The Saal Valley is tucked away in the eastern part of Himachal Pradesh’s Chamba District. It is home to the Hull Nala, a stream that meanders through the hills for around twenty kilometres before meeting up with the Saal River. This eventually joins the mighty Ravi, one of the five rivers of Punjab, near the town of Chamba.
In many ways the Hull Nala is no different from most other Himalayan streams – the same unique interaction with the land, forests and people. Traditional watermills line its banks, extensive irrigation channels feed terraced vegetable farms, children bathe in silver pools, and lush oak forests run parallel along steep slopes. As with practically every other stream and river in Himachal, it is seen as a potential source of electricity. But unlike most other river valleys, the inhabitants of the Saal Valley have in recent months come out onto the streets of Chamba to register their discontent with how the state is utilising their river.
Perhaps more peculiar is that the local opposition to two hydroelectric projects, Hull I and II, has succeeded in receiving a sensitive response from the state government. Due to growing pressure, this past May the principal secretary, J P Negi, took the rare step of establishing a district-level review committee to look into the grievances. Comprised of senior officials from all concerned departments, on 6 June, this review committee held a public hearing at Jadera, to seek the opinions of the people of the three panchayats that would be affected by the Hull projects. On 25 June, the committee visited each of the affected sites to study the possible fallout of the projects for the area. In a state that has been on a spree of commissioning ‘hydel’ projects, this latest turn of events was an interesting one.
Over the past decade, Himachal Pradesh came to be known as the ‘power state’, boasting as it does a hydroelectric potential of nearly 21,000 megawatts. At the moment, nearly 6070 MW are being harnessed, while projects for an additional 7600 MW are currently under construction. By the end of the 11th Five Year Plan, in 2012, state officials estimate that Himachal will be producing 11,000 MW.
Of the 21,000 MW total potential, officials have classified around 750 MW as coming from ‘small hydro’ – meaning the small ‘run of the river’ projects that produce less than 5 MW each and can make do with weirs rather than dams and reservoirs. In such projects, the river is diverted and channelled such that a strong downward rush can be used to generate power. The power created by these small-scale constructions is not kept for the surrounding villages, however, but rather is sold by the producers to the State Electricity Board. Nonetheless, these types of installations have been increasingly and enthusiastically promoted as eco-friendly, cost-effective, decentralised structures. To attract them into the hydroelectric sector, the Shimla government is now offering private power producers incentives in the form of easy land-acquisition procedures and speedy clearances. Last year, 56 small hydel projects, with a cumulative capacity of 155 MW, were entrusted to private producers, at a total cost of INR 2.7 billion.
But small is not necessarily beautiful, as has become increasingly evident from the growing public protest against many of these projects. As is the case in all mountain regions, it is the small streams – on which these small-scale projects are being built – that sustain isolated communities, as well as the fragile ecosystems that make up the hillsides. In addition to the worries over economic sustainability, local communities are enraged at the involvement of private entrepreneurs from outside the state; they see these business groups as merely eager to lap up government incentives in order to make quick and easy profits. Local populations do not stand to gain much from the massive amounts of money being spent on the small hydro plants that sell to the grid. Barring a few small hamlets, after all, nearly all of Himachal is already electrified, mostly through large state-government projects. The new projects will be catering to the growing power requirements of other North Indian states, such as Punjab, Haryana and Delhi.
Says Akshay Jasrotia, an activist from Kangra District who is at the forefront of the movement against a small-scale hydel project on the Binwa, a tributary of the Beas River: “It is the subsidies which attract the small players into these projects. On the one hand, the Ministry of Non-Conventional Energy, with funding from the Global Environment Facility, is subsidising up to 40 percent of the costs of each of these projects. On the other, many of these are going in for the [Kyoto Protocol’s] Clean Development Mechanism.” Jasrotia says that the cost of setting up a one-megawatt project is INR 30-50 million, while the returns are up to INR 60,000 per day – meaning that after a year and a half, such an installation is theoretically all profit, a timeframe that is even further shortened by government giveaways. “If we take into account the subsidies, the profit margins are huge,” Jasrotia says.
Of course, it has long been understood that it is only by creating economic incentives that electricity production can be made to appear increasingly ‘green’. At the same time, there is a cynical irony at play when sustainability subsidies are used for projects that cause destruction at the very local level. It is this disconnect that has triggered intense protests against small-scale hydroelectric projects in Himachal, including on the Hull Nala.
Hull I & II
In 2001, Shimla began negotiating contracts for the construction of two hydroelectric projects on the Hull Nala. Hull I was located upstream at Jadera; and Hull II, 20 metres downstream from where the Hull I would release its water. (In Himachal, several small hydroelectric plants are often set up along one stream to maximise the utilisation of the river’s flow.) The companies involved were the Hyderabad-based Hull Hydro Power, a part of Astha Projects (India) Ltd, and the Delhi-based First Hydropower Ltd, with investments of INR 188.4 million and INR 150 million, respectively. (Astha is also overseeing another hydel project in Dehar, Chamba.)
In keeping with official promises, the certification processes have been relatively straightforward. Both of the Hull projects have received clearance from the State Electricity Board. Furthermore, since both projects are small, they do not require environment clearances from New Delhi. While the Central government has been pushing for decentralisation of clearance mechanisms, at present adequate procedures and institutional structures do not exist at the state level to ensure that the environmental costs of projects are assessed in detail. Two additional local clearances are also required, however, from the state Forest Department and the Irrigation and Public Health Department. While Hull I has received both of these, Hull II has not, with doubts being raised about the probable impact of water diversion on water-supply schemes, most critically for the drinking-water supply to Chamba town. But the most overwhelming obstacle to both of these projects remains the public opposition that they are facing from the upriver residents of the Saal Valley.
