Twenty four students were washed away in the Beas river in Himachal Pradesh earlier this month. The students, all from an engineering college in Hyderabad, were picknicking in the river on their way back from the tourist town of Manali. While cooling their heels in the knee deep water and clicking photographs, they missed the rising wall of water that engulfed them in minutes. The sudden rise in the river level happened because the upstream Larji dam opened its gates to release water to prevent excess electricity from being produced. An inquiry ordered by the State High Court has pinned the blame on nobody, thanks to the absence of a standard operating procedure for releasing water from the dam gates.
Even as bodies are still being recovered from the river, the incident has opened a can of worms over the issue of dam management practices. Why was the water released all of a sudden? Was there any warning? What is the usual information mechanism for locals in such a situation? Are there any guidelines for hydropower companies to follow? Who takes the responsibility for such deaths? There are questions aplenty but no answers yet even as hydropower is being promoted by all governments, new or old, as a source of clean energy.
Who should take the blame?
In this specific case, sand mining and the role of private dam companies are also being cited as possible causes. Thalot, the place where the accident happened in Mandi district, had a 200-metre road running down from the National Highway to the river. If not for this allegedly illegal road constructed by sand miners, the Beas would have only been an object of pleasure from the parapet of the National Highway, say locals.
"If it were not for this road, the tourists would not have trudged through the vegetation on the slope. Sand mining has been banned in the State for five years now but the trade has only thrived. These illegal roads are used to transport sand from the river in tractor-trolleys to the Highway and onwards from there," said Balak Ram, a resident of Pandoh, a village downstream of the Larji dam along the Beas where another hydropower project is located. Bodies of the victims are now being fished out of the Pandoh dam reservoir as they have flowed down along with the current. Another allegation against sand miners is that they acted in collusion with dam authorities. As per news reports, the illegal sand mining lobby bribed dam officials to open the gates to release water at one go instead of releasing it slowly because the discharge of a huge volume of water leads to huge amount of sand settling on the riverbed, which can be picked up later when it dries up.
Another stated reason for the sudden release of water was that the State Load Dispatch Centre (SLDC), which usually directs power companies on how much electricity is needed on a particular day, had directed the state government-owned Larji dam against excess production. Besides Larji, two more state government-owned hydel projects, Giri and Bhawa and the Parbati project of the National Hydropower Corporation were told to shutdown production to prevent grid collapse from excess power. Activists allege that even as the government-owned projects were told to shut operations because there was no need for more electricity, the directions did not apply to private hydel companies. "While Delhi clamoured for more electricty that day, directions from the state capital Shimla came to shut operations in these dams. The obvious reason is to increase the profit of the private companies," said Sandeep Minhas of the NGO Himalaya Niti Abhiyan.
Peak hours, peak profits
Evening time is usually considered peaking hour for power production. For every unit sold, power companies are paid three times the normal rates. "Private companies operate in a nexus with government officials and ask them to reduce generation from the state government-owned dams in peak hours. Business worth crores of rupees is transacted this way every day," said Minhas.
On July 8, when the accident took place, the SLDC asked the Larji dam to bring down power generation from 138 megawatts (MW) to 32 MW between 5.30 pm and 6.45 pm, following which they released water that resulted in the accident. However, the privately owned 1000 MW Karcham Wangtoo project was allowed to produce 1,187 MW from 5 PM to 11.45 PM, about 187 MW more than the installed capacity. As per news reports, many other private projects in Himachal generated power in excess of their installed capacity that day but that did not find mention in the inquiry report submitted to the High Court. "We have been talking to the District Magistrate of Mandi who conducted an inquiry into the incident to check this factor but they refuse to see the role of private dams in the tragedy even as they blame the students for being careless," said Minhas.
Incidents of hydropower projects releasing water in large volumes are not uncommon. As floods devastated the mountains of Uttarakhand last year, the Vishnuprayag project of Jaypee did not release water till the flood waters and the muck brought down by it formed a 2-km long lake, breaking open the dam gates and starting with the dam itself, destroyed the downstream villages of Lambagarh, Vinayak Chatti, Pandukeshwar, Govindghat and Pinoli ghat. Bridges, agricultural and pastural land were lost while 25 families even lost their houses. Many shops were wiped out in an earlier incident in 2012 when the Vishnuprayag released water unannounced. Despite two incidents in two years, the dam authorities have not been held accountable and the people displaced have still not been compensated.
