Indo-Nepal dam faces uncertain future

Indo-Nepal dam faces uncertain future

A 5,600 MW power project along the Mahakali river, which flows between Nepal and Uttarakhand is yet another sub-Himalayan hydropower project causing a great deal of concern, not only among over 30,000 affected families but also environmentalists, social activists and others.

The current agitation against this huge hydropower dam is a reminder of the previous such agitations against dams that have already been built in Uttarakhand in the central Himalayas, such as the 2,400 MW Tehri dam, which continues to face stiff problems even years after its commissioning. The uprooted local people complain about not having been adequately compensated even to this day.

The Pancheshwar dam, which is to be built on the Mahakali will be one of the tallest dams in the world. Flowing from Nepal through Uttarakhand, the river enters Uttar Pradesh, flowing south-east across the plains to join the Ghaghra river, a tributary of the Ganga. It descends from 11,800 feet at Kalapani to 660 feet as it enters the Terai plains, offering an unutilised hydropower potential.

In fact, with a proposed height of 315 metres, Pancheshwar will be the second largest dam in the world. The project is roughly estimated to cost Rs 35,000 crore, the construction is scheduled to begin in September 2018 and the dam is to be ready by September 2026.

Social activists like Medha Patkar and environmentalists like Sundar Lal Bhuguna have already expressed their opposition to the dam. While activists are worried over the uprooting and rehabilitation of villagers from the dam site, environmentalists have expressed concern over its serious upstream and downstream environmental impacts.

Some geologists say that the dam site is a seismically active fault. Uttarakhand is in Category 4 and 5 on the seismic map of India and has experienced several major and minor quakes at regular intervals over the last century. Therefore, doubts over the safety of the proposed dam are natural.

Landslides are also one of the major devastating natural hazards causing major damage to life and property sometimes. In 1998, a landslide near Okhimath in Rudraprayag district in the upper catchment area of the Ganga claimed 101 lives and rendered hundreds homeless. Thus, on the basis of whatever is being said on the social, environmental and safety dimensions, even some leaders of  political parties, like the Communist Party of Nepal and the Uttarakhand Kranti Dal (UKD) have also opposed the idea of this big hydropower project. Some UKD leaders point out to how people uprooted by Tehri dam continue to suffer years after it was built.

The Pancheshwar Dam reservoir is expected to submerge some 123 villages in the three districts of Uttarakhand, namely Pithoragarh, Almora and Champawat, and cover some 11,600 hectares of land, including 9,100 hectares of dense forests. Therefore, the opposition to the dam is gradually intensifying. Alerted by this anti-dam movement, the government has conducted public hearings on the issue. However, these open house hearings of complaints and suggestions have not helped in assuaging the feelings of the affected people.

Hollow assurances

The repeated assurances by the government on their proper rehabilitation and adequate compensation, have not helped pacify the affected locals and they continue to stick to their guns. Fearing further intensification of the agitation against the dam, the Uttarakhand government is understood to have now formulated a draft policy for the rehabilitation of affected families. According to some reports, a proposal has been made to pay the displaced people six times more than the existing circle rate in the affected areas.

It may be mentioned here that parleys between India and Nepal on the possibility of building this dam have been going on since 1956 when for the first time the then Central Water Commission had evinced interest in such a project, to be beneficial to both countries. But the actual ground work towards achieving this goal did not begin until the early 90s, which eventually culminated in a treaty between the two countries in 1996 called the Mahakali Treaty. Subsequently, a plan to prepare a detailed project report was put in place, but problems over a different set of issues between the two countries remained unresolved and affected progress on the dam.

The MoU between the two countries was signed after a long gap in 2014 and the Pancheshwar Development Authority was created. In the meantime, the prime ministers of both countries also took interest in early completion of this mega project. Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Nepal's outgoing Prime Minster Sher Bahadur Deuba are understood to have discussed the project keenly during their respective visits.

This dam, to be located about 2.5 km downstream of the confluence of Mahakali and Sarju rivers near the famous Pancheshwar temple in Champawat district of Uttarakhand, is expected to irrigate 2,59,000 hectares of land in India and 1,70,000 hectares in Nepal. Interestingly, this river is also proposed as a source for one of the Himalayan components of the Indian river interlinking project.

(The writer is a senior journalist based in Dehradun)