The protests have been focused on the impact of the Hull hydro projects on three particular aspects of life in the area: fishing, traditional watermills and the area’s forests. The diversion of the river into channels for power generation will mean a loss of access to the Hull Nala for fishing communities. Furthermore, along the banks of the Hull Nala there are currently more than 65 traditional watermills, or gharats, which have been used for generations for grinding flour. These form an important part of the local economy and culture. A diversion of the Hull Nala’s waters would render the gharats useless, as has been the experience of communities elsewhere in Himachal.
But the aspect of the Hull projects that has been singularly crucial in sparking off protest has been the diversion channel, which would run through Jadera’s thick oak forest. This woodland was regenerated and protected through great effort during the 1980s, under the government’s Greening of the Himalayas project. Today, the forest has several species of flora that cater specifically to the area’s livestock-rearing communities, the Gujjars and the Gaddis. The Saal Valley area is known for its milk, ghee and honey production, with Jadera and the village of Silla Gharat fulfilling roughly half of Chamba town’s demand for dairy products. These villages are already facing shortages of green fodder (particularly during the winters), for which the communities are almost completely reliant on the oak forests. Despite this dependency, Hull Hydro Power managed to get clearance from the state Forest Department to acquire a patch of more than two hectares of the forest, and to fell its slow-growing oak trees.
The Forest Department officials have estimated that only 243 trees would need to be cut down in order to clear the way for the Hull I project, while locals maintain that almost 2000 trees will go once the project activity starts. Says an activist, Khemraj Khanna, with a Chamba-based rights organisation: “Once the project starts, labourers from outside will be brought into the area. They will be forced to fell trees for their firewood and other needs. Thus, the pressure on the forest will increase manifold.” District Forest Officer D R Kaushal, who recently visited the site as part of the state’s new review committee, not only admits that the tree felling will be dramatic, but cautions that “the digging and dumping will lead to more destruction and landslides in the area.”
Slightly downstream, the objections to Hull II have come from several quarters. The 24 villages that make up the Saal Valley’s Baraur panchayat currently support a thriving local economy based on vegetable cultivation. Each family earns around INR 30,000 per year from growing fruits and vegetables, and the area has regularly won the Department of Agriculture’s annual Best Vegetable Growers Award. But the seven elaborate kuhals, or irrigation channels, which feed the Baraur area’s need for water, will run dry once the Hull Nala waters are diverted to the power project. Energised by their past successes, Baraur citizens had been hoping that the state government would focus on creating new irrigation schemes, which could further benefit the area’s economy. Instead they feel they will be cheated of the fruits of their labour thus far.
Doubts have also been raised about the projected capacity of the Hull Nala projects, and the stream’s level of discharge is said to have been overestimated. This could mean that the electricity eventually generated will be significantly lower than what the government promises. Unfortunately, these are not crucial considerations for the private companies involved, because the subsidies in place will easily offset any loss. Claims activist Jasrotia: “Even if the project does not generate electricity through the year, the break-even point can be reached within 100 days of functioning.” The disturbances to the local communities and environment, however, will remain year-round, and the environmental damage will lead to loss of livelihoods and migration out of the area.
Amidst the rising voices opposing small-scale hydroelectric projects in Himachal Pradesh, none has been as consistent as the one against the Hull plans. Before the matter was handed over to the review committee in June, area communities and activists had approached the district-level grievance committee, which is headed by the local MLA and state minister Harsh Mahajan. The subject received substantial attention from the local and national media and, in March 2007, local political representatives took up the matter in the state assembly. Two months later, the district-level review committee was created.
The review committee is made up of a variety of district- and state-level representatives, each of whom has been part of a rigorous regimen of inspection, assessment and grievance redressal. While its mandate and actions thus far have been commendable, the committee’s long-term responsibilities remain difficult. Says chairman Gopal Sharma: “Government officials in the state are sensitive, and in this case we have observed that the concerns around both the ecosystem and livelihoods are real. But we also have to keep in mind the larger picture of national development.”
Other problems look set to crop up during the course of the committee’s work. For one, there is a feeling among members that, since Hull I has already received the necessary approvals, it will be difficult to do anything substantial to slow or alter its construction. In response to this, however, communities have raised questions regarding the importance given to local self-governance. While panchayat representatives have been consulted regarding the project, they are not formally part of the committee; the final decision-making is the state government. The work on Hull I was initiated despite the continual refusal by the gram sabhas (village assemblies) of the panchayats of Jadera, Silla Gharat and Baraur to give a no-objection certificate to the project.
The pressure to cancel the Hull II project, meanwhile, has received increased weight due to the possibility that Chamba town’s drinking-water supply would be affected. Either way, all eyes are now on the eventual recommendations of the committee. How the interaction between local communities, private companies and the committee works out may offer a unique lesson for future tangles between affected communities and development-minded governments. It will also test the Shimla government’s oft-repeated commitment to good governance – and show whether ‘good governance’ truly means one that is participatory, and able to keep in firm perspective the concerns of the people and their environment.
~ Mansher Asher is a Pune-based researcher and activist, working on issues of livelihood and environmental rights