And now for something completely different

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No ‘End Of The Year’ cycle ride (see this and this and this) this year. One of my two co-conspirators was scrambling to finish his long overdue book — writing, not reading, it. The other was busy prepping for a marathon. And so, January 2018 saw the ‘End Of The Year’ trek. Eleven days of walking in Arunachal Pradesh’s Eaglenest Wildlife Sanctuary.

How was it? Life shrank to the basics. The quest to stay warm. Finding quiet patches of forest and sitting there with little more than the spotting scope. A few minutes of sitting still and the forest would come to life. And then, up went the scope as I gaped at the birds in one of the most biodiverse places in India. Back to the campsite by two or so. A quick lunch. And then sitting down to read The Lost Wolves Of Japan, write in my journal, or a smaller walk followed by sitting down to watch the sun go down. By seven, it would be getting seriously cold. And so, dinner. Nip into the tent and read some more. And asleep by eight or so.

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These days were therapeutic. Over the past months and years, the brain has felt increasingly like a slab of meat getting electric jolts of stimuli with rising rapidity — emails, social media notifications, messages, the news cycle itself. The fallouts have included a collapsed attention span. A deepening addiction to the dopamine hits of social media. Increased stress levels thanks to a surfeit of uncivil conversations on social media and elsewhere.

The costs of all this run high. My friends find me more irritable, more graceless than before. At a time the work needs to be more rigorous than ever, I find myself saddled with an attention span butterflies would spit at. And so, with the end of ‘Ear To The Ground‘, my reporting project for Scroll, I have been trying to disentangle myself from some of this. The twitter account has been deleted. After reading books like Irresistible and The Shallows, I am trying out new restrictions on distraction/interruption technologies like cellphones and the internet.

The initial results — before I headed for Eaglenest — were promising. With twitter out of the way, the brain found itself reading more. Two standout books read during this period included Superorganism on how insect societies evolved and function, and Island Story where author JD Taylor cycles around the UK to give us an excellent introduction to pre-Brexit Britain. Two other books — Maya Jasanoff’s The Dawn Watch and Steve Wick’s account of William Shirer’s years reporting on the Nazis from Berlin — raise the important question on what it takes to truly belong to the time one lives in. Other notable books were Steinbeck’s Travels With Charley, Anuk Arudpragasam’s The Story Of A Brief Marriage, a hagiographic — but instructive — account of Manga artist Osamu Tezuka, and more.

The hike helped consolidate some of those early gains. Partly because these days were marked by the complete absence of any connectivity. No phone signals. And no power source to charge the phone anyway. This ebbing of stimuli and the resulting silence brought in some calm. The forest too imposed a mindfulness towards the ongoing moment. And so, the brain gradually began getting used to a new normal — of doing a few things in a day, each for extended amounts of time. The challenge now is to hold onto these gains — instead of lapsing back to the old normal. In that context, a friend has suggested this book called Deep Work that I have just ordered.

In other ways too, the hike was useful. It is important for us green hacks to be reminded of why we do what we do. At one level, Eaglenest is one of the more primeval forests I have seen. Ancient trees that soar up high and all that. And yet, it was impossible to escape mankind’s stains on this place. My guides and I saw signs of hunting. In the snap below, that building is our campsite at Sisni, and the reddish stuff in the foreground is the coagulating blood of some unknown animal. This is what we saw shortly after reaching Sisni.

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In the park’s southern reaches, logging by Bodo groups is said to be underway. Walking through the park, one encountered plastic. Gutkha packets. Abandoned cement sacks fraying into thin plastic strips. Beedi packets. Plastic bottles. Broken glass bottles. An abandoned floor mat. Wafer packets. One could go on. Things came to a head on the day we saw elephant droppings which contained a piece of tarpaulin.

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These are familiar processes. Take habitat destruction. Assam seems to be getting a lot of its timber from the forests of Arunachal (Which is what we saw during last year’s cycle ride to Namdapha as well). A lot of Arunachal’s political economy pivots around road construction. These roads, built in a manner which results in frequent landslides (see below, road between Kalaktang and Tenzingaon), seem to create livelihoods more through road construction than economic activity engendered by these roads. The outcome is a constant building/expansion/relaying of these roads with accompanying environmental impacts — the damage to hill slopes; an influx of underpaid road crews who cut trees for firewood/to clear plots for farming; etc. ; the damage to hill slopes. And then, there are the local communities. Leading economically marginal lives, they too fall back on the forest for firewood — to use or sell.

