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Himachal disaster raises 'serious questions' on role of hydroelectric power projects

By Bhim Singh Rawat 

The official report of what has transpired in Sainj Valley under Banjar subdivision of Kullu district during July 8-10, 2023 is still not in public domain. However, multiple media reports suggest it to be one of the worst flood disasters for the valley and have once again raised serious questions on the role the hydroelectric power (HEP) projects. 
Local people have specifically underlined the gross negligence by National Hydro Power Corporation (NHPC) company for turning floods into a disaster. Moreover, old media reports from the area have also highlighted that it was a disaster in the making for which the state government machinery as well hydro projects and NHPC have contributed hugely.
The heavy rains started lashing the Sainj Valley on July 8, 2023, raising the water levels in Sainj river, which is also known as Pin Parbati river and joins the Beas at Larji dam. Due to constant rains for two days and subsequent flash floods the area was further cut off from power supply, communication and road connectivity which were only resorted after four days. As a result, the reports of flood damages and visual on scale of destruction started coming out in several days after the disaster.
A video, probably shot during July 08 and 09 and later shared on YouTube captures horrific live visuals of flash floods destroying human properties on either bank of Parbati river. The ground report by News 18 Himachal also shows the trail of destruction in Sainj market and terming it a man-made disaster several local people have again flagged the absence of any warning or alert by NHPC, sudden water releases from the dam, dumping of muck dumping along the river resulting in the avoidable devastation. They also said that they never have seen this scale of floods in the river and situation would not be so dangerous if dam was empty.
As per a report, it was after a photo on social media surfaced, claiming huge loss at Sainj”, that the incident came to light. The Bekar at Sianj suffered huge damages and 200 bigha of farming land was damaged by the flooding. The latest updates reveal that a total 88 houses and 24 shops along with the huge area of farming land were washed away by the flash floods in Sainj and adjoining areas mainly downstream NHPC’s 520 MW Parbati III dam on July 9 and 10. There are unconfirmed reports claiming entire Sainj market has borne the brunt of the deluge with at least 150 shops suffering damages.
Narrating the incident to local reporters, Babita a lady living in a rented accommodation with her two kids in Sainj market said that she had no information about the flood and managed to save her life in the nick of hour. “I was sleeping and was woken up by my younger son after commotion outside”, said Babita. She saw local people gripped in panic running to save their lives. “We got no time to take out any of the belongings and soon the room was washed away by the floods.
Demanding adequate compensation and rehabilitation an elderly man squarely blamed NHPC for suddenly releasing the water from the dam. “We have lost all our property. The flood is caused by the NHPC dam at Siund”, the elderly is seen talking about the incident before the media persons. Another affected local business man said that even century old houses along the river had been damaged. “They are not able to handle the water of the local dams here, what will happen when the water from Manikaran will come here”, questioned the young man.
Parul Sharma another local lady termed the incident as man-made disaster and alleged that both companies NHPC and Himachal Pradesh Power Corporation Limited’s (HPPCL) 100 Mw Sainj HEP responsible for the immense destruction in Sainj market. As per the local people the deluge stuck during the day time hence there was no human casualty. They felt that if the incident had happened in night hours, there would have been many more human deaths. Scores of outside villagers and migrant workers who had come to Sainj were also affected by the flood spell.
Describing the scale of damages and looming threats on Sainj market a detailed video report by Himachal Abhi Abhi mentions that every second local person in the Sainj has maintained the NHPC’s Parbati III and HPPCL’s Sainj dam mainly responsible for the flood disaster. Local people are also angry at NHPC for never coming out to support disaster rescue work despite earning huge profits from the project.
The affected people have further alleged that the NHPC has irresponsibly dumped construction debris along the Sainj river at several places which was flushed down the river during the flood and caused damages to the properties downstream. The dumped muck also reduced the carrying capacity of the river.
A report says that the four member Central Team during their visit to the area on July 21, 2023 looked aghast to witness the enormous damages. The flood has completely changed the riverscape for 20 km between Larji and Sainj mentions the report.
During the visit, local people and even public representatives have vocally blamed NHPC for ruining their lives and properties by opening dam gates in already swollen river. Another report by the paper has mentioned Ravinesh Kumar, financial advisor, National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) ensuring the affected residents to apprise the home ministry about the NHPC issue.
As per reports, the flood destruction has affected at least seven village panchayats along the Pin Parbati river in Sainj Valley. Moreover, there are new reports disclosing the gross violation of rules by NHPC in the construction of Parbati III dam project which has now proven a recipe for the disaster for several local villages.
In one such case, the Bihali villagers have filed a complaint with the Tehsildar against NHPC for dumping by Parbati project near the village leading to change in the course of river thus creating flood threats for the village. Similarly, several homes of Soti village have developed cracks after the rainfall and flood destruction. The villagers have said that NHPC had dangerously widened the project road at the base of the village which has now been causing landslips and cracks in homes of the villagers.
Apart from demanding rehabilitation, homes and sources of livelihoods, the flood affected residents have been raising the issue of NHPC’s criminal negligence for the past three weeks. As per Times of India, Aug 2, 2023 report, the local people have approached the police against the staff of the NHPC and have also written to the Chief Minister, demanding an inquiry against the NHPC.
