First published in August 2020
by Neeraj Vagholikar
“The dharma of a river is to flow free,” says Gyatsho Lepcha pensively, as we look out from a vantage point at the Thukchen Lhakhang monastery in Dzongu, Sikkim. We see the Rangyong Chhu flow towards its confluence with the heavily dammed Teesta, hidden amongst the folds of the mountains. Lepcha is an activist with the Affected Citizens of Teesta (ACT), which along with other local groups has fought a long battle to protect the cultural and ecological security of their Eastern Himalayan homeland – sought to be undone by a series of bumper-to-bumper large hydropower projects lined up on Sikkim’s rivers. The situation is not much different for communities across the ecologically and geologically fragile, seismically active Himalaya.
“It will indeed be a tragedy if we exploit our rivers any more in Sikkim. The remaining free-flowing stretches should be left alone,” adds Lepcha. They are keen to save a 12 km. stretch of the Teesta between the already commissioned 1,200 MW Teesta III and the 510 MW Teesta V projects. The proposed 520 MW Teesta IV project impacts Dzongu, a reserve for the Lepcha tribe, directly. But it is not an easy task as pressure mounts and green governance norms are bent. In 2017, the Save Dzongu Committee and elected Panchayat leaders exposed a fraud in which Gram Sabha consent had been gotten using forged signatures for the 520 MW Teesta IV project to bypass the opposition of the Lepchas of Dzongu. Such consent is required to comply with the Forests Rights Act (FRA), 2006, as a part of the forest clearance process.
Bumper-to-bumper hydroelectric projects are heavily fragmenting Himalayan rivers. Projects such as the 1,000 MW Karcham Wangtoo dam on the Sutlej river divert water through long tunnels leaving rivers ecologically impoverished. Photo: Sumit Mahar
Let the river run free
In 2018, the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) found an ‘innovative’ way to bypass Gram Sabha consent for hydropower projects in Himachal Pradesh. It agreed to exempt consent for small hydropower projects by treating them as ‘linear projects’ as they have many linear components. The MoEFCC had earlier illegally exempted linear projects such as roads, powerlines, and pipelines from the need for Gram Sabha consent and it has now added small hydropower to the list. The next likely steps are apparent by reading the 43rd report of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Energy, which is on hydropower. This report came out in January 2019 and records Himachal Pradesh’s suggestion to the committee to help declare large hydropower projects as linear projects too: “If it is done, then, to a large extent, the problem of FRA, which the Secretary also mentioned, will get resolved because the stringent provisions of FRA will get diluted. It is not our purpose to subvert them. Our only purpose is to get them more liberalised.”
But violation of consent norms aside, why is the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) process allowing such ‘bumper-to-bumper’ projects leaving no sections of rivers to flow free? For many years, the large run-of-the-river projects in the Himalayan region rode a false narrative of being ‘dams lite’ since they had relatively smaller submergence than some of India’s mega dams. But then we have a series of dams diverting rivers through long underground tunnels and dropping them back into the river, only to be diverted by another dam immediately downstream. The rivers are being severely fragmented. In winters, at least 80 per cent of flows are diverted through tunnels. People started asking an essential question: where exactly is the river flowing? While cumulative impact assessments of multiple hydropower projects and carrying capacity studies at a river basin level did begin, such studies do not operate outside the political economy of dam-building and environmental governance. The studies are still largely done by the same consultants who routinely conduct shoddy individual project EIA studies, which almost never say ‘no’ to a project, even when major damage is going to be inflicted.
