The return of the mega hydropower projects across India

  • State governments in India, across party lines, are reviving or pushing mega hydropower projects,some that have been pending for decades.
  • The Bodhghat project in Chhattisgarh, Athirappilly project in Kerala, North Koel in Jharkhand, Dibang multipurpose project in Arunachal are among the list of such projects which have recently got a renewed push.
  • This focus on large hydropower projects from states is in line with the central government’s systematic and consistent push for encouraging large hydropower projects over the last few years. In 2019, the central government had declared large hydropower projects as renewable projects.

Remixes are back and India’s state governments seem to have caught on to the trend. Their choice for remix though is mega hydropower and irrigation projects which are being revived, following a push from the central government. State governments, even from different political parties, are making a common push for these projects, including some which have been pending for decades.

The Bodhghat project in Chhattisgarh, Athirappilly project in Kerala, North Koel in Jharkhand, Dibang multipurpose project and Etalin project in Arunachal Project, Polavaram in Andhra are among the list of such projects which have got a renewed push.

A rough estimate indicates that the total estimated cost of just four of them – Polavaram project in Andhra, Etalin and Dibang in Arunachal Pradesh and Bodhghat in Chhattisgarh – is about Rs 1.31 trillion. The central government stepped up its focus on hydropower last year when it declared all large hydropower projects as renewable energy projects.

The latest example is Congress-led Chhattisgarh government’s push for the Bodhghat Multipurpose Irrigation Project whose pre-feasibility report was, last month, given in-principle consent by the Indian government’s Jal Shakti Ministry and the Central Water Commission. The project proposed on the Indravati river has been pending for 40 years now. But the government expressed in a statement the work of survey of this project and preparation of a Detailed Project Report (DPR) will now be done at a rapid pace.

During the budget session of the state legislative assembly, in March 2020, Chhattisgarh’s Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel had announced to take up the construction work of Bodhghat irrigation project. In April 2020, Baghel had discussed the Bodhghat project in a meeting of the state’s water resources department and the project is also included in the department’s budget for 2020-21. 

According to the government, the project is about eight kilometres from village Barsur of Geedam development-block in Dantewada district and 100 kilometres from Jagdalpur district headquarters. The estimated cost of the project is about Rs. 226.53 billion (Rs. 22,653 crores) and it proposes to irrigate 366, 580 hectares and generate 300 megawatts of power. It is expected to provide irrigation in Dantewada, Sukma and Bijapur districts of Bastar division. 

As per Chhattisgarh’s Water Resources Minister Ravindra Choubey (in a statement), within the next 8-9 months, the survey research and DPR of the Bodhghat project will be prepared to take forward the construction work and the project will be a milestone in Bastar and Chhattisgarh’s development.

Activists on the field who have been working on issues related to the displacement of tribal communities think otherwise. Alok Shukla of the Chhattisgarh Bachao Andolan questions whether there is a need for the big project at all. “The government should have discussed this project with the people of Chhattisgarh, especially Bastar, as it has a huge destructive impact. At this time of climate emergency, is the government ready to bear its impact on the environment and on tribal communities? Bastar is enlisted in the fifth schedule area and it has special protection under the constitution. The idea is to ensure that the tribal people do not lose their land holdings. So, is the government ready to provide land to all those tribal people who will be displaced because of this project? Is the government ready for the rehabilitation of huge displacement of people caused due to this?” Shukla questioned.

He emphasised that though there are alternatives of cheaper renewable energy, the government still wants to impose this project on the tribal people. 

The Chitrakot waterfall on Indravati river in Chhattisgarh. The Bodhghat project proposed on the Indravati river has been pending for 40 years and has got a renewed push this year. Photo by Ishant46nt/Wikimedia Commons.

According to the Chhattisgarh government, earlier, irrigation was proposed in an area of 265,580 hectares of Dantewada and Bijapur districts but considering the need for availability of water, the chief minister instructed that the project should also supply water for irrigation to Sukma district. Following that, Sukma district was also included in the project for irrigation taking the proposed annual irrigation facility to 365,580 hectares. 

But Shukla argued that “even if the government is aiming to enhance irrigation facilities then there is an alternative of making small structures.”

Kerala, Jharkhand, Andhra Pradesh and more see hydel project revival

It is not just the Bodhghat project alone which is getting a renewed push by the government. In Kerala, it is the controversial Athirappilly hydel power project which was first mooted in 1979. The project in the ecologically sensitive Western Ghats region has been for long opposed on grounds of its impact on the environment and tribal communities. A few days ago, the Communist Party of India (Marist)-led Kerala government announced its intentions to obtain a fresh environmental clearance for the project from the central government.