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The Lost Wolves Of Japan touched on this desire for economic improvement. Japan used to worship wolves. And then, after the Meiji restoration kicked off a modernisation project in the country, it began seeing wolves as a threat to Japan’s ranching businesses. And hunted/poisoned the species into extinction. Economy trumps culture. Not to mention old systems of restraint/respect towards other species. Across India too, economic marginalisation — due to inquities in wealth distribution — seems to be taking similar tolls on human-biodiversity relationships.

Eaglenest has fared better than most parks. It draws birdwatchers from around the world — and uses them to run highend tourist camps with some of the proceeds going back to local communities. But even so, for all manner of complex reasons, buy-in from one community (Buguns) seemed to be higher than the other (Rupens).

All this triggered large questions. Was tourism growing? Was it helping everyone in the communities or were the gains flowing to a few? If tourism was rising, was hunting coming down? Or had it already made enough inroads to reduce the numbers of megafauna? At the same time, do we make a mistake by focusing on hunting? Isn’t habitat destruction the biggest threat to the park?

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In all this, the forest department’s response was ineffectual. Understaffing is high. Budgets are low. There is a certain wariness towards tangling with the Rupens, whose members were said to be hunting/picnicking in the sanctuary — which looked like male-bonding/insistence on persisting with old tribal cultures to me. All this seemed to have bred a passivity where the forest staff I met had stopped challenging even the processes they could — like ensuring construction crews brought back all the cement sacks they took into the forest, safe plastic disposal by the camp operators, and so on.

Walk through the park and one saw forest department boards talking about the campsites. Each of them described the location and then spelt out the department’s conservation infrastructure sited there — “An anti-poaching camp of the forest department is located here,” as the board below says. The catch? None of that exists on the ground. It is all governance on paper. There is a larger observation on the Indian state here. In 1992, the Supreme Court banned all logging in the North East. But in the absence of a functioning state administration, that writ too exists only on paper. At the most, formal players cannot log. The informal sector (not to say non-state actors) chop away with impunity. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

All this adds up to heartbreak. Those elephant droppings with tarp. A leopard cat cub we saw which had been separated from its mother. I do not know if it is still alive given how young it is, how cold Eaglenest is at this time of the year, and those hunting expeditions. One evening, a bull elephant carefully walked around our campsite through the undergrowth instead of coming up onto the path. Watching it walk into the gathering dusk, it was hard not to feel anxious for its future.

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And yet, there is everything to fight for. Last year, I went walking in the Alps. One thing that stood out about that trek — apart from my bone-tired fatigue — was how empty those forests were. Eaglenest, despite the pressures acting on it, still has staggering biodiversity. One day, in two hours, walking just 8 kilometres along the road, I — massively clueless about bird species — saw no less than 20 different species. Eaglenest is said to have no less than 500 species of birds alone.

All of which is what we saw, in March 2015, at Mizoram’s Dampa Tiger Reserve. Huge biodiversity, yes. But with deep poverty and militant groups posing threatening the forest in their own distinctive ways. And, again, an ineffectual state — thanks to a combination of cash-strappedness as well as governmental indifference.

There is complexity here. As I finish this post, I am wondering about all the other layers/nuances I have missed. I need to think about all this a great deal more. Probably head back to Arunachal on rejoining work. And try to see where the solutions lie — Local communities? Getting government institutions to work better? Or, as a friend says, creating employment for people to reduce pressure on the forests — which also calls for a recasting of the elite capture that characterises states like Arunachal.

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Why hydel-power companies in Arunachal Pradesh want NHPC to take over their projects (and why it won’t)

In a delicious twist of fate, a cluster of private companies that rushed headlong into Arunachal in the late 2000s to build hydel power projects are now, in a turnaround, asking the public sector National Hydel Power Corporation to take over their projects.

The fascinating afterlife of Arunachal Pradesh’s hydel scam.

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. (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

the retreat of the elephants

Working on the hydel stories, thinking about how these dams will change the Brahmaputra, feeling the country will have to live with the consequences of these decisions for a long, long time, I am reminded of this passage from Mark Elvin’s The Retreat Of The Elephants.

A paradox has to be confronted. The same skill in water control that had contributed so greatly to the development of the Chinese economy in ancient, medieval, and even in the early part of late-imperial times, slowly fashioned a strait-jacket that in the end hindered any easy reinvention of the economic structure. Neither water nor suitable terrain was available for further profitable hydraulic expansion.. A remarkable but prescientific technology was approaching the limits of its capacities. Deadliest of all, hydrological systems kept twisting free from the grip of human would-be mastery, drying out, silting up, flooding over, or changing their channels. By doing so they devoured the resources needed to keep them under control or serviceable. And made these resources unavailable for other purposes prior to the coming of modern engineering. No other society reshaped its hydraulic landscape with such sustained energy as did the Chinese, nor on such a scale, but the dialectic of long-term interaction with the environment transformed what had been a one-time strength into a source of weakness.

