Hydropower projects come back in focus with Dibang dam push and the dam safety bill

  • India’s hydropower sector comes back to focus with the government clearing the path for the controversial, large-scale Dibang hydropower project in Arunachal Pradesh.
  • The project, estimated to cost over Rs. 280 billion is expected to be the highest dam in India once completed and aimed to prevent floods in the downstream area. It is controversial for the proposed felling of trees and possible impact on ecology, environment and wildlife of the area.
  • In its focus on hydropower sector, the cabinet also cleared a dam safety bill to regulate safety-related work for over 5,600 existing dams in India, some of which are over 100-years-old.

The tide has turned for hydropower projects in India after years of being in the shadows of the solar and wind power projects that have primarily been the focus of government attention. In the last six months, the government declared that large hydropower projects would have renewable energy status. And now, the government has paved the way for the progress of the 2,880 megawatts Dibang hydropower project in Arunachal Pradesh and the enactment of a dam safety bill.  

On July 17, 2019, the Cabinet Committee on Economic Affairs (CCEA) led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi approved the “expenditure on pre-investment activities and various clearances for Dibang Multipurpose Project (MPP) in Arunachal Pradesh” for an amount of Rs. 16 billion (Rs. 1,600 crore). However, the total estimated cost of the project is Rs. 280 billion (Rs. 28,080.35 crore) and the time expected for the completion of the project is nine years from the receipt of government sanction.

Envisaged as a storage-based hydroelectric project with flood moderation as the key objective, the Dibang Multipurpose Project (Dibang MPP) is estimated to be the largest hydroelectric project and highest dam to be constructed in India, compared to existing projects. Located on river Dibang, in lower Dibang valley district of Arunachal Pradesh, it would have a 278-metre high concrete gravity dam. The construction of Dibang project is also expected to prevent the sizeable downstream area from floods. 

With the environment, defence and the first level of forest clearance already in place, the project, as per an official statement, is awaiting final stage forest clearance for investment sanction from the government which would enable the project to provide compensation for land acquisition and resettlement of affected families, undertake compensatory afforestation and other investments.  

In addition to the mandated resettlement and rehabilitation (R&R) plan for affected families, the project proposes to invest Rs. 2.41 billion (Rs 241 crore) on community and social development and addressing concerns raised by the local community during the public hearings. “It is also proposed to spend an amount of Rs. 32.7 million (Rs. 327 lakhs) on a plan for the protection of culture and identity of local people,” the statement added.

The project has been in the making for over a decade now with the then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh laying the foundation stone for it in 2008 and has been controversial along the way. 

It involves felling of over 300,000 trees which would disrupt the habitat of wildlife species like elephants, hoolock gibbon, clouded leopard, tiger, fishing cat, snow leopard and the Himalayan black bear that have the highest protection under the country’s wildlife laws.  

The project was earlier rejected by the environment ministry’s forest advisory committee (FAC) twice – July 2013 and April 2014 on account of environmental and social concerns. In one of the rejections, in July 2013, the FAC had even noted that “ecological, environmental and social costs of diversion of such a vast tract of forest land, which is a major source of livelihood of the tribal population of the state, will far outweigh the benefits likely to accrue from the project.”

In the April 2014 rejection, the FAC had noted that the area has a large number of endemic and endangered flora and fauna. But the stage-I forest clearance was finally given in September 2014 without any major change in the plan  likely due to pressure from other sections of the government.

A case against environment clearances to the Dibang project had even reached the National Green Tribunal but was dismissed in November 2018. 

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In March 2019, large hydropower projects were given a “renewable energy source” status in India. Previously, only hydropower projects less than 25 megawatts were considered as renewable energy projects.

The measures announced by the government to promote hydropower sector are expected to bolster India’s renewable power programme. After this decision, the power generated from these projects could be brought under the non-solar renewable purchase obligation (RPO) and result in the better financial health of the projects.