The case of token 'free' flow
In the case of the Teesta, while the carrying capacity study did recommend allowing a stretch of the river in the upper reaches to flow free, it essentially paved the way for three of the biggest hydropower projects to come up in a series, along with the fourth – 510 MW Teesta V – which was already under construction. Between the 1,200 MW Teesta III and 500 MW Teesta VI projects, virtually no part of the river will flow free, unless the 520 MW Teesta IV project, which the Lepchas are opposing, is dropped. Now the MoEFCC has a policy position, which translates practically into: it is not necessary to drop projects to save rivers, we only need to prescribe environmental flows to be released from the dam (see ‘The Collapse of Freshwater Fisheries’) and ensure that one kilometre of the river is allowed to flow ‘free’ between successive projects. So now the cumulative impact assessment studies across river basins are essentially prescribing that a blanket one-kilometre flows ‘free’ between successive projects and then recommending that most be built, with a few rare or insignificant exceptions. The future of our rivers is indeed bleak as they get fragmented further, but this time with a green packaging of “e-flow and one-kilometre token ‘free’ flow”. As far as the Teesta is concerned, even this token one-kilometre ‘free’ flow will not be there upstream and downstream of the proposed 520 MW Teesta IV project.
Back in Dzongu, Gyatsho Lepcha is still hopeful that they can at least ensure the Rangyong Chhu will be a fully free-flowing river. If the 520 MW Teesta IV project gets built, its lower reaches will get submerged. In addition to that, the 300 MW Panan project is planned on this river. The Teesta basin carrying capacity study was silent about this project as the MoEFCC had asked the study to be restricted to the Teesta river and not its tributaries. The Lepchas of Dzongu had hoped that at least the Eco-Sensitive Zone (ESZ) around the Khangchendzonga National Park, which is only 1.2 km. away from the proposed Panan hydel project, would ensure it is scrapped.
But the MoEFCC had other plans. It notified the ESZ around the bulk of the park’s boundaries to be only 25 m.! This was clearly a move to ensure that hydropower projects very close to the park on the Teesta and its tributaries are not impacted due to the ESZ. Lepcha has challenged this ESZ notification in an ongoing litigation in the Supreme Court. Saving the Rangyong Chhu is an important cause for him, like many other women and men fighting for rivers across the country. We descend from the monastery and go back to his house, as we hear the river flowing in the background. Despite following environmental governance for hydropower for two decades, the brazenness with which we are damning our rivers still shocks me – it is a Himalayan blunder.
Text and photographs by Parineeta Dandekar
Far out in the estuary of the Aghanashini river, a carpet of silver spreads out before us as Ismail bhai lays out Indian mackerel to dry. “We fish in the river but the bangde we catch in the sea also have their links to Aghanashini. We owe her everything.” This estuary of the modest, free-flowing Aghanashini supports around 5,000 fisherfolk. But undammed rivers like the Aghanashini are a rarity now; in the neighbouring dammed Sharavathi river, fish diversity has plummeted, as have dependent livelihoods.
India is the world’s second largest producer of inland fisheries, producing 8.90 million tonnes in 2017-18, which is double our marine production. And yet, barely 10 per cent of this comes from our rivers, while the remaining largely comes from aquaculture from tanks, ponds, and reservoirs. Riverine fishery is below subsistence level with an average yield of 0.3 tonnes per km., about 15 per cent of its actual potential.
This is a tragedy, as India is a megadiverse country for freshwater fish diversity, with over 780 recorded fish species including 120 threatened species. Indian rivers host the highest rate of endemic freshwater fish (27.8 per cent) in Asia, with the Western Ghats having ~67 per cent rate of endemism, and still seeing spectacular new discoveries. The Eastern Himalayan Biodiversity Hotspot is data deficient, but is known to be extremely diverse.
Over 10 million fisherfolk mainly depend on riverine fisheries in India. They comprise hundreds of communities, each with their unique fishing methods, gears, songs and stories. Like our rivers, fisheries too connect conservation, livelihoods, social identities and art. Despite this, riverine fish and fisherfolk receive next to no protection.
A member of the Kadar tribe fishing on a stretch of the Chalakudy river, Kerala, which will be destroyed by the seventh proposed dam on its stretch – the Athirappilly hydroelectric project.
Amidst multiple stressors, India’s 5,700 completed and under-construction large dams and hundreds of mini hydel projects have been majorly responsible for the collapse of our fisheries. And what a spectacular and unheralded collapse it has been. Upstream and downstream, dams fundamentally alter fish habitat by tampering with flow, temperature, turbidity, nutrients, access to spawning grounds, fragmentation and introduction of exotic species.
