An avalanche in Chamoli district of Uttarakhand early this month claimed at least 62 lives, destroyed two hydropower projects and ravaged the region. Jacob Koshy reports on how development projects are endangering the lives of people in the young and fragile Himalayas
The Rishiganga river looks like an idyllic brook from the balcony of Gyan Singh Rana’s two-storey house. The former headman of the village of Raini, who is in his nineties, has a stunning panoramic view of cliffs, glaciers, mountains, and the two Himalayan rivers — the Rishiganga and the Dhauliganga. In all these years of gazing at this view, Rana says he has seen the river flood from glacier melt only thrice. “But I’ve never seen anything of this sort,” he says referring to the avalanche of February 7 in the Chamoli district of Uttarakhand that he watched in disbelief. “It was a blast, like something exploded in the mountains around me, and unlike the sound of big rocks of ice crashing.”
Pushpa, another resident of the village, was tending to her cattle when the disaster struck. “I really thought I’d die,” she says. “There was a huge cloud of dust. For a long time, I couldn’t see anything. I was suddenly knocked off my feet by the wind. I somehow got up and untied the cattle.”
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The residents of Raini number less than 300, according to the 2011 Census. They aren’t strangers to the vagaries of glaciers. Ranjit Singh Rana, the village headman and Gyan Singh Rana’s son, says villagers in the region frequently go to the forests that are part of the Nanda Devi Biosphere Reserve, home to some of the most imposing glaciers in the Himalayas. “We go there to collect herbs for cooking. From there we can see icy peaks. They break, they grow, they recede and sometimes flood. But the recent event was simply extraordinary,” he says.
The sentiment is the same among all the villagers: they are familiar with the mountains and their moods and they have seen tragedies before, but the Sunday landslide that killed 62, smashed two hydroelectric power plants, and swept away everything in its wake have them shaken and worried. After the 2013 floods in the State, this tragedy has once again put the spotlight on the model of development in the fragile region, where the environment may not be able to sustain massive projects of development, as scientists have warned time and again.
A trail of destruction
On that fateful Sunday, a mass of rock, around half a kilometre wide according to satellite-based estimates, detached from a hanging glacier on a mountain called Raunthi. This massive lump fell vertically for about 2 km and then pulverised into a large cloud of dust and debris. Within minutes, a mix of ice, stone, sand and water coalesced into an estimated 25 million cubic metres of slurry, rolled down the Raunthi stream, and slammed into the Rishiganga river. Part of this mass of dust has dammed the Rishiganga’s natural flow. The rest hurtled down, past the Rana residence, and crashed into the Dhauliganga river that meets the Rishiganga.
The force of the landslide was so great, recounts Rana, that it slammed against a cliff and travelled for a few hundred metres upstream, against gravity. Then it made a ferocious descent down to the Dhauliganga engulfing five residents of Raini village in its fury and at least 62 workers at the Tapovan-Vishnugadh hydropower plant, eight km downstream.
Labourers were busy in construction work at the 520 MW power plant which was delayed by many years. When the avalanche came, it trapped several of those who were working on the barrages as well as those inside one of the tunnels used to divert the natural flow of the Dhauliganga.
The Tapovan site is now a vast expanse of grey slush. Workmen are attempting a drainage on an industrial scale. The site is teeming with bulldozers, excavators and all manner of heavy machinery. The task is to unclog the mulch and debris that have blocked most of the tunnel and find survivors, if any, though hope of this has faded. It is still not clear how much of the two km tunnel has been obstructed. Ten days since the disaster, only about a tenth of it has been accessed by the machines. All the bodies that have been recovered so far are from this stretch. However, the barrages that failed to stop the onslaught of mud remain standing. Some workmen at the site point out that had it not been for the walls of the triple-gated barrage, more mud would have rolled further downstream.
All that remains is a pipe
Unlike in Tapovan, 8 km upstream, there is simply no trace of the Rishiganga hydropower project except for a torn metal pipe. A 60-metre bridge that used to connect the two banks of the Rishiganga has been obliterated. The bridge allowed people to cross over from Tapovan onto the road that eventually snakes up to the China border. It connected two halves of the Raini village — one where the Ranas live and the other housing several residents, some of whom as children joined their parents in the iconic Chipko movement of the 1970s. Defence personnel, members of the Border Roads Organisation, and the Indo Tibetan Border Police troop down this half of the village fixing cable and communication lines. “We are sitting ducks for China,” one of them remarks.
