Darjeeling: The Union government has reportedly made a strong push to develop hydro projects of all types and sizes in the northeast, two-thirds of which is blessed with hilly terrains interspersed with valleys and plains crisscrossed by major rivers and their countless tributaries.

Proponents of these projects, including the government, say these projects will help develop the region, but local residents say the projects will change their way of life and culture by altering the flow of rivers and by their downstream impacts. Environmentalists highlight the ecological costs of these projects on the region's biodiversity.

Small hydropower projects are being particularly pushed in the northeast, and in West Bengal’s Darjeeling, as we reported in the first part of this two-part series on the local opposition to two projects--a 12 megawatt (MW) project on Chhota Rangit and a 6 MW one on Balawas.

This second part details why it is easier for small hydel power projects to be approved despite local resistance and why these projects are environmentally fraught.

Northeast to be dam(n)ed?

According to the Central Electricity Authority’s Reassessment Study, carried out during 1978-87, India’s hydropower potential from projects with a capacity above 25 MW was estimated at 145,320 MW. Of this, the northeastern states make up 58,356 MW--40% of the total capacity.

Union Minister for Power and New And Renewable Energy (MNRE) R.K. Singh told the Rajya Sabha in April 2022 that seven large hydel projects with a total capacity of 3,157 MW were being constructed in the northeast. They are part of projects across the country with a yield of 12,663.5 MW that are currently in development.

The Union Minister also stated that the Central Electricity Authority (CEA) had approved Detailed Project Reports (DPRs) for an additional 29 projects with an aggregate installed capacity of 22,768 MW. However, these projects were yet to be started due to “various reasons”. Seventeen of these projects, with a capacity of 16,715 MW, are located in the northeast.

Projects with capacity of 25 MW or below, classified as small hydro, are estimated to have a potential of 21,133 MW from 7,133 sites in India, as found by the Indian Institute of Technology, Roorkee in its Small Hydro Database of 2016 and cited by the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy.

The northeast region’s small hydro potential is estimated at 3,261.49 MW, says the North Eastern Electric Power Corporation Limited (NEEPCO), a Government of India enterprise, on its website. Of this, 2,064.92 MW would be produced in Arunachal Pradesh alone, the Ministry of Development of North-East Region told Parliament in April 2022.

Additionally, there are several large and small hydel projects--operational and proposed--in West Bengal’s Darjeeling and Kalimpong districts that are not part of numbers for the northeast.

Of the potential power generation of 3,261.49 MW from small hydel projects in the northeast (excluding West Bengal), just about 338.46 MW of energy capacity had been installed, as of April 2022.

Why small hydel power projects are easier to push than large projects

Hydro projects under 25 MW enjoy a free hand because it is believed that among the various methods of harnessing water energy, Small Hydropower projects (SHPs) have the least negative impact on the environment. These projects were eligible for subsidies from MNRE till 2017, and the Union government is reportedly planning to launch similar schemes again.

“At a local level, small hydro and micro hydel power plants provide power to local village communities located in remote areas where national grid infrastructure is inadequate, such as in the northeast. Access to power in these areas is critical to support socioeconomic development,” says a 2017 MNRE report.

The report adds, “at the national level, the two main benefits that accrue from an SHP plant are stable source of clean power and employment. Apart from these, one major positive externality is development of infrastructure such as roads and improved accessibility in remote rural areas.”

As we have reported earlier, the Indian government has placed small hydel projects in the ‘White Category’ industrial sector which is “practically non-polluting”. They are looked after by the MNRE and are exempted from the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) notification of 2006 and as a result, do not require a legally binding environmental clearance.

Additionally, SHPs in India have reportedly been highly successful in obtaining carbon emission reduction credits (CER) under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change’s (UNFCCC) Clean Development Mechanism (CDM). These credits are then sold to industrialised countries so they can meet a part of their emission reduction target.

All these make small hydel projects a lucrative initiative and a part of India’s renewables goals.

But small hydropower projects have environmental, human costs

Media reports, research and experiences of affected people elsewhere suggest that SHPs can pose significant threats as well. The first issue with these projects in India is the country’s arbitrary limit of 25 MW.

In 1989, hydro power plants with capacity up to 3 MW were handed over to MNRE from the Ministry of Power. Later in 1999, MNRE was entrusted with hydro projects of capacity up to 25 MW.