The Narmada Valley Projects in Madhya Pradesh, such as Tawa, Bargi, Omkareshwar, Mann, and Indira Sagar, and Sardar Sarovar in Gujarat, decimated fisheries of the revered Narmada river. According to the Central Inland Fisheries Research Institute (CIFRI), post-impoundment, yields of hilsa Tenualosa ilisha fell by 75 per cent and prawns Macrobrachium rosenbergii by 46 per cent. The Sardar Sarovar dam blocked the migration routes of hilsa upriver while also drastically reducing the flow, drying out the river. Instead of restoring the flows, the planned Bhadbhut Barrage at the river mouth will be the last straw for the estuary. When the Prime Minister visited Bharuch to lay the foundation stone for the Bhadbhut Barrage in 2017, hundreds of fishing boats defiantly waved black flags in clear protest.
Madhya Pradesh, once a bustling mahseer landing station, lost 78 per cent of mahseer in three decades, and now buys fry from Tata Hatcheries in Lonavala. It is an ecological tragedy of momentous proportions. On the banks of the incomplete Maheshwar Dam, fisherfolk leader Mangatram ji asks me, “Government talks of compensating land for land, but we fisherfolk depend on the river. Will they compensate a river with a river?”
Similar is the case with the Cauvery, Pennar, Godavari and Krishna rivers. The upper reaches of the Krishna estuary have reached hypersaline conditions because of water diversion and can no longer sustain commercial fisheries. While landed farmers received some compensation for newer dams like Gosekhurd, lakhs of riverine fisherfolk are left destitute.
Iconic fisheries of the Ganga river began declining from the 1970s, coinciding with increased water abstractions through barrages and dams. Its impact on fish yields is clear, with the average yield of major carps declining from 26.62 to 2.55 kg./ha./year during the last four decades. Projects like Inland Navigation, being pushed without an EIA or appraisal, are already showing profoundly negative impacts on the Gangetic dolphin, India’s national aquatic animal.
EIA reports of dams all too often make fraudulent claims. The EIA of the Ken-Betwa Link Project, set to affect migrating fish like Anguilla bengalensis bengalensis, Bagarius bagarius and mahseer shockingly states: “The canals of the project would provide a shortcut for the fish to migrate upstream.” A senior CIFRI scientist published a paper on the catastrophic impacts of the proposed Ken-Betwa link on fisheries, but as a part of the Expert Appraisal Committee, CIFRI never raised an issue on the matter!
In Himalayan rivers, hydropower development is wreaking havoc with fisheries. In the Teesta basin, access to the river for fisheries has been severed by bumper-to-bumper dam development. Himachal Pradesh Fisheries Department came up with a “negative zone list” in rivers, only to hand these zones to dam developers for a hefty fee. Agencies like CIFRI seem to have forsaken fisheries. Today consultancies with developers are commonplace. Located in the same state as Farakka Barrage, a textbook example of dam-led fisheries collapse, CIFRI never pushed for a functioning fish-lock for Farakka.
CIFRI has been entrusted with several Environmental Flows (e-flows) studies. Its e-flows Assessment for the 780 MW Nyamjanchhu river was severely flawed and used a canal-like cross-section for the river. For the 3,097 MW Etalin Project, CIFRI e-flows report recommends low flows and fails to provide a list of fishes.
E-flows recommendations by the MoEFCC too have been disappointingly inadequate. E-flows are recommended to be released through dam-toe powerhouses, which are as fishfriendly as a sharp chopper. High flows from hydroprojects during peaking operations wash away eggs, fry and juveniles. There has been no study to assess the efficacy of the MoEFCC’s ad-hoc recommendations on e flows, onekilometre “free-flowing distance” between dams or hatcheries. The only official solution to salvage the fisheries collapse
seems to be in dubious hatcheries, reservoir fisheries and aquaculture. However, farmed fish affect biodiversity, the gene pool, and completely alter the equity around riverine fisheries. The dam companies’ authority to confer fishing contracts further marginalises riverine fisherfolk.
