Unearthed recently by people questioning the proposed Khab dam on Sutlej River in Himachal Pradesh, the official minutes of an August 2005 Government of India meeting have revealed the New Delhi's intention to impose large water storage projects on state governments even when the states were against such projects.

At the meeting, officials wanted a hindrance-free policy instrument to ensure that the central government's decision to develop sites for large storage schemes be binding on all the states.

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A special high level meeting was held last year (1 Aug 2005) between heads of Union Ministries of Power, Water Resources, Central Water Commission, Central Electricity Authority and heads of a number of central public sector undertakings including the National Hydroelectric Power Corporation (NHPC), National Thermal Power Corporation (NTPC), North East Electric Power Corporation (NEEPCO), Sutlej Jal Vidyut Nigam Limited (SJVNL) and Tehri Hydropower Development Corporation (THDC). According to the minutes of this meeting from the Union Ministry of Power, it was decided that steps would be taken so that New Delhi could force the hands of state governments in the building of large storage dams.

At the beginning of the meeting, R V Shahi, the Secretary (Power) criticised the Arunachal Pradesh government's decision to allow only run of the river type power projects in that state. Shahi then asked the Union Water Resources and Central Water Commission, if "there was any legal instrument available with Government of India to oblige the state governments to agree to the storage schemes".

In response, A K Gangopadhyay, the Chairman and Managing Director (CMD) of NHPC, and P Padmanabhan, Sr. Joint Commissioner, Ministry of Water Resources (Eastern Region), said that that there were some provisions in the Brahmaputra Board Act by virtue of which the hydro electric schemes in the Brahmaputra basin could not be implemented unless the same were cleared by the Board. "Some guidelines have also been issued in the National Water Policy," they said.

Run of the River or Storage?

Storage projects typically have multiple objectives, such as power generation, irrigation, flood control, and water supply. In storage based hydropower projects, the dam height is such that it creates large water storage capacity behind the dam. The height from which water falls from behind the dam to the riverbed in the downstream portion is used to generate power. Storage projects involve large submergence areas.

By comparison, ROR projects do not have big storages for generating hydropower. The diversion dams in ROR projects are of lower height and typically create storage to generate power for a few hours. The water diverted from the dam in such projects flows through a head race tunnel, several kilometres long, and the fall in gradient through this length is used for running the power turbines. The tunnel length can vary from a couple of kms to over 40 kms in some cases. The water re-enters the rivers after generating power at the end of such tunnels.

However, it should be noted that there is no precise limit for storage for a project to be defined as run of the river project. The definition has been stretched many times to include projects with much larger submergence areas. (e.g.: the Maheshwar Hydro-electric project (HEP) on Narmada river in Madhya Pradesh.)

There is now an increasing trend for building ROR projects in place of storage projects, particularly in hilly regions, where big gradient becomes available in a short distance. Large submergence areas and displacement of people involved stand in the way of storage projects' getting public acceptance.

Shahi was not happy with this. He stated that "there was an urgent need to frame laws/policy instrument" to ensure that large storage projects can be taken up. He also requested J Harinarayan, Secretary, Ministry of Water Resources, to bring out a policy paper in this regard at the earliest so that detailed project reports (DPRs) of storage schemes could be prepared and these schemes could be implemented without any hindrance.

The minutes also record the change of status of Jammu and Kashmir's Kishanganga HEP in Gurez Valley. Following successful protests by the affected people (Shin tribes) during a public hearing, the state government and NHPC had to revise tthe project from a storage project to a largely run of the river project.

Kishanganga HEP, Gurez Valley, J&K.

The changes were beneficial. Instead of seven villages (8523 population) earlier, one village (population 821) will now face submergence and the cost of the project would be reduced by Rs.700 crores. NHPC's A K Gangopadhyay said at the meeting that the changes in the project were possible without much losses in energy generation.

Still, and apparently to compensate for the "loss" in the Kishanganga HEP, Secretaries Harinarayan and Shahi asked NHPC, which is preparing the Detailed Project Report for another power project, the Bursar HEP in J&K, to ensure that "full storage capacity admissible under the treaty should be built". The secretaries were referring to the Indus Water Treaty between India and Pakistan, signed in 1960.

If the Kishanganga HEP could be revised, why does the union government hanker for greater storage projects which necessarily have very large submergence of lands and displacement of people? The attitude of the Ministries' top bureaucrats appears to not only be against the federal constitutional structure of India, but also anti-people and anti-environment. The proceedings of the meeting illustrate that the officials view big storage projects as good in themselves, irrespective of whether they are optimum solutions or not, and whether it is possible to achieve the multipurpose objectives of such projects with lower social and environmental impacts or not.

Not surprisingly, the meeting went on decide this: "Ministry of Water Resources/Central Water Commission will come out with a suitable Policy Instrument to ensure that the sites identified for storage schemes are not converted into ROR schemes by the States and the decision of the Central Government to develop the sites as storage schemes should be binding on all the States."

If it materialises, this will be a very dangerous instrument. At the moment, though, such instruments may not enjoy legal backing in view of water being a state subject in India's constitution.