The context:  For hundreds of years, the Chinese have been trying to control their great rivers — the Yellow, the Yantze and the Huai. Take the Yellow. Carrying large volumes of silt down from the mountains, it used to make frequent (and sweeping) alterations to its course. Once, it swung so far south it actually merged with the Huai. This was a problem. For one, Beijing, up in the north, was serviced (transport of goods, etc) by the Grand Canal which connected in the south to the Yellow. And since you cannot have a functional canal if the river feeding it with water keeps swinging here and there, the Yellow needed to be tamed. So, in the 16th Century, the Chinese built massive embankments, got the Yellow to flow along one predetermined channel. In response, the river began dumping silt. So much that, as Elvin writes, the river bed rose by over 2 metres in just 13 years. Higher and higher embankments had to be built.

A technological lock-in without fully understanding the attendant consequences.

Turn now to Arunachal and Hydel. Developments here are taking India down an irreversible direction as well. And the strange thing is this. We know enough to not take such decisions. But all that knowledge and wisdom seems to be powerless before the political economy at work. For, what we have is a system of environmental governance which only pretends its decisions are scientific. But take a closer look — at the minutes of the MoEF committees set up to evaluate projects or how our policies on environmental clearances are created — and you see that it is the political economy that calls the shots.

That is one question. How does one create a system where political economy stays subservient to reason and science? Also, is such a system desirable — or can it become a technocracy? So, maybe I should rephrase my question as “How does one create a system where political economy stays subservient to interdisciplinary reason and science”?

Hmmm.

(Also cross-posted on Anomalocaris, my blog for the Economic Times).

contours of a hydelpower frenzy

(Note: This is a composite post aggregating all the stories ET did over the past week on the hydel scam in Arunachal Pradesh, a state in North-Eastern India)

Between 2006 and 2009, the Congress government in Arunachal Pradesh signed 130 MoUs with companies allowing them to build hydelpower projects in the state. This blizzard of MoUs almost escaped all scrutiny. A handful of greens worried about the fallouts of building so many dams. The locals protested. But, in the rest of the country, the pattern did not cause many ripples.

Last November and December, however, a clutch of surprising news reports began doing the rounds — that the projects in Arunachal are facing large delays, that companies are looking to exit. To understand what was going on, ET went to Arunachal, and then to Andhra — most companies which signed MoUs hail from this state in south India. Here is what we found:

1. The companies are indeed struggling.

As excited companies began taking a closer look at their new projects, they realised the supporting infrastructure— the primary responsibility of the state and the Centre—to add 40,000 MW in one go was not there. Road connectivity from highways to project sites was either missing or inadequate to support heavy vehicles. Also missing was power, transmission towers and administrative infrastructure like surveying staff and land records… Capital is missing too. All these projects are public-private partnerships (PPPs), with Arunachal bringing in equity of 11-26%—or Rs13,000 crore, according to Paliwal. In 2012-13, Arunachal’s entire budget was Rs3,535 crore. “We don’t know how the government plans to raise this money or if they have made any budgetary provisions,” says Kawale.

2. Listening to the companies, one could not help wondering if the state had signed more projects than it could support. It was also unclear why it had signed projects for more MW-age than what the centre had budgeted for in its 50,000 MW programme (this is explained in the stories that follow). Then, while the state government said this rush was born of no more than its urgent desire for development, many of the companies it had tied up with had questionable technical or financial ability to handle these projects. (Hint: Google “Nano Excel Power” and read a Times of India article that pops up on the first page of searches). There were other puzzles. For some reason, the state had turned its back on multi-purpose projects (which can also do flood control) and was only pushing hydel power projects.

In May 2000, the Centre allocated six projects in Arunachal, adding up to 20,700 mw, to the National Hydro Power Corporation (NHPC). NHPC prepared detailed project reports for them between 2003 and March 2006. A report by the government auditor on hydel capacity addition by PSUs, released in 2012, outlines what happened next. The Comptroller & Auditor General (CAG) says the state government, then helmed by Gegong Apang of Congress, ignored several NHPC attempts to sign MoUs with it. Instead, between 2006 and 2009, Arunachal took five of the six projects, amounting to 18,700 MW, away from NHPC and gave them to Reliance Energy, Jaiprakash Associates, a state JV with Jindal Power, KSK Energy and NTPC. This, observes CAG, has resulted in five projects out of six conceived in January 1999 not taking off so far even though a large hydel plant takes about 10 years to come up.

And it looked like money had changed hands.