In the U.S., the world’s largest dam decommissioning is around the corner. Dams on the Klamath river are to be decommissioned mainly for their impacts on salmon runs, traditionally important for indigenous tribes. I think of the fisherfolk I met throughout the country, still singing songs of the fish that no longer swim up their rivers, fish that are blocked by dam walls, fish that find no water to return to. Like Advait Mallabarman says in his classic Titash Ekti Nadir Naam, “Separated from water, Malo fisherfolk gasp like fish. Will they be able to wait any longer?”
By Himanshu Thakkar
Analysis of official information shows that big dams are no longer necessary, viable or optimal in India. Over 95 per cent of India’s 5,701 large dams (of which 5,264 are completed and 437 are under construction as per the Central Water Commission’s National Register of Large Dams) are built for irrigation, but most of our irrigation now comes from groundwater.
As far as sustaining India’s groundwater lifeline is concerned, dams do not help, but are rather proven to cause harm in multiple ways. The best option for sustaining groundwater is to harvest rain closest to where it falls and either store it locally or, wherever feasible, recharge groundwater. Respecting the groundwater aquifer is the most benign water storage option, though there are others too, including local water storage and even labour-intensive soil moisture conservation works that could employ millions of people across India.
An old man on Khalghat Bridge over the Narmada, which has seen several iconic struggles against dams. Many sections of Khalghat are now submerged. The nature capital losses were never estimated. Photo: Abhay Kanvinde
Hydropower was never socially or environmentally the best option; it is clear now that it is no longer economically viable either. The cost of power from any under construction or new proposed hydropower project unlikely to be less than six to seven rupees per unit (KWHr) whereas solar and wind can deliver at less than three rupees per unit. Carefully located, these alternatives do not lead to the kind of severe social and environmental impacts that hydropower projects do. Moreover, these alternatives have lower investment requirements, and can be constructed faster and closer to the load centres. Clinchingly, the most crucial evidence of the financial unviability of dams is the large-scale exodus of private companies from the hydropower sector. The decreasing addition of hydro installed capacity over the last decade is further evidence that hydro dams are coming closer to redundancy.
The peaking power advantage that hydropower projects claim has not been convincing. No agency has definitively monitored how much power is generated from hydro projects during peaking hours, when electricity use is at its highest points in a day. Thus the question of optimising it does not arise. Today, with the huge reduction in electricity storage costs, there are better and more economic options for providing peaking power.
Very few dams are constructed exclusively for water supply or flood control. When it comes to the latter, existing dams can provide flood moderation benefits provided they are operated with that objective. In reality, the conflicting-purpose operation of dams has increasingly been the cause of dam-induced flood disasters, as we saw in Kerala in August 2018 and in the Krishna basin in Maharashtra and Karnataka in August 2019.
In that case, why are we still building dams and irrigation projects? The not surprising answer recently came from a man who should know. Shashi Shekhar, former Secretary, Ministry of Water Resources, is quoted to have said at the India Rivers Week Meeting at WWF-India in November 2016: “… the biggest problem with the country’s water sector was the politician-bureaucrat-contractor nexus… The interest is not in irrigation, but in constructing assets because that is where the money is. All the states have sizeable budgets for this. After all that, the total (canal) irrigated area in the country is 10-15 per cent. So why should it get such vast resources? It does so because the contractor is interested, and there are below the table payments.”
People’s movements against dams have played a major role in India’s environmental legacy. Of these, the Narmada Bachao Andolan is of course the best known. More recently, the public agitation against the Lower Subansiri Hydropower Project in Assam has stirringly stalled work on the project for over eight years and continues to inspire action against the large dam obsession that has been unleashed on Northeast India. The struggle against the Lower Subansiri project has been so vociferous that no less than Prime Minister Narendra Modi (at an election rally at Pasighat on the banks of the Siang river) and Rajnath Singh have had to promise the people of Northeast India that if they do not want big dams, the government won’t build them.
