Aruchal Pradesh has enough hydropower potential to light up the whole country. When Prime Minister rendra Modi spoke of the need to impart ‘momentum and energy’ to the sunrise state, surely it bore implications for India’s huge power deficit. After all, the country is staggering along with an annual power deficit of 30,000 MW. Most of its hydel projects, particularly in the Northeast, are stuck due to delays in environmental clearances and agitations over ecological concerns. Even banks are unwilling to lend to such projects which is largely keeping the private sector away. While the country’s total power generation capacity is more than 2,50,000 mw, daily generation is only to the tune of 135,000 MW. And most of this power is generated from coal-fired power plants. Sadly, around 90 per cent of such thermal plants are violating air pollution norms and drawing away half the country’s domestic water needs, as shown in a recent study by the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE). The Prime Minister has set ambitious targets to triple nuclear power over the next decade, and has spoken enthusiastically about solar and other renewable energy forms as ‘game changers’ for the country’s economy. But these sources will only meet a fraction of the country’s total power demands. The anxiety of the NDA government to get things moving on the hydroelectric front is thus palpable, considering the power crises which gripped most of northern and western India in the last two years.
However, the Prime Minister’s glowing advocacy of realising Aruchal’s hydropower potential has again sparked the raging debate of mega dams in Assam. The All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) has challenged the Prime Minister to boldly undertake scientific studies on mega hydel projects proposed in Aruchal Pradesh, covering all aspects of dam safety as well as downstream and cumulative impacts. Meanwhile, thirteen other organisations of the State have also demanded the Central government to review these mega dam projects and scrap those likely to be highly risky. They have called for a basin-wise survey prior to undertaking any mega dam hydel project in the Northeast, and to design only run-of-the-river projects to keep rivers alive and prevent dam-related catastrophes. In the backdrop of this controversy, the Project Oversight Committee (POC) of NHPC’s 2,000 MW Subansiri Lower Hydroelectric project, is meeting for two days at the dam site at Gerukamukh from today to review dam safety aspects in line with recommendations made by the Expert Group from Assam and the Technical Expert Committee. However, the forum Axom Jatiya Ga Sangram Parishad (AJGSP) has taken serious issue with the fact that no expert on earthquake engineering or structural engineering has been included in the POC. Stuck for more than three years, the Subansiri hydel project has met vigorous opposition due to doubts over dam safety as it is located in a highly seismic zone. Even though some experts contend that dams can be built over faultlines with appropriate technology, that is small comfort to people living in Subansiri’s downstream areas. After all, the record of the Central or various state governments in compensating people displaced by hydel projects, or in ensuring public safety — has never been reassuring.
In case the Subansiri project does materialise after addressing all safety concerns, how much power Assam derives from it is another issue. A chronically power deficit state, Assam is uble to meet even the paltry demand of 1,200 MW at peak load hours. This clearly reflects how backward its industrialisation has been. A bloated Assam State Electricity Board can generate only around 700 MW presently, with irregular monsoons and technical glitches becoming the bane of hydel projects in the state. To meet the growing energy demand in the State, the Central government has now signed a $50 million loan agreement with the Asian Development Bank (ADB) to build up power generation and distribution capacities. Government data show that more than one-third households in the State face daily loadshedding of five to six hours. Many important businesses, including tea gardens, are still not connected to the grid. In peak periods, Assam has to buy up to 15% of its power from independent producers at very high cost. It is this dismal power scerio that has crippled enterprise and hurt the State’s economy for decades, despite its considerable water resources. The Assam government needs to think and move fast over how to generate power while keeping people safe and the environment clean.