In April this year, three school girls were washed away in the Teesta river in Sikkim as the upstream Teesta V dam project released water without warning. While two of them could be rescued, 11-year-old Radhika Gurung drowned in the river. In January, the reservoir of the Aleo II dam on the Beas river burst during its very first trial run. The project authority, Aleo Manali Hydropower Private Ltd, informed neither the local administration nor the villagers about the trial run, which could have resulted in many casualties had it been a working day.
Three people died when the Maneri Bhali-I project in Uttarakhand's Uttarkashi district suddenly released water. The very next year, two people were washed off when dam authorities were testing the gates of the downstream Maneri Bhali-II project. One was rescued but the other died. "Following this, we sat on a hunger strike along with local NGOs to demand the inclusion of locals and independent experts in the monitoring committee of the dam. We also demanded that disaster management procedures should be made public and the point of the maximum water level should be clearly marked. But none of it happened except for a one-time distribution of pamphlets that stated that the water level can go up anytime," said Vimal Bhai of Matu Jan Sangathan. In an accident in Madhya Pradesh's Dewas district in 2005, about 70 people were killed as water was released in the Narmada river by the upstream Indirasagar dam even as a religious fair was going on near the river.
Locals fear dams
Similar incidents due to dams in Karnataka, Kerala and Arunachal Pradesh have turned rivers into potential killers, says Himanshu Thakkar of the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People. "Local people lose their important contact with the river once a dam comes up on it. They are scared to go near it fearing for their lives. Dams can easily become a weapon of terror unlike the temple of development they are projected to be as they have the capacity to suddenly release a lot of water downstream," he said.
When it comes to dam safety issues, there is hardly a set of rules for how and when water can be released and what should be the standard operating procedure in case sudden release is required. The guidelines of the Central Water Commission on dam safety say that an emergency flood warning system should be in place for downstream areas and technical instruments should be invented and adopted to ensure the safety of the dam and the life and property of people downstream besides identifying vulnerable points and setting up signboards, hooters, sirens and mobile vans equipped with a Public Address (PA) system. But according to Thakkar, all dams follow their own ad hoc set of rules which do not cover all kinds of eventualities. The fact that nobody has been punished till date despite hundreds of dam-related deaths, shows the Government's callousness in fixing responsibility in the blind run to development.
In this specific case too, the inquiry report mentions that the incident took place because of a systematic failure and so the blame cannot be pin-pointed. The report also says that the warning and hooter system at the Larji dam were unreliable and inadequate. There were three hooters whose sound was very feeble and could not be heard nor blown in case of power failure and out of the 12 warning hoardings that had been put up, only four remained and the dam authorities did not bother to replace them, the report says.
Warnings must be improved
Despite warning signs and hooters being the simplest precautionary measures that can be taken, they are often ignored. Also, it is difficult for the hooter to be heard 10 km downstream of the river. "Nowadays there is a mobile in every pocket. It is not so difficult to install a local hooter in all villages 10 km downstream of the dam on the left and right bank of the river. Village heads can be informed on the phone about the release of water and they can then blow the hooter," said Anupam Mishra of the Gandhi Peace Foundation. "If the local hooter fails to alert villagers, penalties should be imposed", he said. He also suggested maintaining a record of the time difference between when the hooter was sounded and when the water was released. "Dam companies spend crores on their infrastructure. This would only be a small part of their expenditure," said Mishra.
Despite thousands of dams in the country, dam safety and management is still not on the Government's and the dam companies' priority list. Ravindra Kumar, a former engineer with the Uttar Pradesh Irrigation Department, said that all dams and barrages do have a set of rules called the 'Reservoir Operation Rules' that decide how much water is to be released in what situation. "But how to inform the public about it is still a grey area after so many years of hydropower production in the country. Cases such as Larji are big but many a time so many animals drown and we don't even get to know about it," said Kumar who is now a consultant with World Wildlife Fund for Nature based in Lucknow. Kumar suggests tie-ups between the state Tourism Department and dam authorities to prevent such accidents at least in tourist areas. "Precautions can be listed as part of the travel advisory. When there are so many signboards announcing temples and tourist attractions, why can't there be many warning boards too," said Kumar.
Thakkar says the need of the hour is a legally enforceable management committee for all dams. "Half of the members in this committee should be independent – either locals or NGO representatives – and all the operations of this committee including hourly data on the water level in the reservoir and its release should be in a public domain.
"Ideally, the water should be released slowly to minimise impact but sometimes a large volume also needs to be released. The committee should have a set of procedures about informing local administration and people in such a situation," said Thakkar. "Operations of this committee and the precautionary measures should infact be envisaged at the planning stage itself and be a part of the project's Environment Impact Assessment report and the Environment Management Plan", he said.
Setting up safety guidelines isn't rocket science. In many cases, they already exist. They just need to start being followed.