Another old project that has seen a new lease of life is Jharkhand’s North Koel dam project. The project envisaged in the 1970s had got another chance when the central government in 2017 had approved a proposal to finish the project. Similar is the case of Arunachal Pradesh’s Dibang Multipurpose Project and Etalin hydropower project in the biodiversity-rich and ecologically sensitive region which were identified nearly 20 years ago but have got a huge push in the past few years. The Polavram multipurpose project in Andhra Pradesh is another major project from the early 1980s which has another major project from the early 1980s which has been revived after funds were recently released and gave the project new hope, despite a change in the ruling party in the state.

Himanshu Thakkar, the coordinator of the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People (SANDRP), a network of organisations and individuals working on issues related to the water sector, specifically associated with large dams, said this is an old habit of governments picking up large dams and hydropower projects to flog growth whenever the economy is in bad shape.

“There are a series of such projects, which are stuck from years, and are getting the push from various governments now. Besides Athirapally, Bodhghat, Cauvery (Mekedatu), there is Dibang multipurpose project & Etalin Hydro project in Arunachal Pradesh, Teesta-6 project in Sikkim, a couple of them destroyed in 2013 floods in Uttarakhand. The Teesta project was constructed halfway already but was abandoned by Lanco and now it was bought by state-controlled NHPC. This is nothing but old wine in a new bottle. It is unfortunate such unviable projects are being pushed especially when there are better alternatives available,” Thakkar told Mongabay-India. 

Read more: Controversy returns to Athirappilly as Kerala government reactivates the hydel project proposal

Etalin hydel plant’s future now hangs on its economic viability

Systematic push for hydropower projects since last few years 

In January 2019, a parliamentary standing committee in its report had expressed concern over the slow pace of the hydropower sector stating that it has not got the deserved attention despite having numerous benefits. It had noted that having only 45,399.22 MW of installed capacity of hydropower against the total potential of 241,844 megawatts speaks volumes. At present, India’s total installed capacity from hydropower projects is 45,699.22 MW. According to the Central Water Commission’s data, as of June 2019, there are about 5,745 constructed/under construction large dams in India.

Subsequently, in March 2019, Prime Minister Narendra Modi-led Union Cabinet had approved measures to promote the hydropower sector. One of the main decisions was to declare large hydropower projects as renewable energy against the existing practice of only calling hydropower projects less than 25MW as renewable energy projects.

The government since then has been also pushing for including large hydropower projects under non-solar Renewable Purchase Obligation (RPO). Once done it would mean that the power distribution companies will have to buy a particular amount of power in the form of non-solar renewable power from such large hydropower projects. This is when the government itself admits that the distribution companies are reluctant to sign Power Purchase Agreements (PPAs) from hydropower projects due to “higher tariff, particularly, in the initial years.” 

The under-construction Polavaram project in Andhra Pradesh. Photo by Chaduvari/Wikimedia Commons.

Himachal Pradesh-based Manshi Asher, who works with Himdhara Collective, an environmental research and action group, pointed out that following its decision to make hydropower projects over 25 megawatts under renewable power category, the central government has now been pushing for ensuring renewable power purchase obligations for them. 

“But what we need to realise is that there are very few project proponents that are private players while the majority are public sector companies. This ultimately means an increased financial burden on the public exchequer as there are better and cheaper options available for power,” Asher told Mongabay-India while stressing that besides the economic viability and burden there is also a question of “larger ecological challenges these big hydropower projects are facing or could face.”

”For instance, in the Himalayan region, there are issues related to geology and climate disasters like floods, landslides which could turn project unviable or project not meeting its target. In some cases, it leads to a continuous increase in its cost,” she said.

Asher said the revival of the big hydropower projects have a lot of hidden costs which are not considered when such projects are pushed. “The big hydropower projects have a lot of social and environmental costs which are never paid attention to. Ultimately, it is the people in the local area that bear most of the social and environmental cost of these projects but sadly these are never accounted for,” she said. 

Alok Shukla said that the question remains “whether all governments are building big dams just to build their profile at the cost of destruction.” 

Read more: Give faster clearances to hydropower projects: parliament panel

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


Banner image: A picture of Maithon dam in Jharkhand. There are over 5,700 large dams across India. Photo by Jaiprakashsingh/Wikimedia Commons.

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