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What lies behind the resistance to India’s highest dam?

Not only has the government failed to do a cost-benefit analysis of the Pancheshwar Dam in Uttarakhand, it is also not addressing the growing concerns of locals
<p>The Mahakali river is a source of socio-cultural and religious identity for the people of the region [image by: Sumit Mahar]</p>

The Mahakali river is a source of socio-cultural and religious identity for the people of the region [image by: Sumit Mahar]

Exactly a year ago, our prime minister, in his campaign speech just before the Uttarakhand state elections, declared from the podium in Pithoragarh town that he was going to make sure that he brought development to the region through the long-pending Indo Nepal project – building Pancheshwar Dam on Mahakali river, which forms the border between the two countries.

In the last 365 days, every authority concerned with the project – that was first conceptualised in the 1960s – has gone into overdrive to ensure that the prime minister’s words are kept. The detailed project report was said to be final, the environment and social impact assessment reports were submitted, public consultations in three affected districts were rushed through, the environment ministry’s expert committee visited the area and submitted a report, the forest clearance papers were submitted only to be returned with questions and district officials have been running helter-skelter for no objection certificates from the 134 affected villages. Never mind that rules were bent and procedures overlooked in this process.

For instance, the decision to set up a joint mechanism to evaluate the impacts of the project in India and Nepal was unilaterally overturned by the environment ministry expert committee, for it would ‘delay’ the project. The public consultations were held amidst consistent local protests in the thick of monsoons, whilst many of the affected populations, mostly from far-flung areas not connected by roads, those who did not even know that they were to be impacted by the project, others who did not know that the consultations were for them to raise objections and still others who did not know that hearings were being held, were not able to participate.

Why this hurry, is a question that comes to mind. But more importantly, why for this project, which has been in the doldrums for decades anyway?

Protests on August 11, 2017, at the Environment Clearance Public Hearing at Pithoragarh by locals carrying the ‘nishaan’ (symbolic flag) of their local deities [image by: Sumit Mahar]

Mahakali impasse: over or not?

The Mahakali river – also known as the Sharada – a part of the Ganga basin, is a transboundary river that forms the border between India and Nepal. Cost-benefit sharing of projects on the river has been a bone of contention between the two countries for the longest time.

The Mahakali Treaty was signed in 1996 in the backdrop of a controversial water-sharing arrangement (Tanakpur agreement) where India had allegedly short-changed Nepal. The treaty, which was finally arrived at in 1996 as a bilateral water-sharing agreement with the building of the 315 m Pancheshwar Dam as its centrepiece (under Article 3), was also not well received in Nepal.

The Nepali parliament had a strong anti-Mahakali Treaty lobby apart from a civil society which openly questioned the ecological, economic and political implications of the projects under the treaty. It seems around 2012 an attempt was made to breathe new life into the dead treaty. It was, however, in 2014 that the charter to form the Pancheshwar Development Authority – with the water ministries of both governments was arrived at.

Analysts in Nepal, however, continued to be apprehensive and raised that a soft loan of $1 bn from India to Nepal had had a ‘ripple effect’ and led the Nepal government to cave. Some clauses of the treaty, revolving around benefit sharing (water allocation and power purchase) and also a strategic issue vis-a-vis the area around the origin of the Mahakali river, still do not seem to be completely resolved.

In August 2017, while the public hearings for the project in Uttarakhand were carried out amidst severe local protests, the contentious issues in the detailed project report (DPR) remained unresolved in the meeting held during Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba’s visit to India.

Ajaya Dixit and Dipak Gyawali, water experts from Nepal, in an article analysing the Mahakali deadlock way back in 1999, said that both countries should get over the political rhetoric and actually carry out an honest assessment of the managerial and technical capacities of its national institutions to actually see through a project of this magnitude.

Similarly, on the India side, the late Ramaswamy Iyer in an opinion piece had succinctly highlighted the complexities of the Mahakali Treaty and advocated that it be scrapped. He, in fact, went on to say that the idea of a high dam in the Himalayas was “fallacious” from the environmental point of view.

Nevertheless, much water has flowed through the Mahakali in the decades in between. High dams with large reservoirs are now passé, globally, and the hydropower sector is seeing a major slump in India as the government struggles to make it viable.

Meanwhile, it remains unclear whether both the countries have been able to mobilise the funds for this engineering feat, whose current estimated cost is close to INR 350 billion [USD 5.39 billion].

The question of cost-benefit analysis?

The Pancheshwar Multipurpose Project involves the construction of two dams on the river Mahakali (Sharada), for irrigation, flood control and generation of 5,040 MW of power for the countries.

WAPCOS (a public sector undertaking in India) which was engaged for preparing the DPR, feasibility and impact studies way back in the 70s, it seems was not able to put to good use the ample time it had to carry out the ground surveys. The fact that it still does not have relevant and complete data about the full impacts of the project is not surprising but shocking.

Credit: Sumit Mahar

The Mahakali is a transboundary river that forms the border between India (Uttarakhand) and Nepal [image by: Sumit Mahar]

Recently, the inter-ministerial committee in Uttarakhand looking at the rehabilitation policy for the project found that even basic information, like an estimated cost of the government projects, schemes and facilities to be impacted by the project is absent in the DPR and impact assessment reports.

This brings us to the other big question that remains largely unasked and unanswered – that of the cost-benefit analysis, which is supposed to be the key component of the DPR. In fact, the contentious issue of benefit sharing from the project was also to be sorted out once the detailed project report was finalised.

