Tapovan Vishnugad, the 520 MW hydropower project undertaken by NTPC (formerly National Thermal Power Corporation Ltd), has been controversial at least since 2009, as it is again now in January 2023. This time the cause is the sinking of Joshimath town in Chamoli district of Uttarakhand.
Rather unconvincingly, NTPC is trying its best to wash its hands of any involvement in the sinking and collapse of hundreds of buildings, roads, and the temple in Joshimath. Several buildings in the nearby army brigade camp are also damaged. Both State and Central governments are trying their best to protect NTPC.
On January 13, following Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) sharing its findings about the sinking of Joshimath, the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) working under Union Home Minister Amit Shah issued an order asking all agencies to refrain from sharing any findings about the Joshimath crisis till an expert committee gave its report. This is unfortunate. An expert committee including NDMA, National Institute of Disaster Management, Geological Survey of India (GSI), Wadia Institute of Himalayan Geology, and Central Building Research Institute, among others, is investigating the cause of the disaster. The engagement of some of these institutes (e.g. GSI) in this committee amounts to conflict of interest since they were also involved in the sanctioning of the Tapovan Vishnugad project.
The letter written by the Secretary, Union Ministry of Power, to the Chief Secretary of Uttarakhand on January 11, tries to suggest that the NTPC’s hydro project has no role to play in the Joshimath subsidence. The letter makes a number of misleading statements, for example: “Construction of the tunnel in this stretch has been done through Tunnel Boring Machine (TBM) which causes no disturbance to the surrounding rock mass.”
The reality is that of the 13.22 kilometres of Head Race Tunnel (HRT, including 966 metres upstream of intake), about 4.95 km is being constructed by the Drill and Blasting method. At no stage has NTPC made public how many times it has used blasting for the tunnel and other project-related work, at what locations, on what days, and in what quantities.
As far as the 8.27 km of HRT that is being constructed using TBM is concerned, the TBM has got stuck at least thrice—on December 2009, February 2012, and September 2012. After the last episode, it stayed stuck for almost seven years. As a detailed technical paper (by Bernard Millen et al) published in 2015 says, these instances have the capacity to cause “subtle and rapid major changes to the hydraulic properties—particularly increased permeability” a long distance away from the tunnel location through multiple processes.
Moreover, they can “lead to an automatic increase in the hydraulic permeability of several orders of magnitude”. So, if anyone is saying that using TBM has only local impact, they are being misleading.
There are several misconceptions about run-of-the-river hydropower projects like Tapovan Vishnugad that need to be corrected. First, this project has a 22-metre high dam, which comes under the definition of large dams. The impactful components of the project include excavation and building of the main dam, coffer dam, desilting chamber, head race tunnel, adits, intake, power house, surge shaft, tailrace tunnel, submergence, mining of materials, construction of roads, colony, and dumping of over 3.1 million cubic metres of muck, among others.
The total impact of all these during construction (the impacts during operation would be additional) and the implications of such work on various aspects of the environment, including geology and underground hydrology, would be huge. But these were not assessed.
The Ministry of Power letter also mentions another committee of August 2010 that involved the Indian Institute of Technology-Roorkee (IIT-R). Here again, there is a conflict interest since IIT-R also did the carrying capacity cum cumulative impact assessment of hydropower projects in the Alaknanda and Bhagirathi basins in 2011, which was a very shoddy piece of work.
Just to illustrate, the report listed the Tapovan Vishnugad Hydropower Plant more than once in the Bhagirathi basin! The report failed to assess the cumulative impacts and, in fact, read more like a hydropower lobbying report. IIT-R was a member of yet another committee of August 2022 mentioned by the Ministry of Power letter. Unfortunately, governance in India conveniently does not seem to understand the complications of conflict of interest. Interestingly, none of these committees had any independent members.
Some things, however, are beyond doubt. What is happening now in Joshimath is a man-made disaster, notwithstanding any claims to the contrary made by officials even before the probe. The warnings have been there since 1886, when Edwin T. Atkinson indicated in The Himalayan Gazetteer that the town was located on landslide debris. The 1976 Mishra Committee report also warned of the limited load-bearing capacity of slopes. In 2009, when the Tapovan Vishnugad Hydropower project’s tunnel boring machine on Dhauliganga river punctured an aquifer near Selang (this village, close to the tunnel, is facing cracks and subsidence), it led to a daily discharge of millions of litres of water for several weeks. Scientists had warned then that this could lead to subsidence.
