The Chamoli disaster was an entirely avoidable Himalayan tragedy, writes Bharat Jhunjhunwala
File photo

Below the land mass of India, there is a huge tectonic plate, known as ‘Indian Plate’. The rotation of the earth is causing this plate to continually move northward just as matter moves to the top in a centrifuge. The Indian Plate crashes into the Tibetan Plate as it moves to the north. The pressure between these two plates is leading to the continual rise of the Himalayas, in general and earthquakes in Uttarakhand, in particular. Thus, Uttarakhand has been having an earthquake every ten years, leaving aside the last 20 years.

A possible reason for an earthquake not taking place in the recent period could be that the load of water in the Tehri reservoir is acting like a cushion between the two plates just as two boxers stop for a moment if a child were to stand between them. Despite this cushion, however, the Indian Plate continues to push against the Tibetan Plate. Consequently, a bigger earthquake is likely to occur in the future.

Tectonic disturbances

Landslides take place due to the tectonic disturbances which have been putting large amounts of material into the river for thousands of years. This material has been carried to the plains by the Ganga. The entire landmass of India, from Haridwar to Ganga Sagar has been made of such material. Therefore, we should not be under any illusion that such landslides can be prevented. The present tragedy at Rishiganga could have been precipitated by the minute vibrations created by the northward movement of the Indian Plate, combined with weakening of the glaciers due to global warming.

The blasting done for the tunnel of the Tapovan Vishnugad hydropower project did not help. Scientists say that the vibrations from the explosions do not travel very far. However, the minute vibrations may have contributed to the disaster, just as minute doses of homeopathic medicines have a strong effect.

The above-mentioned natural work of the Ganga carrying the material requires that the river be allowed to flow freely, just as an elephant requires a free range. The hydropower projects make barrages on the river that obstruct its free flow. The Ministry of Environment had constituted a committee chaired by Ravi Chopra, under the orders of the Supreme Court after the 2013 disaster. The committee said that the damage in the 2013 cloudburst episode was confined to above and below the hydropower projects.

Kedarnath, 2013

The landslide at Kedarnath became a disaster not because there were exceptional rains but because the flow of the Mandakini and Alakananda rivers was being obstructed by a number of under-construction and commissioned hydropower projects, the committee observed. The present landslide has likewise become a disaster because the Rishiganga and Tapovan Vishnugad projects had obstructed the flow of the Rishiganga and Dhauliganga rivers. These rivers would have carried the material of the landslide to the sea smoothly, had there been no obstruction to their flow.

What is curious is that the government is building these projects even though they have become economically unviable. The cost of electricity made from greenfield hydropower projects is about Rs 7 to Rs 10 per unit at present. Then there are the environmental costs of hydropower projects that are not accounted for in the price.

The National Environment Engineering Research Institute, Nagpur, has found that the Ganga has about 200 types of “phages” that can kill 17 types of disease-creating bacteria. The Yamuna and Narmada, in comparison, have less than 30 of these. The Ganga also has more copper and radioactive thorium that kill the bacteria. These unique qualities of the Ganga arise when her water absorbs the vegetation and she rapidly flows over rocks and stones.

Costly hydropower

Fishes like the ‘mahseer’ migrate from the plains to the high Himalayas and rid the water of pollutants. The hydropower projects create either a tunnel into which the water of the river is diverted; or they create a reservoir, in which the water flows at a very slow speed. In both cases, the rubbing action of the water is curtailed and the migration of fishes is obstructed. According to this writer’s assessment, the cost of electricity generated from the hydropower will become Rs 18 per unit from the proposed Kotlibhel-1B project, if the cost of environmental damage is added to the cost of electricity.

And all this while, solar power is available at about Rs 3 per unit, against Rs 7 to Rs 18 from hydropower projects. The problem is that solar power is produced in the daytime while there is more demand is more in the morning and evening, which are called ‘peak’ times. However, daytime electricity can be converted into peaking power at a cost of just 50 paise per unit. Therefore, solar peaking power is available to us a less than Rs 4 per unit. The Uttarakhand Power Corporation has purchased peaking power from the India Energy Exchange at a price of about Rs 3.50, 4.30 and 2.60 per unit in the last three years. Yet, the Government of Uttarakhand persists with hydropower projects, despite their huge cost. The argument is that hydropower projects bring ‘development’.

The alternative is for Uttarakhand to develop the service sector. A sanatorium for tuberculosis patients was established at Bhowali near Nainital about a century ago. The idea was that the patients would regain their health amidst these sylvan and natural surroundings. The alternative before Uttarakhand is to make software parks, universities, hospitals and computer centres on the banks of the Ganga in the hills so that humankind makes use of the higher psychological qualities of the Ganga and the natural beauty in which she flows. This approach will lead to less environmental burden on the Himalayas and also beget more economic progress. The youth of Uttarakhand will get high-paying permanent jobs as nurses, doctors, teachers and programmers in these activities.

At present, they get low-paying jobs for the 10-odd years during the construction of these projects. Again, curiously, the government is bent on promoting hydropower but is disinterested in promoting the service sector. The reason appears to be that hydropower projects require environment clearance, forest diversion, electricity licence and land acquisition, in which government officials have a huge role. The development of services sector is ignored because software giants will not fall on their knees to get environment clearances, like hydropower proponents would do. Uttarakhand must give up its misplaced objective of building hydropower projects, obstructing rivers and inviting disasters.

The writer is a former Professor of Economics, IIM Bengaluru.

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