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We must create public opinion in favour of storage hydro projects, Shri R V Shahi, Former Secretary, Ministry of Power

It is now abundantly clear that India's energy development programmes and activities would be in sharp focus of global community. They know that India and China both are deeply engaged in expanding their energy base, they also know that China has already done most of what they needed to do in last 25 years. What China did on expanding its power capacity base in last 25 years, India is targeting to do the same in next 20 years. In 1950, the total capacity of China was about 2,300 MW and that of India about 1,500 MW (800 MW less than China). Today India has reached a capacity of about 1,45,000 MW while China has more than 600,000 MW (450,000 MW more than India). It is this distinguishing feature of the expansion programmes of India which has attracted global attention. Another reason that India's schemes would be under scanner and sharp scrutiny is also on account of its large dependence on fossil fuel based power generation. While we have a very convincing case that in terms of per capita emission of green house gases we are far below the global average, and that we have a large scope for expanding even if it results in much larger CO2 emission yet being below the world average, the fact is that there would be pressures from all sides that we should be (a) more energy efficient in consumption (b) less aggressive than what we are on capacity expansions particularly using fossil fuel, and (c) using fuel efficient latest technologies of power generation, which may be obviously costly.

In the light of the above background, our commitment for development of power generation capacities through hydro electric systems assumes great relevance on account of two reasons. Firstly, this will demonstrate the seriousness and commitment of India that we are enlarging our base through renewable and, secondly, in the long run, it will also be a more economical option for generating power. Unfortunately our track record of hydro electric power development has been less than satisfying. About 30 years back the hydro electric capacity was as high as 45% of the total power generating capacity. In the last three decades it went on declining and reached as low a level as 24% in the end of IX Five Year Plan (2001-02). There has been a marginal improvement in the X Five Year Plan to a level of about 26% but we have a long way to go. Reasons for tardy progress have been discussed on several occasions and they have been emphasized in various papers and conferences. Therefore, I do not propose to describe them in this paper. On 29th March, 2008, I had the occasion to give the key note address in a one day Conference "Hydro Vision India 2008" at Delhi which was organized by ENERTIA. I used this opportunity to highlight a few critical issues, which are essential to reverse the declining trend of hydro capacity proportion and to harness, in a reasonable time frame, the hydro potentials in the country . I would summarise these critical issues of concerns and also put forward the response, that I consider as necessary, to address these issues :

  1. It is true that the world as a whole has been less positively disposed towards hydro electric projects than it should have been all these decades. Except for a few countries, such as Brazil, Norway, Canada, where hydro potentials have been developed to a much larger extent, globally less than 25% of hydro potentials have been harnessed. India is also at around the same level, with only 22% of its potentials having been exploited. However, we cannot take this as a consolation, nor as an alibi, our performance has not been inferior to what generally have been the levels of achievements elsewhere on this score. We could also as well look at the countries which have done remarkably well on hydro based generation of power.

  2. First of all this requires a serious commitment, not only in words but in action, on the parts of all concerned. At least for about last 30 years, that I have been associated with the power sector, I have always heard from all the authorities about their deep commitment for hydro projects. But, I am also a witness to commensurate concrete actions not being put in place resulting in dilution of hydro electric proportion. For the first time in 2003, after considerable initial preparations, a very strong commitment was demonstrated by the Ministry of Power through the launch of an initiative to develop 50,000 MW hydro electric capacity through 160 projects. The initiative was launched by the then Prime Minister of India. In the X Plan we did much better in Hydro than previous plans; in the XI Plan we might achieve around 15,000 MW and the acceleration will continue. But to demonstrate further commitment we have to launch second series of initiative to cover other projects. We have more than 150,000 MW of hydro potential. We need to unambiguously state and emphasise that all hydro projects, irrespective of the fact whether they are run-of-river schemes or storage projects, are renewable. While at the Govt. level this position has been explained in various global fora, in our own country sufficient public opinion in favour of large storage projects has not been created to the extent required. In fact in many States public opinion is against such projects, even though our storage of water is one of the lowest in the world.

  3. The reasons that throughout the world public opinion went against large storage projects are many but a few of them are worth mentioning, so that we could take appropriate corrective steps:

  1. Large storage based hydro projects do lead to submergence of huge areas leading, in turn, to dislocation of towns and villages and, in any case, they do pose problems of rehabilitation of people who depend on these areas for their livelihood. This causes hardships and therefore resentment. Wherever this problem is addressed through an appropriate participative process, right type of rehabilitation packages are developed, more importantly these packages are properly implemented, hardships caused are eliminated through proper substitute arrangements, and the whole rationale of the development programme is explained to the public at large, invariably the resentment and dissatisfaction is minimised. Wherever the rehabilitation and resettlement does not receive proper attention and the programmes and schemes are not carried out with a human touch, communication gaps increase, hardships are not mitigated, dissatisfactions mount and resentments get built up against the concerned project. A few such cases lead to creation of an apathy and repulsion against the storage hydro projects in general. This has been the case in many countries. This reason is, in fact, highly relevant in Indian context.