In April 2007, Gegong Apang was ousted and replaced by the then power minister, Dorjee Khandu. The MoU signing accelerated: 101 between February 2006 and March 2009. Brokers and fixers made money by connecting companies with state officials and politicians, who acquired new muscle overnight. Alleges Tapir Gao, state convenor of the BJP: “Unofficial payments made to the Congress ranged between Rs10-15 lakh per MW.” During that signing spree, Arunachal added 39,000 MW. Current and aspiring MPs and MLAs began lobbying for hydel projects to be allowed in their constituencies. Agrees Jarjum Ete, a Congresswoman and a Panchayati Raj activist: “All legislators have benefited from MoU signings in their localities.” At the same time, power has become a prized portfolio. Each of the three CMs after Apang retained the power portfolio.

There are striking similarities between this and the ill-fated thermal power plant boom in Chhattisgarh. There too, companies had rushed in fecklessly, only to realise belatedly that their initial assumptions (about high power demand and abundant coal) were incorrect. For its part, signing MoUs with gusto, the state government had encouraged them.

3. There are two things to be said here. One, NHPC is not the only company whose projects were taken away and given to the private sector.

A CAG report last year indicted the Arunachal Pradesh government for taking hydel projects away from NHPC and giving them to private companies. However, NHPC is not the only PSU whose projects were taken away by the Arunachal government. Nor is Arunachal the only state where hydel PSUs have lost projects. If anything, NEEPCO, the North Eastern Electric Power Corporation, set up to build power projects in north-eastern India, has suffered worse. In state after state in India’s eastern frontiers, its projects have been taken away and given to private companies — usually in a non-transparent manner.

4. Second. While Arunachal signing MoUs in return for cash is, yes, a scam, it is a scam which cannot be measured only in Rupees. It has resulted in three unnerving developments. First, we have made a hash of the hydel potential in the state. As the first story shows, all manner of companies have walked away with MoUs. Second, this sudden influx of cash into the hitherto rudimentary economy of Arunachal Pradesh has resulted in some changes very similar to the “resource curse”. Third, the accompanying environmental costs (more on this farther down this post) are potentially crippling.

As money came in, says Ete, “politicians began distributing cash in lakhs in village meetings. People now expect money everytime politicians visit.” At the same time, the cost of contesting elections shot up. Says Laeta Umbrey, MLA from Roing district: “Elections are becoming very expensive. And once it gets costly, it never comes down. In my district, one opposition leader spent Rs18 crore — my constituency has 11,000 voters.” In the process, Arunachal Pradesh has encountered its version of the resource curse.

5. An accompanying story, posted on the ET website, featuring interviews with three politicians in the state, the Congress’ Jarjum Ete, the BJP’s Tapir Gao, and Laeta Umbrey, MLA of a local party, explores the changes in the state in more detail.

“If you look at corruption in Arunachal, in the early 1980s, political activity in the state was sizably supported by the timber lobby. This ended with the Godhavarman case. Then came the liquor lobby. And in the last two elections, the hydropower lobby has played a large role. Why do politicians need this money? Not only for elections but also because politicians in the state have picked up the habit of distributing cash. They distribute cash in lakhs and the media stays silent on this.”

6. The third big fallout is environmental in nature. Propelled by short term and personal interests, the state is making dramatic changes to the brahmaputra basin.

Take what will happen to the Lohit, which flows out of Arunachal and into the Brahmaputra, when the Lower Demwe Hydro Electric Project on it switches on. According to the project’s environmental impact assessment (EIA) report, the Lohit’s flow is around 463 cubic metres per second (cumecs) in winter, 832 cumecs in summer and 2,050 in the rains. (A three 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 report, the dam will trap the river, releasing just 35 cumecs of water. 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. 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; each of the eight tributaries emptying into the Brahmaputra has multiple dams coming up.

To gauge their combined impact, rifle through the EIA report for the Jaypee Group’s Lower Siang Project. If water from the three terminal dams on the Lohit, Subansiri and the Siang rivers reaches the floodplains at the same time, the Brahmaputra’s height will fluctuate daily by 2-3 metres as far as 65 km downstream.

(If you want more information on any of this, google for Arunachal Pradesh State Pollution Control Board and read the EIAs uploaded on its website).

7. A trip to the first RoR (the sort of dam coming up across the state) project to come up in the state did nothing to assuage these concerns.

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8. There were a couple of minor sidelights in all this. One, companies are today looking to exit the hydel space. But there are few buyers. Except a new breed of energy companies like Greenko.