Earlier this year, the Indian government declared large hydropower projects as renewable projects. Photo by Rajib Ghosh/Flickr.

India has a hydropower potential of 145,320 MW of which only about 45,400 MW has been utilised so far and in the last 10 years, only about 10,000 MW of hydropower has been added. In the past five years, only about 4,700 MW of hydropower capacity has been added.

The former secretary of the government of India’s water resources ministry Shashi Shekhar said that there are doubts about Dibang project’s feasibility.

“Will the Dibang project be successful in serving the flood protection aspect? I have serious doubts about that as it does not fit in the ecological knowledge and logic. The river carries snow-melt water and brings a huge amount of silt with it. The area also receives torrential rainfall and thus dislocates the soil and carries along with itself. It travels a short distance to reach Assam plains. Thus, any dam in the region there will soon get filled up with silt very soon. So, I have concerns about it,” Shekhar told Mongabay-India.

“There was a movement against the Dibang project but the Arunachal Pradesh government and the government of India successfully persuaded the locals to give up their land for proper compensation. But the NHPC now has gone to the court against the compensation decided for the tribal community by the Arunachal Pradesh government. They are not giving compensation. We will be writing a letter to the NHPC authorities appealing them to settle the compensation to people of the Dibang valley district to start their project,” Ginko Lingi told Mongabay-India. Lingi heads the Idu Mishmi Cultural and Literary Society, the apex body of the tribe of Dibang valley impacted by the Dibang project.

India to finally get a dam safety act 

The Union cabinet on July 17, 2019, also addressed the long-pending concern of dam safety by clearing the dam safety bill 2019 for introduction in the Parliament. The bill aims to help develop uniform countrywide procedures for ensuring the safety of more than 5,600 dams that currently exist across India.

According to an official statement, the Dam Safety Bill 2019 includes regular inspection of dams, emergency action plan, comprehensive dam safety review, adequate repair and maintenance fund for dam safety, instrumentation and safety manuals.

The bill provides for setting up of a national dam safety regulatory authority to implement the policy, guidelines and standards for dam safety, the statement said, adding the establishment of state committees and state dam safety organisations for carrying out detailed dam safety-related works. The onus of dam safety lies on the dam owner, notes the statement, and provides for penal provisions for commissions and omissions of certain acts. 

Environment minister Prakash Javadekar, while addressing reporters after the cabinet meeting, said that today the country has over 5,000 dams and nearly 4,700 are under construction. “So, for the safety of around 10,000 dams, there has been no law. There are many dams which are over 100years old while some are over 50 years old,” said Javadekar while stressing that this bill would lead to the process of inspection, reviews, emergency plan and expert advice of dams.

Earlier, this month, 19 people were reportedly killed after a breach in the Tiware Dam in Maharashtra’s Ratnagiri district. “The bill would go a long way in addressing such cases and ensuring the safety of dams,” noted Javadekar. 

According to the government, about 75 percent of the ‘large dams’ in India are more than 25 years old and about 164 dams are more than 100 years old. A badly maintained, unsafe dam can be a hazard to human life, flora and fauna, public and private assets and the environment. India has had 36 dam failures in the past – 11 in Rajasthan, 10 in Madhya Pradesh, five in Gujarat, four in Maharashtra, two in Andhra Pradesh and one each in Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Tamil Nadu and Odisha.

On the dam safety bill, Shekhar said that it is a very important  development. “Unfortunately, for want of money, the work for finding the health of dams was not done so far. It is a very important step as the safety of dams is directly related to the lives of people. Also, in the wake of climate change, in cases of heavy rains, the dams faces danger and could result in a breach. For instance, heavy rains led to Kerala floods. When dams get breached, there is a direct danger to human lives. Thus, this bill is important, as we need to develop safety protocols for dams as well as mechanism about time to release water from dams,” said Shekhar.


Banner image: About 75 percent of India’s large dams are more than 25 years old. Photo by Shahakshay58/Wikimedia Commons.

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