320 MW of which only about 45,400 MW have been utilized so far. In the past five years, only about 4,700 MW of hydropower capacity have been added; in the past 10 years, about 10,000 MW.

India to finally get a dam safety act

The cabinet on July 17 also addressed the long-pending concern of dam safety, by clearing the 2019 dam safety bill for introduction to Parliament. The bill aims to help develop uniform countrywide procedures for ensuring the safety of the more than 5,600 dams that currently exist across India.

According to an official statement, the Dam Safety Bill 2019 includes regular inspection of dams, emergency action plans, comprehensive dam safety reviews, adequate repair and maintenance funds for dam safety, instrumentation and safety manuals.

The bill provides for the establishment of a national dam safety regulatory authority to implement the policy, guidelines and standards for dam safety, the statement said, as well as the establishment of state committees and state dam safety organizations for carrying out detailed safety-related works. The onus of dam safety lies on the dam owner, the statement said, and provides for penal provisions for commissions and omissions of certain acts.

Environment minister Prakash Javadekar, addressing reporters after the cabinet meeting, said the country has more than 5,000 dams, with nearly 4,700 under construction. “So, for the safety of around 10,000 dams, there has been no law. There are many dams which are over 100 years old while some are over 50 years old,” Javadekar said, adding the bill would lead to the process of inspections, reviews, emergency plans and expert advice for dams.

In early July, 19 people were reported killed after a breach in the Tiware dam, in Maharashtra state. “The bill would go a long way in addressing such cases and ensuring the safety of dams,” Javadekar said.

According to the government, about 75 percent of the large dams in India are more than 25 years old, and about 164 dams are more than 100 years old. A badly maintained, unsafe dam poses a threat to human life, flora and fauna, public and private assets, and the environment. India has had 36 dam failures in the past: 11 in the state of Rajasthan, 10 in Madhya Pradesh, five in Gujarat, four in Maharashtra, two in Andhra Pradesh and one each in Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Tamil Nadu and Odisha.

Shekhar said the dam safety bill marked a very important development. “Unfortunately, for want of money, the work for finding the health of dams was not done so far,” he said. “It is a very important step as the safety of dams is directly related to the lives of people. Also, in the wake of climate change, in cases of heavy rains, the dams faces danger and could result in a breach. For instance, heavy rains led to Kerala floods. When dams get breached, there is a direct danger to human lives. Thus, this bill is important, as we need to develop safety protocols for dams as well as mechanism about time to release water from dams.”

About 75 percent of India’s large dams are more than 25 years old. Image by Shahakshay58 via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0).

This story was first published on July 25, 2019, by Mongabay-India.

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