The term “small hydro” does not have a universally accepted definition. As per the UNFCCC, the capacity of a “small” hydro power plant typically ranges from 1 MW to 50 MW internationally. Projects with a capacity between 100 kW and 1 MW are sometimes referred to as “mini” hydro, while those with a capacity of less than 100 kW are called “micro” hydro.

“Installed capacity, however, is not always a good indicator of the size of a project. For example, a 20 MW, low-head “small” hydro plant is anything but small as low-head projects generally use much larger volumes of water and require larger turbines as compared with high-head projects,” the UNFCCC said in 2001.

As a result, without any strict regulation for hydro power plants under 25 MW, the adverse socio-economic, cultural and ecological impacts of such projects are often ignored in India, as is being done in Darjeeling district’s Bijanbari and Pulbaza, as we reported in the first part of this series

Further, stakeholder consultation with local communities is a prerequisite for projects registered under CDM, but small hydro developers hardly bother, research shows.

A 2017 paper published in AMBIO: A Journal of the Human Environment, which studied SHPs in India’s Western Ghats and surveyed local affected communities, found that public hearings did not take place and locals “were neither informed nor consulted prior to dam construction”.

“About 47% of the respondents were unaware that their panchayat had awarded No Objection Certificates for the dams to be built,” the paper found.

“Many respondents (31.5%), including four panchayat members, admitted that the process of SHPs seeking panchayat permission was pretence, driven largely by bribes and political pressures, rather than the intent to improve social welfare and livelihoods.”

Media reports have also highlighted this issue.

The local population in northeastern states has opposed large and small hydel projects alike, citing their impact on local indigenous communities, as well their environmental impacts. Reporting finds that northeast India has been wrecked by large-scale construction of hydel projects, with indigenous riparian and hilly communities suffering the most from the resulting floods, landslides and earthquakes. India’s hydel push in the region has also led to homelessness and migration.

Regulated or not, hydro projects have the potential to wreak havoc in the northeast

Northeast India is rich in biodiversity and serves as a habitat for a significant population of wildlife such as rhinos, elephants, tigers, Gangetic river dolphins, etc. The region, home to scores of indigenous communities who form a substantial part of the population, falls under the high-risk category of Seismic Zone 5. Darjeeling falls under Zone 4.

Classifying the country’s various regions into seismic zones 1-5 is an activity carried out by the National Centre for Seismology, under the Ministry of Earth Sciences. Zone 5 is the highest classification, delineating those areas that are most at risk from high-intensity earthquakes.

In his 2012 paper, Scope, Possibility and Risks in Hydropower Development in the North East Region of India, Sharad K. Jain, former NEEPCO (North Eastern Electric Power Corporation Limited) Chair Professor at IIT Roorkee, argued for improving the living conditions of affected communities in the northeast by equitable distribution of hydel project benefits.

He believes if local communities are informed about how hydro projects could help regions grow, such projects would get popular support. “Local and traditional knowledge of communities should be utilised in project planning, construction, and operation,” Jain wrote.

To convince local communities who would be potentially affected by development activities to “trade off today’s certainties for tomorrow’s uncertainties”, far-reaching changes would be required “to mobilise their trust and involve the communities as partners in progress,” Jain added.

But this has not happened so far.

The former NEEPCO Chair Professor at IIT Roorkee says the government has developed several schemes to resolve the livelihood issue, but adds that they are not foolproof and despite best efforts, the authorities fail to satisfy everyone.

“In most cases, people ask for jobs,” Jain said. “But there are very few jobs available in a hydro project site where locals could be engaged. To address this crisis, skill development schemes have been initiated where locals who lose their livelihoods for a project are taught different skills so they can find other work.”

He says that mismanagement by on-ground officials who are in charge of vocational programmes and distributing compensations is seen in many cases across India, failing the government’s ideas and intentions.

The 2017 paper about small hydro projects in the Western Ghats found that most people were not given the opportunity to work at the dam, even though dam developers had promised them jobs. Locals believed that due to their mass agitations demanding employment, and their vigilant behaviour in “reporting illegal activities undertaken by dam authorities”, they were not considered for jobs.

