Of Hydropower and Disaster

It's natural, it's man-made as well—the Uttarakhand disaster. The immediate cause of the catastrophe in Uttarakhand is an ordinary atmospheric happening of cloudburst—‘it is as if the pent up anger of the gods burst all the dams and poured water everywhere?’ In truth hydropower projects being made below the Kedarnath Mountains has converted this ordinary happening into a nightmare. The Phata-Byung and Singoli-Bhatwari on the Mandakini are each making an about 20 km long tunnel in the fragile mountains. Large amounts of explosives have been used for this purpose. The blasting has loosened the soil of the mountains and weakened the roots of the trees. Previously rainwater used to seep down into the hill aquifers taking support from the roots of the trees. Presently, the same rainwater has uprooted the trees and carried them along with the soil into the river. These projects had dumped large amounts of muck into the river to reduce their construction costs. This too has been carried by the river. Density of the river water became more. This heavy water and the flowing logs from the uprooted trees have hit the roads, bridges and houses and broken them leading to a huge disaster. Nature is taking its revenge for man's intervention in the regime of the river.

Manmohan Singh has had a major role in pushing these projects and bringing this disaster upon the hapless people of the country. He has formed special task forces in the PMO to fast track hydropower projects. He wants electricity to be generated at the lowest possible costs irrespective of the consequences on the economy and the people. He does not want to calculate the true cost of electricity after accounting for various environmental costs including such as that of the present disaster. The PMO has seen to it that the price of electricity is reckoned only on the basis of direct costs incurred by the producer such as depreciation, interest, labour charges and payments for coal. The environmental costs of generation are not taken into account. Truly speaking, the monetary value of the loss due to the present disaster should be added to the cost of electricity generated by the hydropower projects. These projects lead to lower economic growth by creating such disasters. People who have died will no longer contribute to the economy as they could have. The benefit from cheap electricity is nullified by the loss from disasters and environmental degradation.

Similar damage to the economy has been made by the downstream Srinagar project being made on the Alaknanda. Large amounts of muck were dumped by the GVK Group Company making this project on the riverbed. This muck was carried by the river and deposited in the houses of downstream Srinagar town. About 100 houses had to be abandoned and people rehabilitated. The National Highway 58 has been closed for the last two weeks at the time of writing because a layer of 8 feet thick slush has been deposited on it.

Professor Stephen Meyers of Massachusetts Institute of Technology had made a study of the impact of environmental regulation on economic growth. He ranked the 52 states of United States according to the depth of environmental regulation. Then he compared this with their growth rates. He found that states having stronger environmental regulation also had higher economic growth rates.

There is no gainsaying that stronger environmental regulation leads to higher costs of electricity, transport and other charges. The loss to the consumer is compensated by the gains from environmental protection.

The cycle of making hydropower and inviting disasters is entirely harmful for the people and the economy. Not so for the Ministers and Government Servants though. They are doubly benefitted. They earn huge bribes in signing the Implementation Agreements with the hydropower companies. It's reliably learnt that the going rate is Rs one crore per megawatt. This is a huge amount considering the hydropower potential of 40k megawatt in Uttarakhand. Then disaster strikes and they get huge amounts for relief and reconstruction. The going rate of bribes here is 20 to 50 percent. Thus, Ministers are promoting this policy of hydropower and disaster.

Vol. 46, No. 2, Jul 21- 27, 2013


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