The 2013 Kedarnath disaster was another wake-up call, followed by several others, the latest being the flash floods of February 2021. Most of the 200 deaths in 2021 were at the construction site of the Tapovan Vishnugad project. The erosion of a part of the left bank of Alaknanda river just downstream of Joshimath that followed the floods of February and October 2021 are now being discussed. The cracks in Joshimath aggravated in the last week of December 2022, but they took a quantum leap on the night of January 2, 2023, when muddy water suddenly started gushing out from underground at the rate of about 400 litres per minute in the Marwari area of Joshimath town.
The National Remote Sensing Centre and ISRO are now telling us that the town has been sinking by 6-6.5 centimetre a year for 18 months at least, and in the 12 days since December 27, 2022, the subsidence has been over 5.4 cm. This is besides the 8.9 cm subsidence between April and November 2022. Government officials are now talking about the loose soil’s low bearing capacity, worsened by the percolation of water; the worsening slope stability since the aquifer puncture; and the lack of adequate drainage in Joshimath.
They are telling us now that geological, geophysical and geotechnical studies have never been done here (although they should have been done—even the Ravi Chopra Committee recommended it), and that they will do it now. The Minister of Earth Sciences is setting up micro seismic observatories around Joshimath. It sounds eerily similar to NTPC declaring after the February 2021 disaster that they would now put up early warning systems upstream—something they should have done earlier, saving lives.
While these steps are welcome, where was all this wisdom so far? None of this is rocket science. Before sanctioning and taking up these massive projects, were ground realities considered? The big hydropower projects in the immediate vicinity of Joshimath include the 400-megawatt Vishnuprayag Hydro Electric Project (operating), the 520 MW Tapovan Vishnugad Hydropower Plant (under construction), and the World Bank-funded 444 MW Vishnugad-Pipalkoti Hydro Electric Project (under construction). Besides these, there is the widening of the 5.5 km-long Helang-Marwari Char Dham highway, Asia’s longest Joshimath-Auli ropeway project, and the Rishikesh to Karnaprayag railway line, among others. It may be recalled that the Char Dham highway did not have an Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) report, environment appraisal, management plan or approval, following alleged manipulations by the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways that were condoned by the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) and the judiciary.
Lack of studies
The ropeway project is officially stopped now. Experts recommend that saving what remains of Joshimath and the surrounding landscape requires abandoning the Tapovan Vishnugad project and the widening work on the Helang-Marwari Char Dham highway. The Ravi Chopra Committee appointed by the Supreme Court had already recommended this.
Many questions arise. Were basic studies done to ascertain the feasibility and consequences of major interventions in this area? Did the EIA of these projects look at the geological, geohydrological, geotechnical and geophysical realities, the consequences of interventions, and the disaster potential of the vulnerable area? Who appraised the EIAs? Who approved the projects based on EIAs that did not take into account any of these issues in a credible way? Will the Expert Appraisal Committee on River Valley and Hydropower Projects and the MoEFCC, which cleared these projects, be held accountable?
Every major hydropower project gets clearance from the GSI, Central Water Commission and Central Electricity Authority. How did these agencies clear the projects without basic comprehensive investigations and while ignoring known realities?
“Even if their social and environmental costs are set aside, big hydropower projects are no longer economically viable.”
Experts are talking about the carrying capacity limitations. The carrying capacity and cumulative impact assessment of hydropower projects in the Alaknanda-Bhagirathi basin, conducted by IIT-R in 2011, was supposed to include landform stability. Will the researchers from IIT-R who did the study be questioned?
The South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People (SANDRP), of which this author is a member, raised the issue of geological and other aspects missing from the IIT-R report in 2011. In September 2004, SANDRP wrote to the MoEFCC and Expert Appraisal Committee about the inadequate EIA of the Tapovan Vishnugad project and the lack of proper public hearings. A petition filed by Matu Jan Sangathan before the National Environment Appellate Authority against the environment clearance given to the project was rejected on the grounds of being filed more than 30 days after the clearance, without a hearing on the merits of the issue.
