Now in a dismantled state, the 4.8 MW Aleo II hydro project, situated between Aleo and Prini in Kullu, Himachal Pradesh made it to the news recently, but for the wrong reasons. The reservoir of the newly built Aleo II hydro project on the Aleo nallah, a tributary of the Beas river, collapsed during its very first trial run on January 12, 2014.
Shockingly, neither the local authorities nor the villagers knew about the trial run. The project authorities hadn’t intimated them. Though, there were no reported casualties, the incident could have conveniently claimed lives of several workers had it been a working day. Makeshift tin shelters for workers built on the boundary of the reservoir wall towards Aleo, and also a double storey building adjacent to the power house of Aleo II would have been washed away had the water not flown straight into the Beas.
It is important to note that the Aleo nallah is already home to SN Power’s Allain Duhangan, Aleo I, and another one downstream of Aleo II. Both Aleo I and Aleo II are owned by the same private company- Aleo Manali Hydropower Pvt. Limited.
What do the locals say?
For the locals, the bursting of the dam at this stage, was a result of its location and the poor quality material used for construction. Govind, a resident of Aleo Village was not very shocked at what happened. “What occurred was inevitable as the foundation of Aleo II stood on the indiscriminate muck and silt dumped by Allian Duhangan, a 192 MW project on the same nallah”, he said. On being asked whether the project authorities had sought a No Objection Certificate (NOC) from the Gram Sabha, Govind says, it was all done under the blanket – without consent of the majority.
When they tried confronting one of the owners (a company of four partners), who had visited to inspect the disaster, the locals were denied permission to enter the premises.
A few villagers recalled that per the agreement, project authorities had promised to construct a road in order to make villages downstream of Aleo I accessible for the locals. Instead, the company began constructing the road on the land falling above the pipeline of Aleo I as it directly served their purpose. Doing so required some additional land. Before the contractors of Aleo II could quietly settle the matter with the patwari, a few active villagers took notice of it, and stalled, the road construction.
“One of the few promises made was to have water running in the irrigation kuhls round the clock, and the same for watermills. If our demands are not met soon, the villagers, especially the mahila mandal plans to be upfront against the project authorities and not let them proceed with any kind of construction activity, be it even repairing the broken wall”, asserts Kamla, the Mahila Mandal Pradhan.
How does this affect the area’s water?
Another issue reported was of rapid depletion of natural springs and water aquifers. “The local chashmas/jahirus (natural springs), gharats (watermills) and kuhls (local irrigation channels) are rapidly depleting and this was particularly noticed after the coming up of Allian Duhangan. The main chashma in the village that stood firm for generations and catered to the drinking water needs of the villages in and around Aleo is today waterless”, claims Buddhi Singh, another resident of Aleo.
Post this upsetting incident, concerned individuals of the area united under the banner of Jan Jangran evam Vikas Sangathan and released a press note raising a number of concerns. Lal Chand Katoch from Batahar, also an active member of Jal Jangal Jameen Bachao Sangharsh Samiti explains, “If Aleo II materialises, it would pose a great danger not just to villages downstream but also Rangri, the village across from it. Chances are high that what occurred at the trial could potentially happen once Aleo II is fully functional. At this point, one can only imagine the magnitude of it.”
Are small hydep projects really clean & green?
Though the press note has particularly called for a proper investigation of the small hydel projects planned, under construction and operational in Kullu, a fruitful investigation seems like a stretch. The mushrooming of such projects in Himachal needs to be looked in conjunction with the fact that of the total potential of 21000 MW, 750 MW potential falls under the small hydro sector—run off the river projects, promoted as eco-friendly, renewable energy and cost effective .
In fact, the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy’s classification of hydel projects between 2-25 MW as Small Hydel Projects, and their exemption from Environmental Clearance, impact assessment, public consultation or any monitoring from the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) seems to be working perfectly well for private investors, as it saves them all the hassles involved with getting clearances. In a scenario, where there is no kind of monitoring of these projects, and the fact that every small stream in Kullu and Manali has a series of small hydel projects functioning ambiguously, tracking their social and environmental violations will be one challenging task. In fact, in Himachal, several hydel projects have been built on streams that are on “negative list for hydel projects” .
An effective mechanism must be in place to ensure a proper cost benefit analysis of small hydel projects at the state level, evaluation of their social and environmental dangers, making NOC’s from Gram Panchayats mandatory, and most importantly bringing them under the purview of the EIA notification 2006. Also, how well are they working as sources of decentralised energy, and how much are they actually benefiting the local communities since most are grid-connected must be investigated at the earliest. The fact remains that small hydels are disrupting irrigation sources, threatening drinking water security and other local resources that have sustained local communities for generations.
The Safety Authority to control and monitor water flows under the provisions of the Hydropower Policy 2006 of the state is yet to be set up. There are ample cases of untoward incidences in large projects like 1200 MW Karcham Wangtoo in District Kinnaur and 231 MW Chamera III in District Chamba.
Both projects have reported profuse leakages in tunnels, therefore, increasing risks of soil erosion, landslides and several other tunnel-related impacts in the area. If the state is not paying any attention to safety monitoring in relation to large projects, regulations for small hydel projects are clearly a far cry.
Taking only the case of Aleo II at present, what remains to be seen is how quick an enquiry is conducted into the matter by the local administration. Considering it has already been six months since the incident, the investigation as promised by the Sub Divisional Magistrate’s (SDM) office is yet to happen. As per the SDM of Manali Division, “the investigation is still on, and only once it’s completed, can reasons be revealed behind the explosion. An expert committee will be looking into the matter.”
Irrespective of what the “expert committee” recommends, the push continues to be towards fast tracking these projects.
Kesang is a member of Himdhara Environment Research and Action Collective based in Palampur, Himachal Pradesh.