[Commentary] The role of hydropower projects in development and disasters in Uttarakhand

  • When Uttarakhand was formed in 2000, it was envisaged as an ‘Urja Pradesh’ (power state) because of its high hydropower potential.
  • However, hydropower projects in the state have escalated social, economic and ecological vulnerability to natural disasters, writes Jeet Singh in this commentary.
  • Uttarakhand has an estimated potential of 24,551 MW of hydropower but has been able to identify and process projects of only about 16,000 MW capacity so far. The state is still dependent on importing power generated outside the state.
  • The views expressed in this commentary are that of the author.

Urja Pradesh (power state) has been the slogan for infrastructure development in the Indian Himalayan state of Uttarakhand, ever since it came into existence in 2000. Over the years, more than 100 hydropower projects were initiated in different river valleys of the state. However, the planning, construction and operation of many of these projects are not free from cultural, ecological and economic controversies. Recently, these projects were also accused of escalating the impact of natural disasters as well.

Currently, 37 hydropower projects are operational in the state and 87 more projects are in different stages of planning and construction. The government’s vision of the Urja Pradesh was to make the state energy surplus so that it can sell energy to other states, generate employment for local people and strengthen its own revenue base. To what extent these promises have been fulfilled in the last 20 years is worth a question to ponder over.

Generating power more than its domestic demand is at the core of the Urja Pradesh slogan. So far, a total installed capacity of 3,971 megawatts (MW) energy is generated in a year at the 37 hydropower projects being operated by different agencies in the state. Another 9,008 MW of installed capacity is expected with the upcoming 87 hydropower projects in Uttarakhand.

Uttarakhand is importing power to meet demand

The state has an estimated potential of 24,551 MW of hydropower, which is considered a clean energy source by many, but it could only identify and process projects of about 16,000 MW. As of today, the state is heavily dependent on power generated outside the state. In fact, in the last ten years, the power generation capacity of the state through hydropower projects has not increased even as the power demand has tremendously increased from 10,571 Million Units (MU) in 2011-12 to 13,852 MU in 2019-20. According to the latest economic survey report of the state government, the state imports more than 50 percent of its energy demand from other states to meet its demand-supply gap.

An agreement signed in 2015 between the Union Ministry of Power and the state government to assure power to all, attempted to devise a roadmap to quickly increase the power generation capacity of the state. According to this agreement, the state government committed to increasing its installed capacity by commissioning various hydropower projects by 2019.

During 2015-2019, it had aimed to increase the annual power generation capacity of the state by 145 MW by completing the construction of eight state and privately owned hydropower projects. It had further expected to add the power generation capacity of 395 MW through the commissioning of four hydropower projects being developed by various central public sector units. However, five years since the agreement was signed, none of these projects were completed and the installed capacity of the state remained the same.

The economic gain and development prospect was another main advantage propagated in the last two decades. It was claimed that about 10 percent of the investment in hydropower projects will help in infrastructure development around project sites. Moreover, the income from royalty and cess imposed on private sector power generators and the sale of hydropower was expected to bring returns for the state government.

The powerhouse of the Rishiganga hydropower project after the glacier burst in February 2021. Photo by Jeet Singh.
The powerhouse of the Rishiganga hydropower project after the glacier burst in February 2021. Photo by Jeet Singh.

Despite the proclamation of hydropower’s economic prospect, it remained an insignificant source of income for the state. According to Uttarakhand’s 2021-22 budget, it is estimated to earn Rs. five billion from hydropower, which is not even one percent of the total budget of the state for the financial year. Moreover, the actual income from this source has always been much less compared to the budget estimate.

The claim of employment is also overstated. Most jobs created through these projects are temporary and only for the period up to construction. A 2009 report by the World Bank found that claims related to employment generation through hydropower projects are often exaggerated. Hydropower projects in Uttarakhand are not different in this case.

A report of the Uttarakhand Migration Commission published in 2018 reveals that 11.12 percent (8.3 percent permanently and 3.8 percent seasonally) population has migrated in the last ten years from mountain districts of the state. More than 50 percent of these people migrated in search of livelihood.  The report also found that 734 villages depopulated due to migration in Uttarakhand from 2011 to 2018.

Read more: Chamoli floods trigger concerns against rapid development in the Himalayan region

State of major unanticipated losses

Citizens, including scientists and activists, have been regularly challenging the claims of Urja Pradesh. These voices became more serious after 2013 when flash floods in the Kedarnath valley of the state led to massive devastation. The disaster raised questions on the role of some hydropower projects in Kedarnath valley in escalating the vulnerability. The National Institute of Disaster Management (NIDM) in its report in 2013 explicitly mentioned that anthropogenic activities including hydropower projects were responsible for escalating the impact of the Kedarnath flash floods.

An expert committee constituted by the Supreme Court in 2013 to study the role of hydropower projects in the disaster had also found their role in human, wildlife and ecological destruction. However, these questions were ignored by policymakers. The avalanche that turned into a flash flood in February 2021 once again raised those questions. This disaster took the lives of more than 200 workers of two hydropower projects in the Dhauli Ganga subbasin of Uttarakhand.

As per the government’s own estimate, the flash flood of 2013 cost the state the loss of property worth Rs. 40 billion. This cost is way higher than the total investment attracted so far by the state to develop power projects.

Thus, two decades after the formation of Uttarakhand, the idea of developing the state’s economy around hydropower projects seems to have fallen apart. This idea has not benefited common people and the government in any sense; be it employment, electricity generation or revenue to the government. Moreover, the construction of many of these projects has disturbed regional ecology, wildlife, geology and hydrology. This damage has further increased the disaster vulnerability of people living in this region.

Jeet Singh is an environmental policy researcher associated with Rajiv Gandhi Institute for Contemporary Studies (RGICS), a national policy think tank in India.


Banner image: The damaged under-construction hydropower project of the NTPC after the glacier burst in February 2021. Photo by Jeet Singh.

Exit mobile version