With the bridge gone, a manually operated trolley that can ferry one person at a time and requires four to strain and heave it serves as a mode of transportation. It is also being used to carry goods including vegetables, medical supplies, sanitary pads, and packaged food. The other option is to walk several kilometres down and gingerly cross a temporary bridge built by the army after the disaster. “We are hoping that a new bridge will be ready this month,” says an officer of the Border Roads Organisation. But there is less certainty on whether the Rishiganga project will surface again.
The ill-fated plant
The 13.2 MW Rishiganga power plant that was designed to generate electricity with the force of the Rishiganga waters had a tumultuous history. In 2011, nearly 15 years after plans to first install a power plant at the site were drawn, Rakesh Mehra, the Ludhiana-based owner of the plant, was in Raini to witness a trial run. He was killed by a falling boulder on site. Disputes then began in his extended family over control of his businesses, including of the plant. Tragedy struck again in 2016 when a flood destroyed the plant rendering it unworkable. Ultimately, the ownership of the plant passed on to the Kundan Group in 2018.
“Mehra was a good man. He had developed the plant involving the villagers. There was a lot of support for the project as it was going to provide electricity to the villages in the vicinity,” says Deepak, a resident of the nearby Peng village. “But the company that took over after Mehra died was different. It expanded the project and in the process, destroyed a Kali temple that was located near the dam site.”
The villagers strongly opposed what the company did. There were also disputes involving ownership of the land. “The company blocked access to our grazing pastures and did not compensate us for the use of our land,” Deepak says. “This project is cursed.”
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In 2019, residents of the village petitioned the Uttarakhand High Court for the environmental damage that was caused due to the use of explosives in the construction of the power projects.
Silt and debris continue to cascade down the Rishiganga but other concerns loom. Teams of scientists and police personnel, who have trekked up the mountain near the vicinity of the glaciers, have identified a lake that’s about 350 m long. This, too, is Rishiganga water that has been dammed by the debris from the day of the disaster.
Though the water from the lake is gradually emptying, many in the village fear it may not be quick enough before the rains. “What if the river floods and we see a gush of water along with the debris? What will happen to the villages and the dams below,” asks Ramesh Singh, a resident of Joshimath who lives uphill of Raini for a few months. “The climate here is warmer than usual. Last year, the snow was falling on the highway during February. This year has been unusually warm,” he says.
The Rishiganga project was among the several hydropower projects that had applied to secure carbon credits under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in early 2012. This was when hydropower projects were seen as competitors to solar power projects. However with the enormous challenges involved in setting up hydropower plants in the Himalayan region, the risks from natural calamities, and the falling price of solar power, there are now doubts about the future of hydropower plants and their viability as an alternative to fossil fuel-based sources of energy.
Development and local constraints
Atul Sati is a prominent political activist based in Joshimath, the tehsil that encompasses Raini and Tapovan. Sati, who is associated with the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist), had been involved with movements for the independent statehood of Uttarakhand. He has been questioning the developmental models in the State for years. In his two-storey house that also doubles up as a workplace, there is no electricity for long stretches. In the darkness he points to a sequence of electric bulbs from a window that are from a substation of the Vishnuprayag hydropower project on the Alaknanda river downstream. “That power plant is located right here in Uttarakhand but the power it generates is for other States including Uttar Pradesh and Haryana. It is not for us. There is darkness here, the people who work for the plant are from here, but the benefits are routed out of here,” he claims.
When the Uttarakhand government entered into agreements with private companies to develop power plants, it allowed them to produce and sell power to anyone. Only 12% of the power produced is to be provided compulsorily to Uttarakhand.
While hydropower is the mainstay of electricity power generation in the State, Uttarakhand did not really need large hydropower projects such as the Tapovan plant, says Sati. The needs of large parts of the State can be met with smaller projects that are no more than 5 MW, he says.
“The promise of carving out Uttarakhand from Uttar Pradesh was precisely that the geography and the challenges posed by the environment here are unique and so all development here must be framed respecting local constraints,” he says.
Sati recounts the story of a tunnelling accident in 2009, again involving the construction of the Tapovan-Vishnugadh power project, to demonstrate how there is little accountability for excavation projects. Geologists Piyoosh Rautela of the Disaster Mitigation and Management Centre, Government of Uttarakhand, and M.P.S. Bisht of Garhwal University wrote about the same incident in a 2010 article in the scientific journal Current Science.
Larsen and Toubro (L&T), the infrastructure company, employed a tunnel boring machine (TBM), a huge drilling apparatus that is used as an alternative to blasting mountains with explosives, to excavate an 8-km tunnel. The head race tunnel, through which the natural flow of the river is diverted, was located in a geologically fragile area below Joshimath. On Christmas eve in 2009, the TBM, located nearly a kilometre below the ground, ended up puncturing a water-bearing aquifer about 3 km inward of the left bank of the Alaknanda near Shelong village. “The site was more than a kilometre below the surface, somewhere below Auli, according to the project authorities. The water discharge was reportedly between 700 and 800 litres/sec. The aquifer discharge was about 60-70 million litres daily, enough to sustain 2-3 million people,” Rautela and Bisht wrote.
