Calcutta Notebook


Narendra Modi has criticized the Congress Government of Uttarakhand for not being able to push hydropower projects. He has said that people of the state are unemployed but the UPA Government is not concerned. He has also suggested that Uttarakhand should be named a different type of SEZ—Spiritual Environment Zone. He has thus projected hydropower as a solution to the problem of unemployment and he sees no conflict of this with spiritual life.

Modi's understanding is wholly misplaced, if not ridiculous. Jobs are created in hydropower projects during the short phase of construction lasting 4-5 years. Thereafter, a large project typically requires the services of barely 150 workers most of whom are skilled engineers imported from outside. These projects, however lead to a huge loss of long term employment. Large areas of cultivated fields are submerged in the reservoirs of the projects leading to loss of jobs in cultivation. Large areas of forests are submerged leading to loss of grazing and minor forest produce. Rivers go dry or are converted into reservoirs leading to loss of fishing and sand harvesting. Thus, jobs in hydropower are like jobs of making coffins.

The conflict of hydropower with spiritual environment is even more damaging. This is seen in disaster at Kedarnath last year. The immediate cause of the disaster at Kedarnath in Uttarakhand appears to be global warming which has led to increased incidence of cloudburst. Cloudburst is a natural phenomenon that has been taking place since times immemorial. But the capacity of earth to bear the cloudburst has been eroded by human actions. Previously trees were many. Rainfall would seep into the earth seeping by the side of the roots of trees. This water was stored in hill aquifers. The trees also held the soil together and did not let it flow down with the heavy downpour. Reduction of forest cover and weakening of the mountains has led to less water seeping into the earth and more flowing down in a torrent and bringing down boulders and uprooted trees with it. Huge logs of about 3 feet diameter and 20 feet length were flowing down the Alaknanda during the recent events. According to knowledgeable hydrologists the Himalayan Rivers can bring boulders of upto 6 feet diameter. These boulders and tree trunks hit against the foundations of bridges and houses and bring them down. The same amount and velocity of plain water would not inflict as much damage because it would flow around the structures.

Two hydropower projects are being made in the mountains below Kedarnath. These are Phata-Byung and Singoli-Bhatwari. About 15 km tunnel is being made in each of these projects. Huge amounts of dynamites are being used to make these tunnels. This blasting has had two effects. One, it has weakened the mountains. Consequently the water flowing after the cloudburst has brought with it more muck and boulders. Two, it has created cracks in the mountains. The water stored in the aquifers has leaked out through the tunnels. The springs have dried up. The trees are deprived of moisture and have become weak. They are not able to hold and slow down the downpour as much as they could do previously. This has resulted in more boulders and trees flowing down and has led to the disaster.

Question is why the Congress and BJP are both pushing hydropower? Actually all this is good business for the politicians and officials. Ministers are reportedly taking a bribe of Rs one crore per megawatt for signing MoU for generation of hydropower. This is a huge amount considering the hydro-power potential of Uttarakhand of about 40k megawatts. The State Government gets 12 percent free power from these projects. It sells this power. One-half of the revenue earned is used to pay ever increased salaries, pensions and perks to government employees. A share of the remaining goes in administrative expenses. The remainder is spent for public works. Of this, the going rate for bribes is 20 to 50 percent. On the whole, mere 20 percent of the revenues reach the people as once famously stated by Rajiv Gandhi. But they bear 100 percent of the negative impacts. They lose sand and fish that they previously got from the river. Mosquitoes breed in hydropower dams. People die from diseases such as malaria resulting from these mosquito bites. And, of course, people bear the brunt of disasters such as the one taken place recently. Electricity generated, however, is mostly consumed by the rich. The benefits from illegal mining similarly accrue mostly to the rich who use the minerals. The ministers and officials make hefty bribes in the process.

Narendra Modi has caged the Sabarmati between brick walls at Amdavad. The river flows as directed by Modi, not as per her own wishes. Modi now similarly proposes to cage the Holy Rivers of Uttarakhand which is fine because politicians are what they are. But it is totally unacceptable to simultaneously sing tunes about jobs and spiritual environments. Modi must reconsider his support to hydropower not only in Uttarakhand but in all states because people of all states want durable jobs and all rivers of the country are Holy.

Vol. 46, No. 28, Jan 19 - 25, 2014

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