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Floods bring spotlight back on dam safety

It is not clear when the gates of Malana will open. One is certain that if dam safety is ignored, it would have serious implications on the overall ecosystem in the region.
Last Updated : 03 August 2023, 05:29 IST
Last Updated : 03 August 2023, 05:29 IST

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Floods in Himachal Pradesh have also brought the issue of hydropower dams in focus. The Malana hydropower project in Kullu district is in news for still not being able to open the dam gates which have been blocked by muck and debris upstream.

It has been more than a week now, but the gates are still not operational. This has further reinforced the debate in the Himalayan region over the interconnection between hydropower projects and their impact on the entire ecosystem.

The Malana hydropower project is a private run entity generating 86 MW of electricity, owned by a joint venture of two private players, Bhilwara Energy Limited (51 per cent share) and Statkraft-Norway(49 per cent). There are many hydropower projects in Himachal Pradesh run by private players

Micro-hydropower projects, built by private players are called Independent Power Producers (IPPs). All the hydropower IPPs are run with a run-of-the-river dam technology, which means these are not large dams. However, malfunction of the dams or their gates being locked, can create a cascading effect downstream. This problem, seen in isolation might not appear significant, but Himachal Pradesh has more than 20 hydropower dams — and that means dam safety and audit, and regular maintenance is a very important concern for the people.

Dam safety audit

The Dam Safety Act 2021, was an outcome of more than three decades of discussions and deliberations between the Centre and state governments. It aims to prevent dam failure-related disasters through regular surveillance, inspection, operation, and maintenance. It also establishes the necessary institutional mechanism for this purpose.

The Act has laid down guidelines of standard operating procedures and surveillance mechanism of dams. At the national level there is a central team which is further compounded by state-level teams comprising technical staff which forms the State Dam Safety Organisation (SDSO). In Himachal Pradesh, the SDSO was notified in June 2022.

The Act also categorically specifies that the SDSO’s responsibilities also include vulnerability classification of dams, maintenance of log books, maintaining records of dam failures and dam incidents, giving instructions to dam owners on safety/remedial measures, inspection and investigation, etc.

Given the devastating floods and the short-term and long-term impact it will have on the ecology, on the dams, among others, a lot of questions arise on the functioning of the SDSO in the past 12 months: has the team ever visited the vulnerable dams, and if yes, what sort of measures were taken to address the identified vulnerabilities?

Dam safety concerns raised in the past

In January 2016, five years before the Dam Safety Act came into existence, the then Himachal Pradesh government was apprised of the safety concerns surrounding hydropower generation and dams. It was decided then to ‘avoid untoward incidents in hydropower projects, the Himachal Pradesh government has decided to conduct safety audit of every project’. It is not clear as to how many such audits have been carried out since then; and if at all such audits were done, what was the outcome? Though there have been several instances of dam failures leading to even loss of lives and assets, no one has been penalised.

On May 16, 2020, there was a major accident at the Uhl Stage III Hydropower Project in Mandi after the penstock pipe burst during a trial run of the project.

Responsibility and liability

Not just the SDSO’s, even the dam owners have a responsibility under the Dam Safety Act. As per the Act, they will be responsible for safe construction, operation, maintenance, and supervision of the dam. They must establish a Dam Safety Unit, which shall inspect the dams before and after the monsoon, and during and after events such as earthquakes and floods, or during and after any sign of distress.

Further, the dam owners are obligated to complete technical documentation, installation of monitoring instruments, establishment of hydrometeorological station, installation of seismological station (for dams of height 30 meters or above), preparation of emergency action plan, carrying out risk assessment studies, preparation of a comprehensive dam safety evaluation through an independent panel of experts. Keeping larger public interest in mind, the government must release these details to the public — in the aftermath of the recent floods, such measures will go a long way in boosting the confidence of the public.

The safety evaluation of the dams must be done through an independent panel and not through the internal review panel constituted by the dam owner.

Register criminal complaint

The Dam Safety Act also lays down the provision for registering a criminal complaint under Sections 41-44 of the Act. Under the Act, the SDSO or the government agencies owe a vicarious liability, and should be brought under the radar of reasonable questioning. It makes the head of government departments, and person in charge of companies associated with the dam vicariously liable for offenses committed under the Act.

The SDSO is supposed to prepare annual reports, within three months of the expiry of the preceding financial year or its activities and safety status of specified dams in the state. These reports are not available in public domain, and there are doubts whether such reports have even been prepared by the SDSO.

It is not clear when the gates of Malana will open. However, one is certain that if dam safety is ignored, it would have serious implications on the overall ecosystem in the region. It is high time that the Himachal Pradesh government stepped forward and empowered the SDSO, and dam audits and protocols are followed in right earnest.

(Tikender Singh Panwar is former deputy mayor of Shimla.)

Disclaimer: The views expressed above are the author's own. They do not necesarily reflect the views of DH.

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Published 03 August 2023, 05:29 IST

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