Large dams have sparked people’s movements because of the enormous toll that they take on land, and both human and non-human communities. The movements that truly stand out include those against hydroprojects in Koel Karo, Bedthi, Tehri, Athirappilly, Silent Valley, and Bodhghat-Indravati, among others.
The new growth alphabet
A for Athirappilly, B for Bodhghat, C for Cauvery, D for Dibang, E for Etalin… seems to be the new growth alphabet emerging from the most powerful offices in India. With economic growth in negative territory and depression around the corner, the old and trusted formula of dams as major infrastructure to push up expenditure is being tried. This was the formula used in the 1930s by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to bring the U.S. economy out of the Great Depression, starting with the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) Act of May 1933. It was then pushed as a growth model to other countries. In India it came in the form of the Damodar Valley Corporation (DVC) Act of 1948.
However that 20th century model was a failure even then, as the first CEO of the Damodar Valley Corporation, Sudhir Sen in A Richer Harvest: New Horizons for Developing Countries, (Tat McGraw-Hill Publishing Company, 1974), brimming with caustic sarcasm, wrote: “While the DVC was still on the anvil, some Indian engineers got busy to forge their own TVAs. And some of them proved adept not only in irrigation, but also in political engineering… One example will illustrate the point. During this TVA phase of India’s economic development, a well-known Indian engineer used to proclaim off and on that he was going to build the highest dam in the world, suggesting implicitly a new yardstick for measuring national greatness – the height of the dam and the millions of cubic metres of the congregate poured… That many engineers, in India as in other countries, would, if left to themselves, like to build monuments to themselves regardless of the time and cost involved is a commonplace of history. But India had yet to discover this. Thus, at the dawn of her independence India relied, wistfully, on her highdam-builders.” That model is no longer relevant in the 21st century except possibly as an easy route to corruption and kickbacks. In the changing climate scenario, they are even less relevant.
We all love elephants, but the government is exhibiting a preference for white ones! It would be best if the PMO were to not push down reluctant states’ throats this old alphabet wine with new brand names. It won’t help the cause of growth and it will bring huge negative impacts on people, environment, rivers and future generations. It will also possibly bring bad publicity to the government.
The world, in fact, is moving increasingly towards dismantling large dams. A case study of decommissioning of dams in the USA in 2016 noted that since 1912 (till 2019), more than 1,700 dams have been removed across the U.S., with 90 dams removed in 2019 alone. The case study report describes “the methods used to measure the benefits of dam removal when comparing costs to benefits, including five case studies and a summary of small dams. The case studies illustrate the range of benefits and costs that can be considered, multiple methodological approaches, and a range of locations.”
In India, we may have to move towards this sooner rather than later. Some current candidates for decommissioning include: Mullaperiyar Dam in Kerala (operated by Tamil Nadu), Dumbur Dam in Tripura, Loktak Dam in Manipur and Maheshwar dam on Narmada river in Madhya Pradesh. But we are still far from arriving at a consensus that could see us moving towards decommissioning dams, or including dam decommissioning and impact costs in our clearance calculus.
Dams and temples
Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru famously said dams were temples of modern India. The current government does not have much love lost for Pandit ji, but loves temples and also dams, though for entirely different reasons. Fortunately, dams do not get associated with the emotional and religious fervor that temples evoke. We are not committing blasphemy by advocating decommissioning of dams in India and going for smaller projects, are we? After all, prayers can also be offered at smaller religious places.
Neeraj Vagholikar has tracked hydropower on Eastern Himalayan rivers for two decades. He is a member of Kalpavriksh.
Parineeta Dandekar is a post-graduate in Integrated Water Resource Management and works with South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People (SANDRP) on issues related to rivers, culture and ecology.
Himanshu Thakkar, is currently coordinator of SANDRP. He has in the past been associated with the work of the Narmada Bachao Andolan, World Commission on Dams, and the Centre for Science and Environment.