Surya Ganga, a film directed by Valli Bindana takes an all embracing view of the energy sector, especially the social and environmental consequences of big energy projects in India. The film was released in India recently. The story begins with an inquisitive six-year-old girl along with her mother and uncle setting out on a journey across the length and breadth of India to seek answers to the adverse impacts of dams on the river Ganga. Veteran actor Naseeruddin Shah also stars in the film, his character adding a fascinating dimension to the story by presenting the 'positive' impact of building dams and coal-based power plants. The story unfolds through people’s narratives. The director has managed to paint a compelling picture of the subject.
Is hydropower really green?
The film makes a case for a renewable energy future for India which can meet its energy requirements without compromising the ecology and people’s lives. There is an ongoing battle between various factions over these once unshackled rivers. Those who want to harness hydropower to generate “clean” renewable energy are at cross purposes with the local people displaced by dams as well as environmentalists.
The film, through its protagonists, provides a peek into just how “clean” hydropower energy, in reality, is when they visit the Maneri Bhali hydropower project in Uttarakhand. “The dried up stretches of the Ganga are being subjected to intensified damming in the Himalayas and there are anything between 80 to 600 projects slated to be constructed in the belt,” says Himanshu Thakkar, South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People (SANDRP) in the film speaking on whether hydropower can meet energy deficit.
Hydropower is a leading source of power in India. It has seen accelerated growth since the 1990s. But is it as green as it is touted to be? Hydropower continues to be the second leading source of power and constitutes 16 percent of India’s electricity. This is second only to thermal-based energy which comprises of over 70 percent of electricity in the country. In India, hydropower plants operate at barely 32 percent of their capacity.
Hydropower is seen as clean in terms of air pollution, but the ecological impact of any dam on a river is immense, irreparable and long lasting. The government just sees the direct cost-benefit ratio in terms of money invested and the revenue generated and assumes all negative impacts can be mitigated through technology.
Large hydropower dams underperform their stated installed capacity because the actual flow in the river is much less than the design flows due to continuous deforestation in the catchments of the rivers. Hydropower is poised to meet significant energy demand in the next few years, yet many other environmental and social costs associated with large hydropower dams affect its sustainability and are ignored.
Those affected have continued to protest for long-term sustainability, environmental and social aspects of the projects, the most notable mass protests and public outcry in recent years being in the northeast over projects like Lower Subansiri and Tawang. Yet the government went ahead with the projects.
The projects are being planned bumper-to-bumper with no environmental mitigation measures in the northeast region. “The river flow is restricted for 22 hours and only allowed to flow for just two hours through the power-producing channels, without any consideration for the profound impact on the ecology, biodiversity, hydrology, sociology and water availability of the region. Many of our natural fish populations have been decimated by dams, and nobody seems to care,” says Parineeta Dandekar of International Rivers.
The film also raises the issue of how unprecedented rainfall and fragile Himalayan geology combine to pose a safety risk to all riverine infrastructures. This was seen during the Uttarakhand floods in 2013 where many hydropower projects, be it their barrages or tunnels, were damaged and in some cases, exacerbated the impacts of the flood.
Given the social and environmental impacts, perhaps it is time to issue a moratorium on further projects.
The film did not raise the issue of deforestation and how this results in an increase in the silt load which reduces the storage capacity and life of these dams.
Coal cannot be the goal
India is for the most part dependent on coal to meet its energy needs. We are the third largest producer of coal in the world after China and the USA. The film depicts how energy from coal comes at a huge environmental and health cost. The protagonists travel to Jharkhand’s critically polluted coal mining areas. Coal reserves overlap with dense forests and are also home to tribal populations with high poverty. The areas have witnessed several conflicts between the local communities and the state and developers keen on the destruction of dense forests and wildlife.
Coal-based power plants account for about half of the greenhouse gas emissions and over 70 percent of the total freshwater withdrawal by the industrial sector. They rank highest in air pollution and waste generation. Generation of fly ash, a major pollutant from these plants is to the tune of 60 million tonnes and is more than twice the municipal sewage waste generated in the country.
Rise of the renewables
To deal with India’s energy poverty without compromising the ecology and peoples’ lives, India needs to move away from a hydro-based as well as fossil fuel-dominant energy future. The film says that the answer lies in upscaling renewable energy such as solar and wind.
Technology is being developed to generate cheaper electricity from solar photovoltaics-based projects and this will lead to an expansion of renewables. Major domestic and global firms are in the fray to develop new solar capacities.
A systematic electricity sector transformation is needed to bring in cost effectiveness in renewable energy, especially solar and wind power. Not just that, a major grid and energy efficiency drive is the need of the hour. Renewable energy transformation would require policy continuity as the sector needs to rely on private capital to finance this scale of investment.
Supported by a balanced mix of facts paired with accounts from various stakeholders be it dam officials, affected locals, researchers, activists and doctors, the film questions the continued thrust on coal and hydropower. The film understandably has a heavy focus on the benefits of renewable energy like wind and solar while not fully addressing the ecological and human impacts these sources may have.
The film makes a case for a shift in India’s energy policy from centralised generation and grid-based distribution towards decentralised and modular renewable technologies with an increased role for small-scale electricity generators who may be households, businesses, and mini-grids.