The project’s environmental costs too have been simply glossed over in the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) report, also prepared by WAPCOS. An absence of a complete analysis of the geological impacts of the highest dam in the country in a seismically active zone goes to show the quality of the reports churned out.

Nepal, on the other hand, seems to have a better looking EIA with all the relevant maps, bird and fish lists which gives a clear idea of the extent of biodiversity loss of the project. Their data vis-a-vis the demographic and socio-economic profile of the families that will be indirectly and directly impacted by the project is certainly more fleshed out compared to WAPCOS’s shoddy job for the India side.

Interestingly, a preliminary ecosystems study by scientists Mark Everard and Gaurav Kataria carried out in 2010 for the international organisation, Institution of Environmental Sciences (IES), had concluded that the project was not ecologically or economically sound. The findings assessed the dam against World Commission on Dams seven strategic priorities and concluded that it failed on all counts.

The report states: “The net value of the proposed Pancheshwar Dam to Nepal, India and beyond is highly questionable; some potentially positive outcomes appear to have been overstated whilst negative consequences have been substantially overlooked”.

Himanshu Thakkar, an environmental expert and coordinator of the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People, in his article ‘Is the Pancheshwar Dam really needed?’, busts the silence around the very objective of the project – production of power.

“The …project is expected to generate 9,116 million units of power at 90 percent dependability. This means the cost of every unit of power from the Pancheshwar project will be over Rs 6 [USD 0.09] to Rs 8 [USD 0.12], at most conservative estimates. However, these days there are no takers at India’s power exchanges for any power costing over Rs 3 [USD 0.05] per unit. Nepal actually hopes to sell most of the power generated at Pancheshwar to India, since its own demands would be taken care of by other ongoing and planned projects. But who will buy this expensive power in a surplus market?”

The social costs and myth of rehabilitation

The largest and the most invisibilised cost of the project will be the loss of livelihoods and land, which will be borne by displaced communities on both sides of the Mahakali river – 31,023 families, close to 50,000 people or more, will be directly impacted as a result of the dams in three districts, namely Pithoragarh, Champawat and Almora in Uttarakhand on the India side.

On the Nepal side, the number of directly-impacted families is close to 3,000, and 13,700 hectares of agriculture, forest and other government land would be diverted to the project. Political representatives in Uttarakhand lobbying for the project claim that the INR 93.89 billion [USD 1.45 billion] compensation package will compensate the loss of livelihoods which are primarily based on agriculture, livestock rearing and other forest produce. For the privately-owned land, the compensation for project affected families (PAF) is supposed to be four times of the market rate of land as per the social impact assessment report and the new land acquisition law (2013).

The 315 m Pancheshwar Dam is proposed to be built on the Mahakali river, a tributary of the Ganga, also referred to as the Sharada. Credit: Sumit Mahar

The 315 m Pancheshwar Dam is proposed to be built on the Mahakali river, a tributary of the Ganga, also referred to as the Sharada [image by: Sumit Mahar]

As per the Social Impact Assessment report (October 2017), a total of 3,735 hectares of private land will be acquired from 125 villages for the Pancheshwar and Rupaligaad projects. An analysis of the distribution of compensation amount shows that 23 villages in one district alone (Pithoragarh) will be allocated INR 54.52 billion [USD 840 million], i.e. 84% of the total compensation budgeted for private land acquisition – INR 65.30 billion [USD 1 billion].

It is important to note that these 23 villages have less than one fourth (23%) of the total affected families – 7,102 of the 31,023 families. The difference in the market (circle) rates of the land is the key factor behind the vast difference in compensation.

“As a result of this inequity, about 80% of the project-affected families will get peanuts for the kind of fertile and diverse land base that will be lost, making it impossible for them to re-establish themselves in any other area, forget buying property in a big town or city,” adds Hariballabh Bhatt, convenor of Mahakali Lok Sangathan, a local forum that has been opposing the project tooth and nail.

Many of the affected villages to date do not have access motorable roads connecting them to the market. Some have just seen link roads in their villages recently. This also happens to be the key reason why the land rates remain low in most of the affected area.

Prakash Bhandari, an activist supporting the Mahakali Lok Sangathan, says: “The remotest villages, who are yet to get access to basic facilities decades after independence, will be the losers once again. This is how our development model perpetuates historical injustice.”

Credit: Sumit Mahar

More than 50,000 families whose livelihoods and lives are based on agriculture and forests in the Mahakali river valley in India and Nepal will be impacted by the Pancheshwar Dam [image by: Sumit Mahar]

Over the last six months, public opinion against the dam has been gathering steam, slowly but steadily. The local concerns go beyond the questions of mere economics, unlike what is being portrayed by the local media and the contractor lobby. Loss of a socio-cultural identity, support system and the dignity associated with land-based livelihoods, which even takes care of hundreds of landless families in the area, is the deeper undercurrent which will, if it emerges as a force, drive local resistance.

Modi’s speech had reached a fever pitch that day, as he lured the junta at Pithoragarh stadium to imagine the kind of ‘employment’ that would be created, by the thousands of crores invested in the dam. He did not appeal for people to ‘sacrifice’ for the greater common good, nor did he invoke the ‘temples of modern India’ hyperbole as leaders of the past did. It, however, would be foolish for his party and its state leadership to assume that the mass that finally did give them an electoral mandate, would sell off on the promise of pakoda stalls.

This article was first published in The Wire, and is reproduced with permission.