Of the 37 hydro-electric projects (HEPs) projects listed as delayed due to various reasons, more than 50 per cent were due to "geological uncertainty" and "natural calamities", a Parliamentary Committee has found.
A total of 21 HEPs stated "geological uncertainty" (13) or natural calamities (8), while again half (19) cited "fund constraint" as the reasons for the delay, for 11, it was "law and order/local situation", for nine, it was land acquisition, for eight, it was contractual issues, for five, technical issues, and for two, it was rehabilitation and resettlement issues, the report of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Energy, chaired by Janata Dal-United's Rajiv Ranjan Singh alias Lalan Singh.
The report "Delay in Execution/Completion of Power Projects by Power Sector Companies", submitted last month, has undertaken a detailed analysis for all kinds of power projects, including hydropower projects.
According to the records of the Power Ministry, of the under-construction HEPs (above 25 MW) as on November 25, 2020 with total installed capacity of 12,973.5 MW, 37 are delayed and 24 of them are having either time or cost over-run in 11 states/UT, having aggregate capacity of 11,342 MW as on November 25, 2020, the Committee report said. The cost overrun comprises Rs 31,530.03 crore and the delay is of 1,205 months.
Only two HEPs, namely Baglihar-II HEP (450MW) in Jammu & Kashmir and Chamera-II HEP (300 MW) in Himachal Pradesh, were commissioned without time and cost over-run in last 20 years.
When the Committee desired to know the reason why the delay with hydro and thermal project is much longer vis-a-vis transmission projects, the Ministry representative said: "The hydro projects are huge. They are deep inside the mountains. Often, they are inaccessible. The roads have to be built, and Himalayas are young mountains. So, with the best geological studies, when they go into and start digging into the mountain to make the tunnel and make the barrage of the dams etc., those stones turn out to be very different from what they have anticipated. So, the geological surprise is one of the main reasons for the delay in hydro projects."
"What happens with the geological surprise is that there is a dispute often starts between the contractor and the corporation. The contractor says that this was not anticipated, and the corporation takes a rather strong stand saying that 'this is within the contract'. The problem is that these contractual disputes have escalated. The funds flow gets somewhat choked," the Committee was told.
As many as 19 of the 24 with cost and time over-run (from the total delayed) are from all the Himalayan states of Arunachal Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh, Punjab (Himalayan foot hills), Sikkim, Uttarakhand, West Bengal and the UT of Jammu & Kashmir.
"Geological uncertainty or geological surprise is clearly an issue of poor feasibility studies and impact assessments and as a result, faulty siting/locating of the projects," Himachal-based environment research and action collective Himdhara activist Manshi Asher said.
Geologist and Uttarakhand State University of Horticulture and Forestry Professor S.P. Sati, who has a number of research papers in peer-reviewed publications documenting how the geological aspects are violated in every HEP, said: "You have knowledge; there is tones of research done on the Himalayas. But saying 'geological uncertainty' just shows the Environmental Impact Assessments (EIAs) are not prepared in a proper manner, they are mostly superficial."
"In the areas north of the main central crust of the Himalayas, there is huge pile of sediments left in the de-glaciated valleys. That wait for increased discharge, torrential rains etc. that bring down millions of tons of debris, sediments. This enhances the casualties and also the severity of the disaster," Sati told IANS over phone.
The February 2021 disaster in the Chamoli district wherein a glacial burst brought down similar sediment load that turned into a flash flood as it brought along tones of ice, water and sediment sludge in such ferocious manner that it washed away two under-construction hydropower projects and left more than 200 dead, many of them trapped in a tunnel with no safety measures.
Noting that in the listing by the Committee report, eight projects said it was the "natural calamities" that have delayed their completion, Asher said: "Absence of safety monitoring mechanisms makes these projects all the more vulnerable. The CAG audit of 2017 of safety cells in hydropower projects has already pointed this out. This leads to losses."
When the Committee asked how the delay in execution /completion of power projects affected the power sector in general and their main beneficiary i.e. consumers, in particular, the Power Ministry stated: "The delay in execution/completion of hydro-electric projects increases 'Interest During Construction' (IDC), thereby increasing overall project cost. This results in increase in tariff. Signing of Power Purchase Agreement with Distribution Companies due to high tariff has become difficult for Hydro Power Projects."
Activists rued the fact that despite knowing all this, the government has been pushing hydropower projects, especially in the Himalayas. Eight years after the Supreme Court moratorium on dam construction in the Upper Ganga region, three Union Ministries and the Uttarakhand government last month reached a "consensus" to allow construction for as many as seven hydropower projects, one of them destroyed in the February 2021 flash floods.
(Nivedita Khandekar can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org )
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