  2. In the decades of 80's and 90's, many in the world believed that petroleum fuel would emerge as the savior and the main provider of energy needs. There was a lobby operating on a global basis - at least that is how it is being perceived in many countries - which tried to decry thermal projects based on coal on the ground of green house gases and hydro projects on the ground of hardships they would cause by dislocating population living in the areas of submergence. The underlying objective of this lobby was to convince the world that if both these options have these severe disadvantages, petroleum fuel was the only logical and preferred choice. This game plan did work for some time during at least two decades of 80's and 90's. Thereafter, because of highly erratic and unpredictable behavior of petroleum fuel, when the prices started increasing rapidly and when people could not estimate at what level these prices would stabilize, their belief about this fuel started getting shaken. Unbearable burdens of the excessive prices of petroleum fuels started affecting adversely the economies of many countries. Even developed countries started experiencing the heat. And then the feeling about coal, and rationale of its dominant role in the overall energy development and management started becoming warmer. Instead of outright rejection and ever continuing criticism of coal, the discussion shifted to issues like clean coal technologies, carbon capture and storage, zero emission power projects etc. Correspondingly the need for supporting large storage projects has, however, not received similar appreciation and support. Of course, in last 3-4 years World Energy Council has started recognizing all hydro projects as renewable. But, under the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) Scheme large hydro projects, particularly storage projects, have not got the recognition to be qualified for CDM benefits. This needs global acceptance.

  1. When we talk of energy contained in water, it needs to be explained that unless we store water and use its potent energy when needed, we would only allow this energy to be wasted if instead of being stored it is allowed to go into the sea through river systems. Advantages of the Storage Schemes have been, no doubt, understood but this understanding is limited to water professionals, energy professionals and a few other groups. The fact that Storage Schemes have the potential of containing floods, moderating their adverse effects, channelizing water through canals for irrigation of large areas, and for providing drinking water, not only in the nearby areas but also to distant towns and cities, needs proper and widespread appreciation. More importantly, what needs to be explained to public at large is that if Storage Schemes are not developed, water will go away and none of the above advantages could be available to the people. Even today in Eastern and North Eastern States we have incidences, almost every year, of massive floods causing devastations not only to the agricultural crops but also to human lives and cattle, and finally that water goes into the sea. Such a simple concept and the wisdom of developing Storage Schemes which can provide power, regulated irrigation, abundant drinking water and simultaneously eliminate the adverse consequences of flood instead of being understood, in that manner, with all their merits, they are being misunderstood for the causes they are not the responsible for. Having said that, we must also accept that we have miserably failed, in many cases, is in not taking adequate care for suitable rehabilitation of these people who are affected due to these projects. The cost of this failure has been disproportionately high in terms of general resistance against such projects. We must also appreciate that it would be unreasonable to expect from the innocent local people that they should forget about their problems caused on account of loss of their land, households, local connectivity, basic infrastructure etc. for the sake of larger national interest. This type of a sacrifice may be too unrealistic to expect.

  2. We should adopt the twin strategy of (a) liberal rehabilitation schemes which should restore the confidence of people, provide to them not only a reasonable living but also a satisfying earning not in any case inferior to what they have been enjoying, and (b) suitable communication across the country and the world on the virtues of storage based hydro projects. A few successful models of projects could establish the benefits, bonafide and credibility of the system. During last few years I was closely associated with development of some of the very large hydro projects involving reservoirs and therefore entailing massive rehabilitation and resettlement of people. I would like to mention, from among these projects, Tehri Hydro Project (1,000 MW) in Uttrakhand and Indira Sagar Project (1,000 MW) in Madhya Pradesh. In Tehri, we could create a modern township for the settlement of people. This township has about 6,000 dwelling units, has shopping centre, hospital, schools, college (infact a university). Inspite of all these, we did experience problems relating to connectivity of villages which were away but had shorter routes to their district headquarters, taluka headquarters, major markets. They got separated, because of the reservoir, with distances to all these places becoming much larger. Separation of villages because of large reservoir also led to their social interactions getting affected. To the extent these problems could be minimized, it is important to realize, this should be done. If it is totally beyond control, we may have to explain to the people to reconcile. I would say that even though Tehri rehabilitation and resettlement may not be considered to be a role model, greatly we succeeded in mitigating most of the problems. The role of State government is not only important but it is direct. Project sponsoring organizations deposit funds. But, it is the Rehabilitation Machinery, which is created by and functions under the control of the State Govt, which can make or mar the situation. The rehabilitation cost in the case of Tehri project worked out to be more than Rs. 1,000 crores. In the case of Indira Sagar Project, the cost of the rehabilitation and resettlement worked out to be more than Rs. 1,500 crores. A lot was done. But, I must say that a lot more and perhaps better could have been done. Expenditure was not an issue. The problem was of developing the infrastructure ahead of or at least in synchronism with the required schedule. Obviously, dissatisfaction in the case of Indira Sagar was somewhat higher. In one of my visits to this project, I insisted on the State Govt. officials to visit some of the rehabilitation villages. I could very directly find a large number of gaps between what was planned and what was implemented. Right support - in fact a very positive support - from people at large can be expected only if the agencies and authorities involved in the chain of project development take an empathetic approach, which only means that they put themselves in the shoes of affected families, and implement the rehabilitation schemes in the manner in which they have been planned. At the planning stage also we need to properly predict the problems and provide for, to the extent possible, their solutions.

