The horrific tragedy in Mandi, Himachal Pradesh (HP), which led to the tragic loss of 23 lives is not the first. It may also not be the last given how no dam or reservoir in the country has any safety measures in place, says a new report by South Asia Network for Dams, Rivers and People (SANDRP).
It will be recalled that 25 people, including 24 students from Hyderabad, were washed away in a flash flood caused by the sudden opening of the flood gates at the Larji hydel project dam, 2.7 kms upstream of accident site at Thalout on the Beas river.
“In a classical thumri rendition, by Ustad Rashid Khan, he sings about how a river, once a friend, which has turned into a foe - Nadiya Bairi Bhayi.. Something similar is happening at a number of places in India, where the river, a life giving friend, is turning into a deadly force,” rued Parineeta Dandekar of SANDRP.
When dams turned killers
The report mentions how on April 8, 2014, 11- year-old Radhika Gurung studying in Class IV was accompanying her sisters Chandra and Maya along the river Teesta near Bardang, Sikkim. Suddenly, without having any time to respond, all three school girls were washed away by force of water released by upstream 510 MW Teesta dam. While Maya and Chandra were lucky to be saved, Radhika wasn’t. She lost her life. “Locals say NHPC, the dam operator, does not sound any sirens or alarms while releasing water downstream for producing hydroelectricity and villagers live in constant fear of the river,” says the report.
“Despite demands for strict action against NHPC, no action has been taken.”
On March 28, 2013, 5 people, including two children aged 2 and 3 drowned in the Bhawani river near Mettupalayna when 100 MW Kundah project (Tamil Nadu) on the Pillur Dam suddenly released 6,000 cusecs water. The family was sitting on the rocks in the riverbed when water levels started rising, and they did not get enough time even to scramble out of the river with the two children, says the sole survivor. “Officials admitted although an alarm is sounded at nearest hamlets, it does not reach downstream,” says the report which found locals saying no alarm is sounded. No action has been taken against any official.
On Jan 8, 2012, a family of seven including a child, drowned in the Cauvery river when water was released from the 30 MW Bhavani Kattalai Barrage-II (in Tamil Nadu). The same day, two youths were also swept off and drowned in the same river due to this release. “There are no reports of any responsibility fixed or any action taken against the barrage authorities or Tangedco (which runs the project), although it was found that there was not even a siren installed to alert people in the downstream about water releases,” says the report.
Uttarakhand has a history of deaths due to sudden releases from its several hydropower dams. In April 2011, three pilgrims were washed away due to sudden release of water from Maneri Bhali-1 Dam on the Bhagirathi in Uttarakhand. In 2006 too, three women were washed away by such releases by Maneri Bhali. The district magistrate of Uttarkashi ordered filing a case against the dam’s executive engineer but nothing has happened.
Again in November 2007, Uttarakhand Jal Vidyut Nigam Limited was testing opening and closing of gates of Maneri Bhali Stage II, when two youths were washed away by these releases. Following a protest by locals, the executive engineer and District Magistrate simply issued a notice which said, “Maneri Bhali exists in the upstream of Joshiyada barrage and water can be released at any time, without prior notice.”
Similar notice is also given by NEEPCO, which operates the Ranganadi Dam and 405 MW Dikrong Power House in Arunachal Pradesh, on the Assam border. “The gates of Ranganadi diversion dam may be opened at any time. NEEPCO will not take any responsibility for any loss of life of humans, animals or damage to property.”
Lamentably, such notices sitting on the bank of the Chalakudy River near the Athirappilly falls in Kerala have become the bane of the Kadar tribes, which traditionally stay close to the river and depend on fishing for their livelihood. Now they are fearful of even entering the river, says the report.
In December 2011, three youth drowned in the Netravathi when water was released by the fraudulently combined 48.50 MW AMR project (Karnataka) now owned by Greenko. This has not been the first instance of drowning because of this project. Villagers accuse the dam for the deaths of as many as 7 unsuspecting people in the downstream. This dam is now increasing its height and one more project is being added to it.
On October 1, 2006, at least 39 people were killed in Datia district in Madhya Pradesh when suddenly a large amount of water was released from the upstream Manikheda dam on Sind River in Shivpuri district. There was no warning prior to these sudden releases and hence unsuspecting people were washed away. CM Shivraj Chauvan ordered a probe into this incidence in 2006, and a report was submitted by a retired HC judge in 2007. “This report has been buried and attempts to access it have been in vain. The government has not released it, forget acting upon it or fixing responsibility after 8 years,” rues the SANDRP report which asks, “Is it ok to have hundreds of dam-related deaths due to irresponsible and non-transparent dam operations and not have any responsibility fixed?”