The caving-in after the collision damaged the TBM. In 2016, L&T washed its hands off the project and NTPC, the project developers, commissioned the Hindustan Construction Company to fix the machine.
Geologists R.K. Goel and Bhawani Singh wrote in a research paper on Himalayan tunnels that the TBM was finally made operational after a second excavation tunnel was bored through. Sati said that after a brief recovery, the machine failed again. The challenge with tunnel boring in the Himalayas is that these mountains are relatively younger and have several regions that are tectonically active. “Faced with cost and time constraints, detailed investigations before selecting a tunnel alignment are often compromised, resulting in encountering disturbed geological conditions. It is essential that detailed exploration work is carried out before the start of the project and exploration ahead of the face is undertaken on a continuous basis,” they wrote in their article.
The vulnerability of the Himalayas to flash floods, landslides and earthquakes was brought home in 2013 when floods killed at least 6,000 people, destroyed hydropower projects and plunged the State into darkness for days. Following that disaster, the Supreme Court constituted a committee, led by Ravi Chopra, founder and director of the People’s Science Institute, Dehradun, to assess the role of hydroelectric projects in causing environmental degradation in the Himalayas and in causing the floods of Uttarakhand in 2013.
In its April 2014 report, the committee singled out para-glacial zones (regions higher than 2,000 m from sea level) and valleys north of the Main Central Thrust (MCT), a geological fault where the Indian Plate has pushed under the Eurasian Plate along the Himalayas, as “ disaster-prone areas.” The committee recommended that hydroelectric projects not be built in these valleys. These recommendations were accepted by the Union Environment Ministry and placed before the Supreme Court in December 2014.
The apex court recommended that 24 proposed projects be stayed but no decisions were taken on ongoing projects such as the Tapovan-Vishnugadh and on the Rishiganga. The committee also recommended installing a flood warning system.
“Last Sunday’s tragic disaster has confirmed our fears and warnings. Hundreds of crores spent in the last 7 years for constructing these dangerous dams have ended up with the loss of over 200 persons, domestic animals and destruction of national property,” Ravi Chopra wrote in a letter to the Supreme Court on February 13.
This, however, was also written in the context of another ongoing project called the Char Dham Pariyojana, which is a 900-km-long road widening project connecting major pilgrimage spots in Uttarakhand. The drive from Dehradun, at the foothills of the Himalayas, up to places such as Kedarnath and Badrinath is as much replete with beautiful views of valleys, Himalayan rivers and glacial peaks as it is with swarms of JCB excavators, muck dumping sites, scaffoldings, half-erected pillars to support a future railway line, and frequent roadblocks. Large amounts of rock are being cut to widen stretches of the road. After protests by several environmental groups against the Char Dham Pariyojana construction project, which is not a single ₹12,000-crore project but consists of 53 small projects that are handled by separate contractors and companies, the Supreme Court constituted a committee, again headed by Chopra, to suggest measures by which the project could be executed with minimal environmental damage. There was dissent within the committee on the matter of the appropriate width of the new roads. Chopra and two other members opined that the roads be no wider than 7m of tarred surface. A majority of the committee members suggested a 12m tarred surface width. Making the roads 12m wide, argued Chopra and the two members, would result in further assault of the mountains. They said that this was also in contravention of the standing recommendations of the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways that hill roads, particularly above the MCT, should not be no more than 5.5m wide. The Supreme Court is yet to take a view on the matter.
“There are numerous instances where the roads have been identified by experts as being prone to destabilisation and landslides. Disaster resilience is more critical than simply wide highways. Slope stabilisation works so far have been most inadequate as evident from the frequent failures and road closures. Excessive tree-felling, indiscriminate disposal of road construction and landslides debris have endangered downhill slopes and polluted rivers,” Chopra noted in his letter.
“In the case of Himalayan development we are all like the proverbial blind men identifying the elephant,” Kalachand Sain, Director, Wadia Institute of Himalayan Geology, Dehradun, told The Hindu. In the aftermath of the latest disaster, five of Sain’s colleagues drove and then took a helicopter to survey the glacier to ascertain the causes of the damage.
“This is a difficult terrain to study. Even today we cannot forecast an earthquake or an avalanche in the region with the required accuracy. Scientists can assess potential risks. The government must live up to its promises of providing infrastructure and services. But when something goes wrong, we all collectively suffer,” he says.