The Himalayas, Asia’s great mountain system, includes some of the highest mountain peaks in the world and covers an area of about 5 lakh kilometres or approximately 16.2% of the country’s total geographical area. Being one of the world’s youngest fold mountain ranges, the Himalayas are prone to flooding, seismic activity, erosion, and severe landslides, which makes the region vulnerable and ecologically fragile. Despite the environmental risks, the mountain range has the highest density of dams as the flow of the Himalayan rivers makes them ideal for tapping hydropower. While hydroelectric projects are seen as a way of creating economic growth in the region, the negative impact and negative externalities outweigh the benefits received by locals.
The socio-economic activities of the locals are heavily dependent on their interaction with the rich and diverse natural resources in the area and are characterized by the sustainable utilisation of these resources and indigenous practices. Some of them include agricultural activities such as terrace farming and shifting cultivation, animal husbandry and pastoral farming, traditional trade, forestry and tourism. There is no doubt that this region is in need of economic improvement.
In the name of growth development, hydroelectric projects, both large scale and small, have mushroomed in the Himalayan region. The high glaciers, extensive snowfield, freshwater lakes and perennial mountain rivers make it ideal to harness hydropower. Dam construction has had many takers and investors, especially in developing countries, owing to the fact that dams can increase development and reduce poverty by increasing irrigation and producing electricity.
The Himalayas as the Holy Grail for Harnessing Hydropower
Hydroelectric projects are projected not only as a way to meet India’s growing energy demands at a low cost but also as a mainstay for increasing economic activity and tax revenue. With the aim of harnessing the power potential promptly, the state government, such as that of Himachal Pradesh, decided to adopt a multi-strategy for hydropower development through its private, state, central, and joint sectors. Despite dams being a clear risk multiplier, the pro-dam discourse acknowledges hydropower as a simple, sustainable, and clean alternative energy source that is requisite for development objectives such as poverty reduction.
Himalayan states, especially Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh, are approving and allotting hydroelectric projects to private companies at a rate of knots. Situated in the ecologically fragile and seismically active Himalayan region, the state of Uttarakhand has about 70 hydro projects. These include existing, under-construction and proposed dams, which are located on the Bhagirathi and Alaknanda river basins alone. According to a Himdhara Report on the Hidden Cost of Hydropower, these projects are being built bumper to bumper – where one project ends, another begins. This means that water released from the tail of one project meets the head of the next project, and not the river. Thus, a substantial stretch of the river is appropriated and tunnelled to harness the capacity of the rivers to produce maximum power.
Economic and Environmental Risks
There are two sides to the economic impact of dams dams can have positive effects, such as higher income and better infrastructure if the revenues from electricity generation and shared with local communities. They can equally have negative impacts if private players and middlemen derail revenues from local communities, along with the costs associated with negative externalities such as the loss of arable agricultural land, loss of biodiversity due to deforestation and recuperating from natural disasters.
In 2013, Uttarakhand saw its worst-ever natural disaster: devastating flash floods triggered by a cloud burst and glacier explosion in its Kedarnath district. Families of victims, survivors, and the locals in the area attribute the deadly calamity to the region’s many hydropower plants. Recently in 2021, disaster struck again, and this time, it was at the sites of hydroelectric projects. According to the locals, heavy machinery employed on the kuccha mountain roads have weakened them, and the dumping of debris from hydroelectric plants has shifted their course.
The region is no stranger to frequent landslides, which have often severed access to and from remote regions for basic services such as employment, health resources and education opportunities. In fact, several dams, such as the Tehri Dam are situated on active seismic faults. Despite recommendations from Government-appointed expert groups that warned against the construction of dams in the Alaknanda-Bhagirathi basin, the government has gone ahead and built them.
Moreover, damming seismically sensitive areas is counterproductive ─ when disaster strikes, both labour and capital are destroyed. In fact, in the recent Tapovan Tragedy, the Vishnugad Hydroelectric Project, a large-scale project, was greatly damaged. Its construction began all the way back in 2006 and it was scheduled to be commissioned in 2012–2013. The 2013 disaster caused severe damage to the infrastructure and the project is yet to be completed even today. There have been countless delayed projects and they all incur high overrun costs and this challenges their economic viability.
Seeing Through the Development Narrative
In a tweet addressing the 2021 flood disaster, Uttarakhand CM, Trivendra Singh Rawat, opposed the anti-development narrative being taken up against hydroelectric projects and reiterated his government’s commitment to achieving the goal of developing the hills of Uttarakhand in a sustainable manner. “Development” and “industrialisation” are often used interchangeably, but it would be dangerous to equate the two. The frequent natural disasters in the region are a testament to the fact that “development” is anything but sustainable.
As per a DownToEarth article by Sunita Narain, most hydroelectric projects do not plan to release water in the river during lean months. Large-scale construction of dams involves blasting to build tunnels and barrages and have devastating impacts on the mountains. Adding to the environmental risk, construction usually takes place without the necessary safety and environmental precautions. Further, most projects don’t take the key aspect of the capacity of a structure to endure intense seismic shocks. Even the EIA reports are inadequate assessments of geological and environmental impacts. It is often the case that forest land is cleared for these projects. The Tapovan tragedy makes it evident that we have not learnt our lesson from the 2013 Uttarakhand calamity. Disaster management is abysmal, governments and dam developers pay no heed to geological assessments and repeatedly ignore risk warnings. The cost of environmental degradation is a hidden, invisible cost; the economic costs associated with these environmental risks may not seem obvious at first or have immediate effects but become evident in the long run.
There is a gap between the proposed benefits of dams and the actual outcomes. The uneven distributional effects and lack of equity question the usefulness of dams in meeting energy and water supply requirements. Hydroelectric projects have exacerbated income inequality in the region. As stated by Dufflo and Pande, Dams epitomize the fact that economic gains often come at the cost of making some groups worse off. Dam construction has created identifiable losers — locals whose land has been used for these projects, and the people who depend on forests (that have been destroyed to make way for these projects) for their livelihoods.
Large hydro projects have often been met with resistance from citizen groups and locals, who have protested against these dams through organised movements, like the Anti-Tehri-Dam Movement against the Tehri Project, a multipurpose power and irrigation project in the Ganga Valley. As one of the leading causes of forced displacement, dams affect the poor and marginalized the most. Additionally, there is a risk of entire villages being submerged due to the backwater effect, wherein the reservoirs silt up and lead to a rise in water levels. Rehabilitation programmes are often carried out apathetically and the monetary compensation for the displaced people is not sufficient to sustain them. Hydropower projects often leave local communities suffering from environmental damage and lack of water and without even the benefits of power – which is largely produced for export to other regions or countries.
The important question to ask here, is, who is the “development” for? Who will be the real beneficiaries of these projects? The kind of development local communities need are basic facilities like healthcare, education, and economic opportunities. While dams have made significant contributions to economic output, the positive contributions come at colossal social and environmental costs. Policies focussed on “development” and growth have often disregarded scientific data regarding the ecology of the region in consideration. Such policies and projects are the ones that have the most cost associated with negative externalities in the long run. They not only heighten the region’s vulnerability to disaster but also amplify the destruction caused. Environmental Impact Assessments as well as Social Impact Assessments need to be thorough, and they must be taken seriously by developers. The trade-off between economic development and the environment can’t be a dichotomous case, policymakers and governments must look to strike a balance between the two.
Ananya Vhavle is an undergraduate student at Ashoka University. She is pursuing a major in Economics with a minor in Political Science.