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Not difficult to visualise multiple disasters in Himalayas: 30 more hydel power project

By Shankar Sharma* 

Subsequent to the recent disaster and the ongoing crises for the communities in and around Joshimath due to the landslides, the focus seems to have been shifted to hydel power projects in the region and across the Himalayas. The associated concerns for civil society has multiplied in recent days due to the recent announcement by the Union government informing Lok Sabha that 30 large size hydel projects are being implemented in the vulnerable slopes/ valleys of the Himalayas.
Many opinion pieces in the national media also have started discussing the pros and cons of hydel power projects. Whereas most articles have been raising serious concerns over the continuing policy of the Union government to build more hydel projects in the Himalayas, there are many opinion pieces indicating blind support for hydel power projects without deliberating on social and environmental aspects.
It has come to be more or less accepted that hydel power projects are no longer deemed essential for the satisfactory operation of any power grid; in view of the modifications to operational regime, energy storage batteries, and technological changes.
When we objectively consider the true relevance of hydel power projects to our people/ country from a holistic welfare perspective, and if we also credibly compare the costs and benefits of a typical large/ medium size hydel power project with suitable alternatives for meeting the growing demand for electricity in the country, the associated issues should become pretty clear.
The associated social, environmental and economic costs to the country of a typical large/ medium size hydel power project can be observed as much higher than the meager benefits; anywhere in the country, including in Western Ghats and plains.
It can be stated without meaning any disrespect to any particular authority that it is hard to notice adequate level of responsibility, accountability and sensitivity to our national interests in the policies/ decisions to build huge cost/ impact hydel power projects even in highly ecologically sensitive areas such as the Himalayas, core areas of Western Ghats, including some locations within the legally protected wildlife sanctuaries, which are also global biodiversity hotspots.
In view of the fact that since 2010 onwards the global experience has been growing increasingly in favour of renewable energy sources such as solar and wind power technologies, and the energy storage batteries, our country should take adequate care to undertake such comparative costs and benefits at every stage, and thereby massively reduce or completely eliminate the societal level risks/ costs from the associated landslides, floods, forced displacements, and other societal level costs.
In this larger context, the civil society groups should embark on a massive awareness campaign not only to educate the larger society on all the associated issues, but also to persuade the concerned authorities to become adequately responsible, diligent and sensitive to the peoples' views.
Few decision making tools such as 'costs and benefits analysis', 'options analysis' and 'SWOT analysis' should be effectively deployed to assist in the associated economic decision making process, and the past experience from the wider world should also be considered.
Can we hope that the leading national level media houses also exhibit the requisite level of media obligations in subjecting the opinion pieces, which may be sent to them in this regard, to rigorous examination by asking suitable questions, instead of blindly accepting the opinion pieces for publication; even when many of them can be seen as clearly favouring commercial benefits to a few corporate houses, but at an enormous cost to the entire country?

Combined madness

Be that as it may, there seems no end, in the foreseeable future, to the combined madness of our bureaucrats and politicians, who seem to be determined to push every possible geological/ hydrological risk in the Himalayas to the logical conclusion of landslides, floods and all the associated human catastrophe.
Unless the civil society takes active participation in all the associated decisions, and persuades the concerned authorities to be extremely cautious and rational, our future can be scary due to the threats of climate change alone.
Why are our top institutions seem to be hesitant/ reluctant to focus on societal level critical issues?
There are 87 hydroelectric power projects, with installed capacity of nearly 23,000 MW, that are currently operational in the Himalayan, and 30 more large projects to cope up. With such a scenario, is it difficult to visualise the multiple disasters which can be forecast in the Himalayas?
Someone in a larger email group has suggested: It would be a good idea to write about the non-viability of dams (may be jointly) like in the Himalayas.
Whereas many articles/ study reports on this topic have already been published in our national media since year 2000, and whereas a number of recommendations from credible agencies (including a few from the Union government) have unequivocally recommended to minimise/ eliminate most of the ongoing/ proposed project constructions in the Himalayas, our bureaucrats and politicians seem to be refusing to read the large writing on the wall on such disasters. Few discussion papers, as enclosed to the forwarded email below, can be seen as examples of such awareness efforts.
In this context, it is highly relevant to ask the question as to why the high profile and public funded institutions in the country have not deemed it necessary for them to raise the kind of valid questions, which civil society has been asking for a number of years.
It has always been an enigmatic issue to me that these institutions such as NIAS, IITs, IIMs, NITs, Central Universities, and dedicated bodies like Wadia Institute of Himalayan Geology (WIHG) at Dehradun etc., which are well equipped to understand/ appreciate/ analyse all the associated issues, have not been expressing concerns about such avoidable economic activities without compromising in any way, the overall developmental pursuit of our communities. I have come across a number of such reports/ articles of societal level importance only from IISc, Bengaluru.
It is a moot point as to why all these institutions seem to be hesitant/ reluctant to focus on many such societal level critical issues without being seen as writing against any government; either at the centre or at the states.
It should be entirely feasible for these bodies to consider such societal level concerns to make an objective assessment of the associated policies; apply 'costs and benefits analysis', 'options analysis', and 'risk analysis'; check for compliance of the relevant Acts/ rules; and then to make credible recommendations.
Even if the authorities refuse to accept these recommendations in total, civil society groups can make effective use of such recommendations to take them to the larger society, and to the court of law if necessary.
These bodies can also seek the assistance/ involvement of few domain experts in civil society and/or few organisations, which may have the necessary domain knowledge, if deemed necessary. But sadly most of these institutions seem to be content in operating in isolated mode, generally insulated from the difficulties/ concerns of the communities who fund them through their taxes.
The situation has been made worse by the total indifference of most of our lawmakers/ political parties, who seem to be interested only in political wrangles of no consequence to the larger population.
Until such time when our country sees a satisfactory level of transformation in the discharged responsibilities of such institutes, civil society groups have to take the necessary responsibilities to try and prevent/ minimise the associated miseries to the vulnerable sections of our society.
The minimum we can all do in this regard is to send suitable representations, in adequate numbers, to the concerned authorities in a coordinated manner, if feasible. At the barest minimum, credible representations to the concerned authorities on all important issues can be simply endorsed. But most of us in civil society seem to be reluctant to put even such simple efforts.
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*Power and climate policy analyst

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