Which power-generation company with operations in India delivered the best returns in a post-Lehman Brothers world? That distinction does not belong to sector heavyweights such as Tata Power, Reliance Power, NTPC or Suzlon Energy. A little-known, 260-crore company, operating primarily in the clean energy space, has left these powerhouses trailing on shareholder returns since January 2009, by being a contrarian in the hydel power space. As promoters of hydropower projects, facing different forms and degrees of distress, make a beeline for the exit, Greenko is keenly waiting for them there. Since 2006, this Hyderabad-based company has bought about 30 hydel projects, at various stages of clearances and completion, with a combined capacity of 725 mw.

9. While on Greenko, also see this: the transcript of our interview with Greenko’s head, Anil Chalamalasetty. It goes into a lot of detail on hydel — more detail than what we could have accommodated into these stories. And so, it was uploaded.

10. Now for the second minor sidelight.

Sometime in 2009, the cabinet of the Congress government, led by Dorjee Khandu, had cleared the sale of 49% in the Hydro Power Development Corporation of Arunachal Pradesh Limited (HPDCAPL) to the Naveen Jindal Group. The state, through HPDCAPL, had committed to 11-26% equity contribution in every hydel project coming up in Arunachal, including those of other private players, adding 38,600 mw by March 2009. And Jindal’s 49% ownership of HPDCAPL would have effectively given it ownership in every project.

This, as the story outlines, is an utterly bizarre transaction. No one I know, including friends and contacts with far more experience in corporate structuring, etc, than neophyte rajshekhar, has ever heard of something like this! Which is why this story is significant. It throws light on the kind of crazy shenanigans the state government is up to. (I should add that similar transactions have taken place in other NE states as well. Which underscores the need for more coverage from this part of the country.)

11. Put it all together and, as the opening essay argued, what Arunachal Pradesh has seen indeed is very similar to Coalgate.

Hydel in Arunachal has four parallels with the controversial coal block allocations of 2006-09. One, Arunachal gave out more hydel projects than it needed to. Two, the state used discretionary powers to allot dam sites, increasing the clout of state politicians, bureaucrats and local brokers to influence allocations. Three, besides sector heavyweights such as Reliance Power, Jindal Power and NHPC, the list of 55 companies featured those in unrelated businesses such as seeds, travel, highways and real estate. Four, construction has barely begun. The state doesn’t have roads or transmission lines. Companies don’t have money and even genuine players are looking to exit.

All that plus the accompanying environmental and social damage!

On the whole, the package of stories leaves me feeling dissatisfied. We could not study a couple of important dimensions of the hydel scam in Arunachal. Prime among them is the fact that a lot of politicians are putting their money into hydel projects in this state. For more on that, read Soumik Dutta’s articles on the hydel projects coming up in Sikkim. he has done a better job of uncovering those processes. Google him. “Soumik Dutta +Sikkim”.

ps – Last year, I had spent a lot of time on Coalgate. I see strong overlaps between what happened there and here. Maybe it is the brain forcing old familiar frameworks onto new data. Or maybe the political economy of natural resources in India is not all that different between coal and hydel. Anyway, click here for more information on coalgate — a  composite link aggregating the work by my colleagues and me on coalgate.

(a copy of this post has also been uploaded to anomalocaris, my blog for economic times)

the ministry of apathy

Take what will happen to the Lohit, which flows out of Arunachal and into the Brahmaputra, when the Lower Demwe Hydro Electric Project on it switches on. According to the project’s environmental impact assessment (EIA) report, the Lohit’s flow is around 463 cubic metres per second (cumecs) in winter, 832 cumecs in summer and 2,050 in the rains. (A three 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 report, the dam will trap the river, releasing just 35 cumecs of water. 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. 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.

It is safe to say that the Arunachal Pradesh government has signed MoUs without bothering about the accompanying environmental costs of these projects. However, what is striking is that even the central environment ministry, the exalted MoEF, is indifferent to these fallouts. In today’s story, after a brief overview to the environmental fallouts of these projects, we talk to a senior member of the hydel EAC (Expert Appraisal Committee, the body which clears hydel projects) to understand why these projects are not getting the scrutiny they deserve.

the strange case of hpdcapl

Arunachal Pradesh, the epicentre of hydel power in India, has decided to reverse its contentious decision in 2009 to give 49% equity in its hydro-power corporation to the Naveen Jindal Group. The decision, taken last month, came after a backlash from government departments and other companies having hydel projects in the state against the joint venture, which was a departure from precedent as it effectively gave the Naveen Jindal Group a stake in every upcoming hydel project in Arunachal.

today’s story on the hydel mess in arunachal pradesh focuses on a puzzling deal between the state government and gagan infraenergy, a part of the naveen jindal group.