  3. Another aspect, on which the track record of various States leaves much to be desired, relates to compensatory afforestation in lieu of the forests which are destroyed on account of location of the project. In majority of the cases, seldom anything visible and significant has been done. Utilisation of fund that is deposited by the project development agencies is not properly monitored, in many cases State Govt. agencies divert these funds to meet other requirements, in many cases these funds have been used to meet the establishment expenditure of the forest and other related departments of the States. There are some good examples but they are very few. This has obviously shaken the confidence of people at large and of a number of NGO's which have been voicing concern about storage hydro projects. These concerns then manifest themselves in the form of total protest about the project rather than protesting against the way the funds are utilised or misutilised. Total protest against hydro projects per se does not lead us anywhere. It is better that the entire focus is directed to see that required afforestations happen and therefore the projects also are allowed to happen.

  4. Catchment Area Treatment (CAT) is another important issue on which non-performance, in most cases, has led to a feeling of frustration and therefore resentment among people. This does not affect only the people but, in many cases, it affects proper operation of the hydro plant itself. In hilly areas, if the CAT is not done properly, it leads to landslides and therefore has an adverse impact on road connectivity and other related factors. But the experience also shows that the silt level in the water that needs to be processed in the Desilting Chamber becomes so excessive, beyond the ability of the chamber, that power station is left with no alternative than to be shut down during such periods. Here again, the story is the same. Schemes are made. Funds are also deposited. But, the local authorities invariably are slow and indifferent.

  5. In early 90's, the Govt. of India did envisage that unless out of the prosperity of the project a share is allocated for various developmental projects and schemes in that area to take care of the distress and hardship caused on account of the hydro electric project, not only this will be not be fair, the support of people for the project would be hard to secure. Accordingly, as much as, 12% of power and thus the revenue generated from that power, was set aside as a free power to the State. The main objective was to enable the State to use the fund for development of the area. Performance of almost all the States on this score has been almost negligible. Whatever fund is set aside for rehabilitation etc., as a project cost and provided by the project development organization, is used - and in many cases has not been used properly as mentioned earlier - and subsequently, practically nothing is done out of the revenue generated from 12% free power. If this had been used to take care of local area problems of infrastructure, education, health and other needs, year after year, hydro projects would have emerged as the providers of prosperity in these areas.

  6. Rehabilitation and Resettlment, Compensatory Afforestation, Catchment Area Treatment and Developmental Schemes linked to 12% free power given to the State, need to be monitored by a Central Agency. These should not be left totally to the State Government agencies. The present practice has not inspired confidence among the people, and rightly so, because mostly these have not been implemented properly.

  7. Hydro electric power - infact integrated hydro electric projects involving power, flood mitigation, irrigation and drinking water - is such an important and noble concept that resistance to these projects could be only detrimental to the interest of the society and the country. It should be possible for us to carry conviction on this and convince others. Mobilisation of public opinion in favour of these projects would, however, require not only a meticulous planning and a rigorous implementation but also a sincere commitment from all concerned. If we had done it right from the beginning, getting the people with us would have been easier. Our accumulated non-performance arising out of indifferent approach has brought the problems to such a stage that now out efforts will have to be many times more. Nothing short of a complete approach on this subject, which will take care of all the issues which have been highlighted, will lead to success. A radical change in our mindset coupled with the determination to predict and mitigate, in all possible ways, all the problems of people will be essential. This should definitely make a big difference and ultimately generate the required confidence among the people in favour of large hydro projects involving reservoirs.