The paper said that despite confirming local employment generation in their UNFCCC CDM’s project design document (PDD) form, “non-locals were perceived as preferred employees in working plants by all respondents, even for unskilled labour such as cleaning and maintenance”. A few locals were hired as temporary employees and were greatly underpaid.

Shripad Dharmadhikary, an activist and founder of Manthan Adhyayan Kendra, a centre set up to research, analyse and monitor water and energy issues, says that at the sites of development projects such as hydro power initiatives and dams, people depending on common property resources are affected the most.

“The government and project authorities provide cash compensation [jobs and resettlement] to those who have lost land and property,” Dharmadhikary says. “They don’t compensate people who depend on common property resources. In case of hydro projects, riparian communities lose access to rivers and are forced to look for alternative livelihood opportunities.

“Also, people who receive cash compensation tend to spend it on personal things or on things that may not build any sustainable asset for his/her community. As a result, sites of these projects are reduced to having very little to offer its own people.”

A 2010 paper, a chapter of which is available on the Tripura State Pollution Control Board’s website, critiqued the existing impact assessment system of hydro projects in the northeast on similar grounds.

“The impact of dams on resources under common use (for example, pasture land), vital to the livelihoods of local communities, is also a major missing link in the impact assessment of projects,” wrote Neeraj Vagholikar, author of the chapter titled ‘Dams and Environmental Governance in Northeast India’.

Vagholikar further wrote that mandatory norms require land use restrictions in the reservoir’s catchment area to reduce siltation and increase its lifespan. Additionally, legal mechanisms, such as compensatory afforestation, lead to other areas being taken up by the government and the consequent restriction of local communities to access those lands and resources.

“However, in the existing planning and decision-making process, social and environmental impacts over the larger landscape due to various aspects are not assessed,” Vagholikar wrote. “This is therefore not reflected in the decision-making on the overall viability of the project.” He pointed out that the Indian government prioritises the techno-economic issues of a hydro project more.

Ecological and cultural concerns

As most of the large rivers in India are already dammed, there is an increasing focus on damming tributaries at higher altitudes, found a 2017 study by the Centre for Science and Environment.

The critical impacts of small hydro projects are ecological, physical, and human-induced. Ecological impacts include effects on aquatic plants and animals. Physical impacts include changes in water quality, sediment-carrying capacity, erosion, groundwater quality and recharge, climate, soil, and geology. Human-induced impacts, because locals are forced to change their way of life after their land and resources are impacted by hydropower projects, include interference with drinking and agricultural water availability, solid waste generation, and socio-economic factors.

The CSE study says that while a single SHP has less impact, the cumulative impact--the combined environmental effects of multiple projects in the same river basin--of multiple SHPs can be dangerous. For instance, the study says, 400 SHPs of 5 MW each can affect more tributaries than one large hydro power project of 2,000 MW.

“The cumulative impact of SHP is not confined to the addition of multiple SHP projects in one area; the impact is also cumulative with many other development projects in terms of forest use and linear intrusion from roads and power lines,” the study points out.

SHPs have a relative advantage over large hydro projects as they avoid issues such as “changes in landscape, rehabilitation and resettlement of project affected people, soil erosion, groundwater recharge, water quality, sediment transportation resulting from submergence of vast tracts of land and massive deforestation activities,” the CSE report says. But, it adds that deforestation still takes place due to project activities related to small hydropower plants, and that results in “increased soil erosion, disruption of local flora and fauna and disturbance of hill slopes.”

The CSE study highlighted that the deposition of rubble, muck, and silt from construction and operations is a concern. Dumping sites are often in pristine forest areas where they should be forbidden. Not returning silt to the river can decrease nutrients downstream, vital for farming and fisheries.

“[Small] hydro power turbines, dams and tunnels also have an impact on fish populations as many fish species migrate for spawning; this migration is effectively barred by dam constructions and dry riverbeds,” it says.

Apart from the ecological concerns, hydel projects also threaten local cultural and traditional beliefs, says Dharmadhikary. Almost every development initiative in India tends to ignore the traditions and sentiments of indigenous and local communities associated with land, river and trees.

“Local communities have very strong social, cultural and identity ties with rivers which get disrupted with the construction of dams and hydropower projects,” Dharmadhikary says.

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