In April 2005, 70 people were killed at Dharaji in Dewas district of Madhya Pradesh due to sudden release of huge quantity of water from the upstream Indira Sagar Dam on Narmada river. Principal Secretary Water Resources Madhya Pradesh inquired into the incident and found “there was no coordination between agencies.” No accountability was fixed and no one was held responsible. NHPC, who operated 1000 MW Indira Sagar Project, simply claimed that it was a case of mis-communication and that it was not aware of the religious mela on the river downstream. In fact SANDRP had observed even then, “It just shows how far removed the dam operator is from the safety of the people as the fair annually gathers more than 100,000 people of the banks of the river. It is a scandal that no one was held responsible for the manmade flood which resulted in the mishap.”
“These incidents,” says the report, “make it clear that Larji is not the first and will not be the last, if we continue non transparency and non accountability in hydropower dam operations.”
Questions that arise
“Do sanctioning authorities and dam operators reaslise that each of these projects convert an entire river (not limited to the hydropower project) in the downstream area into a potential death trap? Do they assess the impacts of the various possible operations of the projects in the downstream area and envisage, plan and implement measures to avoid death and destruction in the downstream areas?” asks the SANDRP report which adds, “Can cordoning off and alienating a river, indicating that it is dangerous, be a solution to this? Are measures like alarms, sirens, lights enough when a river experiences order of magnitude sudden change in its flow due to dam and hydropower releases?” It also asks, “Is it okay to have hundreds of dam-related deaths in the recent years due to irresponsible and non-transparent dam operations and not have any responsibility fixed?
Pointing out how the obvious answer to these questions is ‘NO’ the report recommends, measures to avoid or minimise occurrence of such tragedies in future with transparent, inclusive management norms in operation of all existing dams and hydropower projects.
“For every operating dam and hydropower project in India there should be a clearly defined standard operating procedure (SOP) in the public domain. This SOP should include steps taken before release of water from the dam, how the release will be increased (the increase should be gradual) or decreased, how these will be planned in advance, who all will need to be informed about such plans in what manner and what safety measures will be taken. This will also include who all will be responsible for designing, monitoring and implementing these measures. There should be boards at regular intervals in the downstream area in language and manner that local people and outsiders can understand and the boards should also indicate the danger zone and what kind of sirens and hooters may blow before the releases,” recommends the report.
According to it, “The SOP should take into account where there are upstream projects and how the upstream projects are going to influence the inflow into the project and how information will be shared with upstream and downstream projects and also with the public. The Power Load Dispatch Centres should also remember that when any hydropower project is asked to shut on or off, there are consequences in the river and they should be asked to keep such consequences in mind and time required to alert the regions in risk.”
It further adds, “For every dam there should be a legally empowered official management committee for the project management. While half of these should be from the government, the other half should be NGOs, local community representatives. This committee should be in charge of providing oversight over management, including operation of the project and should have a right to get all the information about the project.”
The report also suggests that hourly water levels and release data of hydropower dams be made available daily and publicly. “Water levels corresponding to discharges (and possible timings where applicable) should be physically marked on the river banks, local communities should be involved in this, evacuation methods and mock drills should be organised by dam proponent from time to time in all places along the river which could potentially be impacted.”
Asking the government to mandate that all existing dams and under construction projects put these steps in place in three months, the report suggests incorporating them in the sanctioning process of new projects too.
“Entire clearance mechanism for cascade hydropower projects in the Himalayas and elsewhere needs to be revisited to include the operational safety measures considering the cumulative operation of the projects. Projects where operational safety measures alone will be insufficient due to massive fluctuations/location/upstream projects, etc., should be urgently dropped,” suggests the report which adds, “Peaking power projects should be restricted to certain locations like deep mountain gorges, after proper studies. Such projects should not be permitted as rivers enter into floodplains, due to their significant impact on the downstream and also in biodiversity-rich river stretches.”
It also recommends exemplary punishment not only for dam operators, but also engineers and dam companies in case of negligence. Independent inquiry will be required since departmental or inquiries by district administration or government officials are unlikely to be credible. “Since the designed safety measures in case of Larji were clearly inadequate, not just the operational staff but all those responsible for such shoddy safety plan should be held accountable,” says the report which adds, “It is unacceptable that a life-giving and beautiful entity like a river should be converted into a dangerous and deadly force for our energy needs, without even the most basic precautions in place.”
Attempts to reach Union water resources minister Uma Bharati for a counter drew a blank.