Unviability of hydropower
The flaws in the country’s governance structure once again stand exposed. There is neither any accountability nor a system that considers past experiences while taking new decisions. Conflict of interest is ignored. The expert appraisal committees that scrutinise and sanction the projects are full of yes people, who have no record of rejections. EIAs are mostly incomplete, often fraudulent and cut-and-paste affairs. Despite catastrophic disasters such as those in June 2013 and February 2021, there is no comprehensive move to fix accountability. Such events provide opportunities to rectify past mistakes, but are ignored.
Even if social and environmental costs are set aside, big hydropower projects are no longer economically viable. The cost of power from them is not less than Rs.6-7 per unit; cheaper power is available in the grid and from alternatives like solar and wind. The biggest evidence of this is the fact that the private sector is overwhelmingly uninterested in hydro projects.
The conclusion of the April 2022 NDMA report on the 2021 Chamoli disaster is worth noting: “In the long run, the pursuit of alternative sources of energy will need to be looked at since this zone appears to be environmentally fragile. A separate study on that may be set up by the Ministry of Power.”
“Every major hydropower project gets clearance from the GSI, Central Water Commission and Central Electricity Authority. How did these agencies clear the project without basic comprehensive investigations and while ignoring realities?”
Large hydropower projects—required to store, balance the power from solar and wind, or provide peaking power—are untenable considering that we already have over 47,000 MW of existing hydropower and no one is even monitoring or optimising peaking power generated by this capacity. Anecdotal evidence shows that in many cases these projects are operating as base load stations even when they can generate peaking power.
Most existing pump storage hydro capacities, designed to provide peaking power, do not even operate in pump storage mode since it is not economically viable. It is another story that some 30,000 MW of pump storage capacity is now under various stages of development. In fact, 97 per cent of our existing large dams do not even have a hydropower component. There is clearly no case for more such projects and one should actually think of decommissioning unviable and unsafe dams.
It may be added here that in the context of climate change, big hydro projects actually lead to destruction of adaptation resources like rivers, forests and biodiversity and lead to a multi-fold increase in the disaster potential of the area. The propaganda that hydro is climate-friendly is just that: propaganda.
The ongoing disaster will not stop at Joshimath. News is coming in from various places in Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh and elsewhere of similar situations. If we do not show the will to understand and correct the systemic causes behind the failures at Joshimath, we are destined to be revisited by disasters, with possibly increasing frequency, intensity and spread. A paper by geologists of Hemvati Nandan Bahuguna Garhwal University in Uttarakhand, currently under pre-publication review, suggests: “Results revealed that the displacement in these hillslopes might reach up to 20-25 m that will further aggravate the situation.”
Joshimath is close to the Main Central Thrust fault line of the Himalayas, making it seismically highly vulnerable. The paper cites three major earthquakes in the region: “1 Sep. 1803 (Mw 7.8), 20 Oct. 1991 (Mw 6.8), and 29 Mar. 1999 (Mw 6.6) having hypocentral distance less than 30 km.”
The disaster in Joshimath is an evolving situation. Even as more buildings collapse, studies to find out the root causes are ongoing. The responses of the State and Central governments and their agencies are still developing. One only hopes that these responses will not be dictated once again by the economic fundamentalist model that is at the root of the disaster.
The Prime Minister could take the lead to institute an independent review of the situation and list the lessons to learn. Until then, stop all major construction activities around Joshimath. The Prime Minister can also declare a new Himalayan policy that takes into account the realities of the region and tailors development accordingly.
After all, Joshimath is not just any town. It has a huge religious, historical, and strategic significance.
Himanshu Thakkar, an engineer from IIT Mumbai, is coordinator of SANDRP. He has been associated with water and related sectors for over three decades.
- The sinking of Joshimath town in Chamoli district of Uttarakhand has brought the attention back again to the Tapovan Vishnugad Hydropower Plant undertaken by NTPC in Chamoli.
- There are several misconceptions about run-of-the-river hydropower projects like Tapovan Vishnugad that need to be corrected.
- The total impact of the construction of the dam and the implications of such work on various aspects of the environment, including geology and underground hydrology, are huge. But these were not assessed.
- In the context of climate change, big hydro projects lead to destruction of adaptation resources like rivers, forests and biodiversity and lead to a multi-fold increase in the disaster potential of the area.
- What is happening now in Joshimath is a man-made disaster, notwithstanding any claims to the contrary made by officials.