in the wake of Uttarakhand…

As the recent Uttarakhand disaster has shown, the relationship between development and the ecology cannot be regarded as a zero sum game. Not in this country, at least, which will soon be the most populous, and one of the countries likely to be the worst affected by climate change. Yet, state after state is brushing environment concerns aside – with the central environment ministry playing along. And one state where some of the most irresponsible tinkering with natural systems has taken place is Arunachal Pradesh.

the past few days have been spent in gujarat, researching my latest story. while there, i wrote this story based on all my arunachal reporting earlier this year for the times of india’s crest edition. it was a part of a larger package on how the country is making a mess of the env/dev tradeoff. to see all the stories in this package, search here for the 29 june, 2013, issue.

UPDATE (2018). Crest has been shuttered. The report is nowhere to be found. And so, pasting my final draft here.

In the days after the Uttarakhand cloudburst, a tired old defense was again trotted out.

Responding to charges that environmental mismanagement – illegal construction close to rivers, unregulated pilgrim traffic, unchecked deforestation on the mountain slopes – had all contributed to the high fatalities, the state government hit back saying that the environment could not be allowed to retard development. That a “balance” needs to be maintained between environmental concerns and people’s developmental aspirations.

This is a response we hear often. It surfaced two years ago, for instance, when the debate over Go and No Go areas for coal mining was raging.

But take a closer look and you will find these belligerent responses hide more than they reveal.

Take Arunachal Pradesh. Between 2006 and now, this state in north-eastern India has signed an incredible 153 MoUs for hydelpower projects on eight river basins. This translates into one of the highest concentration of hydel projects anywhere in the world.

As expected, the environmental costs are high. Not only is this part of the himalayas prone to large earthquakes, these dams will also change rivers’ behaviour.

Arunachal is building what are called run of the river (RoR) projects – dams used only for power generation. Unlike thermal power plants which take a long time to warm up and cool down and are therefore used only for meeting base demand, hydel projects can generate power at the flick of a switch. All you have to do is get the water to spin the turbines.

In a RoR project, the dam’s wall stops the river from flowing as before. The reservoir fills up. In the evening, water is released to meet peak demand. Once the reservoir is empty, power generation stops, the floodgates are closed, and the reservoir slowly fills up again.

What does this mean for a river? Take the Lohit, which flows out of Arunachal and into the Brahmaputra. According to the environmental impact assessment (EIA) report for one of the dams coming up on the river — the Lower Demwe Hydro Electric Project — the Lohit’s flow is around 463 cubic metres per second (cumecs) in winter, 832 cumecs in summer and 2,050 cumecs in the rains. (A 3 cumecs flow is akin to a Tata Nano passing you every second.)

This will change once the dam comes up. For up to 20 hours a day , says the EIA report, the dam will trap the river, releasing just 35 cumecs (12 Nanos a second). The remaining will be released to spin the turbines only when demand for electricity rises in the evening. At that time, the river’s flow will expand to 1,729 cumecs (576 Nanos a second). As the reservoir empties out, the river will again shrink to 35 cumecs.

This is palpably new. River flows ebb and rise over months. “But now, what was an annual variation will now be a daily variation,” says MD Madhusudan, a biologist with Mysore- based Nature Conservation Foundation.

And this is from just one dam. Arunachal is building 153. To imagine their combined impact, see the EIA report for the Jaypee Group’s Lower Siang Project. If waters from the three terminal dams on the Lohit, Subansiri and the Siang rivers reach the floodplains at the same time, it says, the Brahmaputra’s height will fluctuate daily by 2-3 metres, as far as 65 km downstream. This unpredictability of flow will affect fishing communities and those farming in the Brahmaputra’s floodplains.

For its part, Arunachal defends these dams saying they will accelerate development in the state.

Which makes sense till you realise that, for all its proclaimed urgency to ensure development, the Arunachal government has mainly signed MoUs with companies with little or no experience in hydel. Google a company called Nano Excel Power to see for yourself.

In fact, as a recent CAG report noted, around 2005, the state took hydel projects away from the National Hydro-Electric Power Corporation (NHPC) and discretionarily gave them to private companies – some of which were new to hydel power. Till now, work has not begun on any of these projects.

Other MoUs are with companies that lack the finances. The outcome? A secondary market for trading in the licenses has come up. For instance, the company with the largest number of MoUs in Arunachal is politician Amar Singh’s Energy Development Company. At the time of signing these MoUs, it had less than 20 MW of hydel power generating capacity. It has, however, signed MoUs over 550 MW with Arunachal.

Singh is now looking for people willing to invest in his Arunachal projects. He says he is willing to divest up to 74%, perhaps even more, to anyone interested.

Those are the questions. If the state was so eager for rapid development, why would it sign MoUs with untested, financially incapable companies? Nor is it clear why the state signed more MoUs than it could support – it has signed MoUs for locations without roads, bridges, transmission links? It has also signed more MoUs than it can support in terms of its equity contribution.

It would have been better to reach out to more established companies and to build fewer dams after better studies. For some reason, that was not done. Nor is it clear why the state decided against building multi-purpose dams – which can also do flood control which is useful in an area that gets cloudbursts – and began building only RoR dams which, thanks to their small reservoirs, cannot store large amounts of water.

There are other questions. These dams are coming up close to each other. On the Lohit, the distance between six dams is 1 km, 9.5 km, 1.8 km, 3.8 km and 1.8 km, respectively. There are no studies on what such clustering portends for a river or how they will behave during a quake.

My paper, the Economic Times, spent three months studying Arunachal’s hydel boom. Bureaucrats were unwilling to answer any of these questions.

Look deeper yet and you see that the logic here was not rapid development. It was more akin to Coalgate. The discretionary allocation of natural resources – through MoUs — in return for rent.

In the process, the groundwork for another, perhaps larger, environmental disaster has been done.
ends

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