Sharing some important information, the report, quoting  Anshul Bhatti, a local resident, further reads, “There was a ‘heavy rainfall’ alert, but the project authorities did not release the water even on July 8. They opened the gates on July 9, when the dam’s water level had risen. The sudden release of dam water into an already flooded Sainj river caused unprecedented damage downstream.”
According to residents, the opening of gates also brought along huge quantity of muck the dam authorities had dumped along the project site, which aggravated the flood impact. “The muck raised the water level of already flooded Sainj river. It was flowing several feet above normal and destroyed everything that came its way, including bridges, shops and houses in Sainj and the nearby areas,” said Madan Sharma, another resident of Sainj.
The affected people have also had a meeting with Ashutosh Garg, Deputy Commissioner (DC), Kullu demanding the administration to declare the Sainj area which is downstream the Parbati dam a danger zone because of destruction already done and constant safety threats looming on Sainj market from the two dams and project tunnels passing above the hills. The DC has reportedly started a probe in to the issue.
As usual, NHPC officials have dined the claims stating that they had followed the SoPs in the dam manual while releasing the dam waters. This also raises the questions about the adequacy of the SOPs and the dam manual, which should be in public domain in any case. NHPC also claimed to be in touch with Kullu administration during the flood. 
As per Parkash Chand, Chief Manager, Parbati III project, the NHPC had regularly released the water from the dam since July 08, 2023 afternoon after raising the alarms. “The reservoir has limited capacity and we release water whenever levels go up. We kept releasing water during 8 and 9 July. The water level of the dam had gone up after 11:00 pm (in the night) and as a result we kept the flood gate open on July 10”, he said.
A detailed report joins some of the missing dots before and during the disaster episode. As per this report, amid red alert there was power black-out in Sainj Valley since July 08, evening. The rains continued for two days (July 8 and 9). The NHPC officials instructed the staff to open the dam gates on July 10. The report claims that the warning about the dam gates opening were issued on a small mike which would not have reached to people downstream.
At the same time, the dam of 100 MW Sainj HEP upstream Parbati dam, overflowed after its gates were jammed by the silts and debris. Unaware of the situation, the HPPCL staff was taking some rest when the dam over flowed and later managed to open the gates with the help of jack. As a result, the deluge came gushing from both the dams and swept away the entire Sainj market.
Meanwhile, Dolly Singh, Senior Manager, NHPC, Chandigarh office has reportedly decided to donate Rs. 3 crore for flood restoration, rehabilitation work in Sainj market. Strangely, instead of probing the NHPC’s & HPPCL’s role thoroughly and holding them accountable for causing large scale destruction in Sainj market and along 20km long river stretch upto Larji dam; the Power Ministry is reportedly disappointed to see no power generation happening from the project after administration denied NHPC permission to fill the Parbati III dam.
Interestingly, just a month before the deluge, the State Disaster Management Authority had conducted a mock drill in Sainj on June 5, 2023 to make local aware of fire, earthquake etc. disaster but nothing was done about how to be prepared well for the flood disaster or sudden water releases from upstream dams.
The local people have also alleged that the government has been spending crores on the useless disaster mock drill events while not a single penny is being spent on the rehabilitation of flood affected people.
It is worth mentioning that the Sainj market had faced flood destruction in August 2022; despite a July 2021 report raising alarm over the flood threats to the market. After construction of Parbati III dam, residents had expected NHPC to strengthen the embankments, to take up flood protection measures along the Pin Parbati river downstream dam site but nothing was done in this regard.
The July 2021 report further mentions that since the operation of the Parbati HEP project in operation since 2013; both, the NHPC and state government are earning huge profits from it. During and after construction of the project, several new shops and homes have come up in Sainj market along the river.
As per the local people, apart from monsoon time, there are huge releases in the river during technical faults in tunnels. Demanding to declare the area as a danger zone they had shared that the floods in 2020 had caused erosion and landslips along the river.
But after 2020 flood incident, the administration promised to prepare a flood protection plan for the homes and shops of Sainj protect the market from the flood threats. Even at that time, showing no seriousness, Vikram Singh, General Manager, NHPC had ruled out any flood threats to the Sainj market claiming that the dam had been built after assessing all the ground situation.
However, the deliberate act of omission and commission in past and present by the NHPC, HPPCL and state administration has now proven a costly affair for the Sainj valley.
Some minimum steps the authorities can take include:
  • Assessment of the recent flood disaster by an independent panel of experts to ascertain the role of hydropower projects, highways and other infrastructure.
  • Preparing a disaster management plan for the Sainj, Parbati basins and downstream areas keeping in mind the operations of the various dams in the upstream, the carrying capacity of the rivers, vulnerable houses, shops, roads and bridges.
  • Ensuring that the dam operation manual, SOPs of all dams in the upstream are in public domain and are periodically reviewed.
  • Each hydropower dam must have disaster management plan in place that will also include means of alerting the downstream people not only through boards, sirens, but also information sharing through social media, websites and alerts on mobiles. The alert system can be on the lines of the one prevalent in Sikkim as necessitated by the Sikkim High Court order.
---
Source: South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People (SANDRP)

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