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Subsidence-Struck Hill States Await Crucial Outcome on NTPC Project

A clear decision on NTPC’s Tapovan-Vishnugad hydropower project can only come from the courts.
NDMA Report Flags Joshimath’s Capacity, Recommends Construction Freeze

Image Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

The recent court-ordered hearing by the National Disaster Management Authority on the future of NTPC’s Tapovan-Vishnugad hydropower project is of vital importance, for it will set the template for the many upcoming hydropower projects in Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh.

The residents of subsidence-ridden Joshimath have opposed continuing the construction of the ill-fated Tapovan-Vishnugad project, bringing them into confrontation with the state government and local authorities. The problem is that this two-decade-old project has witnessed several accidents, leading the public in Joshimath to believe it has spelt bad tidings. 

Joshimath residents are convinced that the subsidence, which has practically destroyed 40% of the homes and commercial establishments of the ill-fated city, has been triggered by the blasting and tunnelling work integral to this mega project.

The NTPC project involved constructing a 15-km tunnel roughly 600 metres below the surface. It was partly dug by multinational companies using a Tunnel Boring Machine (TBM), and dynamite was used to carve the other half of the tunnel. Unfortunately, the TBM got stuck on December 9 2009, and could never be extricated. 

It punctured a fault line, causing a massive discharge of high-pressure sub-surface water whose quantity scientists calculated at around 700 litres per second. This became a symbol of the government’s irresponsibility, for, according to locals, NTPC engineers did not try to stop this water, leading the natural springs to dry up, bringing continuous water shortages.

Though Joshimath residents allege that the subsidence started after this TBM accident, not one of the eight scientific organisations—the Central Building Research Institute, Geological Survey of India, Wadia Institute of Himalayan Geology, National Geophysical Research Institute, Central Ground Water Board, Indian Institute of Remote Sensing, National Institute of Hydrology and IIT Roorkee—tasked to study the factors behind the subsidence earlier this year allude to this accident or refer to this factor as a real possibility. 

By contrast, other scientists and geologists working in Uttarakhand say that a clear link exists between the emptying of the substrata water and the subsidence. When anxious Joshimath residents took to the streets and demanded halting construction of Tapovan-Vishnugad, Uttarakhand Chief Minister Pushkar Singh Dhami ordered a temporary closure till there was clear proof that the subsidence was linked to the hydro project construction.

Taking a cue from the Chief Minister’s order, the Nainital High Court banned all construction activity in and around Joshimath in January 2023. However, the report of the eight scientific organisations was submitted to the Dhami government and the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) in April but was concealed from the public until September, when the Nainital High Court ordered that a report on public safety could not be a top-secret document.

All eight reports allude to the subsidence as a serious concern, and one institute records that Joshimath is sinking by 12 centimetres a year. The most damning report is of the National Geophysical Research Institute, which warns that the Chamoli district has developed air-filled fissures over 100 feet deep in some places, which would likely increase because the region is in a high seismic zone. It also notes that the frequently recorded small earthquakes in the area are likely precursors for a more significant event.

Despite the warning in April, in June, the Dhami government allowed blasting at the Helang-Marwari road on the southern tip of Joshimath.

Aghast, residents started another round of protests under the Joshimath Bachao Sangarsh Samiti banner. These have largely been ignored. 

Surprisingly, two of these scientific bodies, the National Institute of Hydrology, Roorkee and the Dehradun-based Geological Survey of India, have given a clean chit to NTPC. The NIH report emphasises that the water gushing out in the Jaypee colony area of Joshimath has no connection with the aquifer leak caused by the TBM. However, it has been questioned for not providing any evidence to back its claim.

 The Geological Survey of India’s “clean chit” also remains a mystery because in 2005, when the NTPC project was on the drawing board, it had warned that this project would prove disastrous for Joshimath.

Since both organisations have backed the NTPC project, the power company has knocked at the doors of the Nainital High Court, seeking permission to restart blasting and other construction work. The court, however, threw the ball to the NDMA, which heard NTPC’s plea on October 22.

Lawyer Snigdha Tiwari argued the petitioner’s case against resuming construction. She claimed that if permission was granted to NTPC, the state “must also fix accountability, both criminal and personal, in case it aggravates the disaster or further increases subsidence in Joshimath”.

It is important to note that the NDMA has also examined the subsidence and reported that Joshimath town has exceeded its “carrying capacity”. The report says the town should be declared a “no new construction zone”.

A Central Building Research Institute report also questions the development paradigm in the Himalayas and insists that stakeholders must understand the construction typology and follow material and regulatory practices in tune with the conditions of this ecologically sensitive zone. It also called for a “phased de-densification of Joshimath and other similar locations”.

The sinking of Joshimath is one high-profile example of the problems that beset the cities of Uttarakhand. This tragedy has two aspects—the human aspect involving thousands of families forced to abandon their homes and lose their livelihoods is the first. But the financial repercussions are no less serious. Uttarakhand has released no estimates about the economic losses due to the series of disasters that plague it all year.

The Uttarakhand State Disaster Management Authority has released some figures, but these are approximations since no proper survey has been conducted on the extent of the damage in Joshimath. How much did the breakdown of expensive TBMs cost NTPC and the abrupt exit of two multinational companies that were boring at the site before the accidents? NTPC made public that the avalanche in the Chamoli district in February 2021 caused losses of over Rs 1,600 crore to the Tapovan-Vishnugad project—even though exact figures on worker casualties in that accident are still unknown. Further, an initial conservative figure for the rehabilitation cost of Joshimath residents runs into over Rs 100 crores.

The courts could not establish why due diligence was not done before tunnelling began on this NTPC project. They also have not paid enough attention to an Early Warning System at the 11-MW Rishi Ganga dam. That might have helped save the workers at the site, including the 200 labourers building a tunnel meant for the Tapovan-Vishnugad station, who died when disaster struck in February 2021.

The Supreme Court has ordered that all hydro-projects must install Early Warning Systems, so why did the Nainital High Court not pass strictures on its non-implementation? An Early Warning System could have helped save the 1,200-MW Teesta Urja Dam in Sikkim, the second-largest dam that cost Rs 14,000 crore to build, not to mention more lives and material.

Scientists have repeatedly warned that climate change is making the upper Himalayas highly unsuitable for constructing hydropower projects. Were geological and geotechnical studies conducted before the Tapovan-Vishnugad project was cleared, or were their conclusions flawed? Why else have 80 small and large projects been cleared (or under construction in Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand)? It seems only the courts can investigate whether geotechnical studies clear these projects.

The role of the NDMA is to come into action once a calamity takes place. The state government, in the meantime, has evidently decided to clear numerous projects regardless of their scientific merit or ultimate outcomes. Therefore, the courts are the last recourse for the people living in these high-risk zones. Sadly, nobody seems ready to strike down projects, even though everybody has to bear the tremendous human and financial costs of those which fail.

The author is a freelance journalist. The views are personal.

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