New Delhi: The devastating consequences of the glacier break in Uttarakhand have once again put the spotlight on hydroelectricity projects (HEPs) in the state. The floods caused by the break have left a large number of people dead, while many others are still missing.
The Centre and the state government have come under fire for allowing construction of HEPs to continue without properly considering the ecology, with experts saying the flood could have been avoided. However, the governments have claimed that they have made adequate provisions to save ecology.
In this regard, a notification was issued by the Narendra Modi government in October 2018 in which the quantum of water flow into the Ganga river from HEPs was fixed.
According to the notification issued by the Ministry of Water Resources, River Development and Ganga Rejuvenation – now called the Ministry of Water Power – all hydroelectricity projects situated on the upper streams of the Ganga were mandated to release 20-30% of water into the river in different seasons.
Environmental flow refers to the minimum amount of water required to preserve the health of the river and the livelihood of its aquatic organisms. While experts and environmental activists believe that the prescribed e-flow is not adequate, demanding that the limit be increased, official documents reveal that the Centre is trying to reduce it further.
Files obtained by The Wire reveal that the Ministry of Power stated that the e-flow prescribed by the Ministry of Water Resources would cause revenue loss to the HEPs. Hence, an exemption should be granted to those in operation or under construction at the time the notification was issued, the ministry suggested.
The ministry even said that if a project incurs losses due to the regulation, they should be compensated for it.
A note prepared by the Hydro Project Planning and Investigation Division of the Central Electricity Authority (CEA) of the Ministry of Power, dated May 8, 2019, states that the e-flows for the Ganga notified by the Ministry of Water Resources could result in a reduction of power generation as well as tariff.
On the basis of this argument, the department demanded that either that the projects under construction and in operation should be kept out of the ambit of the mandated e-flow requirements or else adequate compensation should be granted.
The ministry said that the revenue loss to the state on account of the prescribed e-flow could be about Rs 800 crore.
The letter, written by deputy director Mukesh Kumar to the secretary (power), read, “CEA has observed that e-flow notified now are at variance with the recommendations made by the Expert Body constituted by the Supreme Court. CEA has requested that hydro projects currently in operation and under construction could be spared from the proposed e-flow release requirements.”
Subsequent to the Uttarakhand disaster in June 2013, the apex court in a judgement on August 13 that year directed the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) as well as the state of Uttarakhand not to grant any further environmental clearance or forest clearance for hydroelectric power projects.
Following this, an expert body was constituted, which submitted a report in September 2017. The report made recommendations for careful assessment of some of the projects and for release of e-flows from other hydro-projects.
It further said, “It has also been pointed out by CEA that drainage of untreated sewage and industrial effluents especially from tanneries directly into the river are probably the biggest source of the water pollution in Ganga which need to be suitably addressed.”
However, experts believe that the government should focus on its own concept of “aviral dhara” and “nirmal dhara” (continuous flow, unpolluted flow), which suggests that if sufficient amount of water is released through e-flows, then the continuous flow in the river will clean most of the pollutants.
The deputy director reported in the letter that hydro projects with an installed capacity of 2,524 MW are in operation, while projects with an aggregate capacity of 2,310 MW are under construction in the upper reaches of Ganga.
“HE projects in operation, in general, may not have adequate provision/arrangement for release of e-flows specified in notification and would probably need fresh investments, if technically feasible,” the report said.
“In respect of under construction HE projects, relatively lower e-flows have been considered as compared to the present MoWR notification. As such, the overall reduction in Design Energy of the projects due to increased e-flows notified by MoWR is likely to be around 20% on an average which would also entail corresponding annual revenue loss or rise in tariff.”
In addition, a meeting was held under the chairmanship of the secretary of MoWR on November 28, 2018, to review the measures and actions taken to implement minimum e-flows. During the meeting, the CEA pointed out that projects like Tehri have been designed to cater to the irrigation requirements of Uttar Pradesh and mandatory e-flow releases may have an impact on the same.
The deputy director also estimated that if the new e-flow regulations are followed, the state would lose revenue due to the fall in power generation. He estimated that at an average unit cost of Rs 4 per unit, the state would incur an overall revenue loss of about Rs 800 crore annually.
“In addition, projects with an aggregate capacity of 2,310 MW are also under construction which will also entail revenue loss. As such, either the under construction and in operation projects be kept out of the ambit of release of e-flows or else a suitable compensation mechanism would need to be devised.”
Not only the Ministry of Power, but the Uttarakhand government has also demanded that the rules regarding water discharge from these projects should be relaxed.
Previously, The Wire had reported that the chief secretary of Uttarakhand had told the National Mission for Clean Ganga (NMCG) – a unit of the Ministry of Water Resources – that the current e-flow discharges will result in the projects in the state incurring losses of about Rs 3,500 crore.
The chief secretary had demanded the Centre to relax the provisions and allow the HEPs in the state to release less water. The state government had also made a similar demand before a parliamentary committee.
In fact, the Ministry of Power has also backed the demands of the Uttarakhand government in this regard.
According to a report of the parliamentary standing committee released in January 2019, the secretary (power) said, “We absolutely second the Uttarakhand government and are trying to resolve this matter at a high level. The government cannot have different opinions. Together, the Ministry of Power, the Ministry of Environment and the Ministry of Water Resources are trying to reach a common ground, though it has not been achieved yet. We absolutely want to utilize the capacity available with the state. State participation is very important for our projects.”
The Uttarakhand government had told the parliamentary committee that if they implement the NGT’s order (to ensure minimum e-flow of 15%) as well, then on the basis of previous capacity, they would incur an annual loss of Rs 120 crore.
“As far as the latest order is concerned, it will completely destroy the hydroelectricity sector,” it said.
No unanimous agreement
Former secretary of the water ministry, Shashi Shekhar, said that it is a subject which is not unanimously agreed upon by all the ministries, especially the Ministry of Power. The Ministry of Water Resources views environmental flow as a means to revive the Ganga, but the Ministry of Power believes that if e-flow is increased, the hydropower projects will suffer.
“There should be enough water in the river for one to say ‘the river has life’,” Shekhar added further. “Our engineering community is unable to accept it. They believe in generating revenue from every drop of the river, but accumulation of water in a dam only wastes it,” he said.
“If the government is really committed to it, then it will have to bring all the departments on one platform,” he said.
In 2015, a committee headed by Shekhar submitted its report recommending e-flows of 50%. However, it could not be implemented despite being approved by then water minister Uma Bharti.
What is the need for e-flow?
Simply put, environmental flow is the minimum flow of water required to sustain a river. According to the definition of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), e-flow is the water provided within a river, wetland or coastal zone to maintain ecosystems and their benefits where there are competing water uses and where flows are regulated.
But the construction of hydroelectric projects affects the amount of water in the river. E-flows try to ensure the uninterrupted flow of a river.
After a mushrooming of hydropower projects, there have been demands for ensuring adequate environmental flow in the rivers across India during the last few years. Between 2006 and 2018, at least 12 reports were prepared at various levels in this regard but a consensus could not be reached as experts had different opinions about the quantity of e-flows.
In short, four reports for hydropower projects have recommended about 50% e-flow, while three other reports have suggested maintaining the e-flows at 20-30%. The Ministry of Water Power considered only the latter worth implementing.
The government notification issued in October 2018 was termed “inadequate” and challenged in the Uttarakhand high court.
Translated from the Hindi original by Naushin Rehman.