From The Kathmandu Post (28 March, 2014)
On two sides of the eastern border, two rivers show starkly different ‘models’ of hydropower development
The hotel room in Gangtok was warmed by an electric heater and at any time I expected the machine to succumb to loadshedding and for the place to get chilly. But it remained warm and toasty throughout the night, because Sikkim does not have to shed the load as there is enough electricity and more.
But there is something else happening here. The geography of this small state with a population of less than 700,000 is made up entirely of the watershed of the Teesta River, and over the last two decades, the artery and its stems have been dammed by numerous run-of-river schemes that have converted a river into a hydropower artery.
You have just to go to Siliguri on Google Earth, move a bit to the east and then follow the Teesta upstream past the Coronation Bridge all the way to the headwaters at the base of Kanchenjunga. Every few kilometres, you will observe gashes on the terrain and realise that a river valley of nearly 100km length is a continuous construction site. It is said only 13km of the Teesta in the Sikkim stretch is free-flowing, the rest impounded and diverted by more than 20 hydel projects approved by Chief Minister Pawan Kumar Chamling and his Sikkim Democratic Front (SDF) party.
We used to be told of how reservoirs finish off the ecology of a river and were asked to think kindly of run-of-river schemes because the water is introduced back into the main channel. But here, the mighty Teesta is mostly dry, with the flow diverted into successive tunnels in a cascade of projects. There is, of course, the cost-benefit reality of economic advantage to the people of Sikkim (and an electric heater on all night); at the same time, there is no doubt that the Teesta is today less than a river.
There is talk of corruption of a scale that critics of Chamling make comparisons with India’s ‘3-G Scam’, and it is hard to believe that corruption does not thrive in a state where the SDF has total control of stateside politics. All 32 members of the Legislative Assembly are of the SDF and the Panchayati Raj local government institutions are easily kept in line. It is said that PS Golay of the Sikkim Krantikari Morcha is putting up a strong fight against Chamling in the ongoing election campaign but it is doubtful that any new power configuration will question the deal-making on the Teesta.
Those who have vocally sought to protect the upper reaches from hydro development tend to be Bhutia and Lepcha activists and they seek to preserve the sacred landscapes beneath Kanchenjunga as part of their cultural heritage. Their campaign against the dams have been widely publicised through hunger strikes and internet blogs. Initially, the Gangtok authorities seemed insecure but that was before Indian multinational dam-builders arrived. Today, work continues all over despite the shock to the system that was the earthquake of September 2011.
The next river over
West of the Singhalila Range and the Nepal-India border, the sibling river to the Teesta is the Tamor, also flowing down the slopes of Kanchenjunga and its spur himal, Jannu. The Tamor is the eastern-most branch of the Koshi, meeting with the Arun and Indrawati/Sun/Bhote/Tama Koshi just above Barahachhetra. The river is similar in size to the Teesta, with a catchment area of 5,800 sq km and a length of 190 km up to where it becomes part of the Saptakoshi.
While the Teesta is blocked by concrete on its main stem and on practically every branch, and the hillsides riddled with tunnels and penstocks, the entire Tamor runs unhindered. In terms of scale, the Teesta projects are large (Teesta III at 1,200 MW, Teesta V at 510 MW, Teesta IV at 520 MW). Whereas on the entire Tamor watershed there is only one project on a minor tributary (Puwa Khola, just north of Ilam) producing all of 6.2 MW. Twenty projects have now been approved for the Tamor catchment by the Government of Nepal, but to produce no more than 258 MW.
The fact that the Teesta has lost its attributes as a Himalayan river is a matter of concern, for the kind of development model this signifies. At the same time, the fact that there is not a single containment structure on the Tamor points to a failure of development as great—unless we want to argue that long years of political instability are the best tripwire to prevent misguided development.
There are many reasons why our wires do not carry electricity today but mainly, it is the long years of conflict and political instability that prevented consolidation of democratic institutions from the national to the local levels. And so we remain in the dark—like North Korea, Nepal is a country whose shape you can make out because of the darkness on night-time satellite imagery (see also ‘Wah Mauritius, alas Nepal,’ Page 6, January 4, 2013).
Nepal is a country that is a pioneer in Southasian hydropower, having installed a plant at Pharping on the south end of the Valley a century ago, soon after hydel technology was perfected in Europe. There is at least 45,000 MW of economically viable generation capacity in our rivers. Today, the annual peak demand is about 1,020 MW and the dry season deficit is about half of that. And now, we suffer loadshedding even during the monsoon, as demand grows at nearly ten percent per annum.
The ‘problem of plenty’ in Sikkim and deathly brownouts of Nepal both have their origins in vitiated politics in Sikkim and Nepal. It has mainly to do with the weakening/absence of representative democracy at the national and local levels. In Sikkim, as a result, there is stratospheric corruption and the arrogant ability of rulers to turn a deaf ear to activists. Chamling is able to bend the political process according to his will, from the New Delhi ministries to the Secretariat in Gangtok, and Panchayati Raj institutions on the ground.
In Nepal, to look at the situation after 1990, the war years took their toll in the planning and implementation of river projects. The dislocation of national politics was complemented by the devastation wrought by the absence of elected representatives in the villages and districts. There were district politicians who had developed the capacity to chaperone hydropower projects through the shoals of bureaucracy and opportunist developers but this experience was largely wasted. Along the way, little was done by way of overhauling the Nepal Electricity Authority, building transmission lines to the Indian grid, deciding on policy for land acquisitions, addressing local demands, and so on.
If we are to look to the future from the devastation of the past and present, our strategy must lie somewhere between the experience of Sikkim and Nepal. In one, a river has died. In the other, people die for lack of energy to light their homes, provide services and fuel the economy. In one, politics is defined by one powerbroker chief minister handing over to another powerbroker chief minister, maintaining the same unaccountable, nexus-ridden paradigm. In the other, representative democracy has never been allowed to stabilise, for the politicians to develop the guts and wherewithal to chart a course and stay on it.
Today, we need the Upper Tamakoshi to proceed without a hitch, Trishuli III-A to be completed without malafide renegotiation of project costs, Chamelia to come online pronto and for work on Upper Karnali and Arun III to come to life, with the assurance that their energy output will be available for purchase in Nepal and not locked just for export to India.
There will come a time when Kathmandu will need to debate the Sikkim-Teesta model of squeezing the last drop of energy from cascade run-of-river schemes. This debate must happen. But for now, what we need is a clean, transparent hydropower programme to efficiently construct as quickly as possible, the projects in the pipeline. We can hardly take satisfaction that we have ‘saved’ our rivers because of political instability.