In a classical Thumri rendition, Ustad Rashid Khan sings about how a river, which was once a friend, has turned into a foe…Nadiya Bairi Bhayi.. Something similar is happening at a number of places in India, where the river, a life giving friend, is turning into a deadly force.
Drowning of 25 students following sudden water releases from the 126 MW Larji Dam in Mandi, Himachal Pradesh is one more saddening and shocking incidence in the long list of hydropower-release related disasters in India where rivers are turned into death traps.
On the 18th April 2014, 11 year old Radhika Gurung studying in standard fourth was accompanying her sisters Chandra and Maya along the river Teesta near Bardang, Sikkim. Suddenly, without having any time to respond, all three school girls were washed away by a forceful water released by upstream 510 MW Teesta V Hydropower project in Sikkim. While Maya and Chandra were lucky to be saved, Radhika was not so lucky. She lost her life. Residents here say that NHPC, the dam operator, does not sound any sirens or alarms while releasing water in the downstream for producing hydroelectricity and villagers live in constant fear of the river. Residents demanded strict action against NHPC, but no action has been taken.
On the 28th March 2013, 5 people, including two small children aged 2 and 3 drowned in the Bhawani River near Mettupalayna when 100 MW Kundah IV HEP (Tamil Nadu) on the Pillur Dam suddenly released discharge of about 6000 cusecs water. The family was sitting on the rocks in the riverbed when water levels started rising, and they did not get enough time even to scramble out of the river with the two children, says the sole survivor. Tangedco officials stated that although alarm is sounded at the nearest hamlets, it does not reach the downstream regions. Local villagers say no alarm is sounded. No action has been taken against Tangedco.
On 8th January 2012, a family of seven people, including a child, drowned in the Cauvery River when water was released from the 30 MW Bhavani Kattalai Barrage-II (BKBII in Tamil Nadu). The same day, two youths were also swept off and drowned in the same river due to this release. There are no reports of any responsibility fixed or any action taken against the Barrage authorities or Tangedco, although it was found that there was not even a siren installed to alert people in the downstream about water releases.
Uttarakhand has a history of deaths due to sudden releases from its several hydropower dams. In April 2011, three pilgrims were washed away due to sudden release of water from Maneri Bhali-1 Dam on the Bhagirathi in Uttarakhand. In 2006 too, three women were washed away by such releases by Maneri Bhali. The district magistrate of Uttarkashi district ordered filing a case against the Executive Engineer of the dam after a number of organisations demanded action against the guilty. Again in November 2007, Uttarakhand Jal VIdyut Nigam Limited was testing the opening and closing of gates of Maneri Bhali Stage II, when two youths were washed away by these releases.  Following a protest by locals and Matu Jan Sangathan, the Executive Engineer and District Magistrate simply issued a notice which said that “Maneri Bhali Hydropower Projects exists in the upstream of Joshiyada Barrage and water can be released at any time, without prior notice from here”.
Similar notice is also given by NEEPCO, which operates the Ranganadi Dam and 405 MW Dikrong Power House in Arunachal Pradesh, on the Assam border. “The gates of Ranganadi diversion dam may be opened at any time. NEEPCO will not take any responsibility for any loss of life of humans, animals or damage to property”.
Similar notice sits on the banks of the Chalakudy River near the Athirappilly falls in Kerala and the Kadar tribes, which traditionally stay close to the river and are skilled fisher folk too, are fearful of entering the river.
Chamera HEP in Himachal Pradesh has been held responsible for sudden water releases and resultant deaths in the downstream. As per retired IAS Officer Avay Shukla who resides in Himachal, similar incidences which resulted in loss of lives have also happened due to Nathpa Jhakri and other dams in the state.
In December 2011, three youth were drowned in the Netravathi River when water was released by the fraudulently combined 48.50 MW AMR project (Karnataka) now owned by Greenko. Villagers protested at the site, but this has not been the first instance of drowning because of this project. Villagers accuse the dam for the deaths of as many as 7 unsuspecting people in the downstream. This dam is now increasing its height and one more project is being added to it.
On October 1, 2006, at least 39 people were killed in Datia district in Madhya Pradesh when suddenly large amount of water was released from the upstream Manikheda dam on Sind River in Shivpuri district. There was no warning prior to these sudden releases and hence unsuspecting people crossing the river were washed away. Chief Minister Shivraj Chauvan ordered a judicial probe into this incidence in 2006, however, and a report was submitted by retired High Court Judge in 2007. Since then, the report has been buried and several attempts of RTI activists to access the report have been in vain. The government has not released the report, forget acting upon it or fixing responsibility after 8 years.
In April 2005, at least 70 people were killed at Dharaji in Dewas district of Madhya Pradesh due to sudden release of huge quantity of water from the upstream Indira Sagar Dam on Narmada river. Principal Secretary Water Resources Madhya Pradesh inquired into the incident and found that “there was no coordination between agencies”. No accountability was fixed and no one was held responsible. NHPC, who operated 1000 MW Indira Sagar Project, simply claimed that it was a case of miscommunication and that it was not aware of the religious mela in the downstream of the river. As SANDRP observed then, “ It just shows how far removed is the dam operator from the welfare of the people in Narmada as the fair annually gathers more than 100,000 people of the banks of the river. It is a scandal that no one was held responsible for the manmade flood which resulted in the mishap.”
Above incidents make it clear that incident at Larji is not the first and will not be the last, if we continue non transparency and non accountability in hydropower dam operations.
Some Questions that arise from these events:
Do sanctioning authorities and dam operators reaslise that each of these projects convert an entire river ( not limited to the hydropower project) in the downstream area into a potential death trap? Do they assess the impacts of the various possible operations of the projects in the downstream area and envisage, plan and implement measures to avoid death and destruction in the downstream areas?
Can cordoning off and alienating a river, indicating that it is dangerous, be a solution to this? Are measures like alarms, sirens, lights enough when a river experiences order of magnitude sudden change in its flow due to dam and hydropower releases?
Is it ok to have hundreds of dam-related deaths in the recent years due to irresponsible and non-transparent dam operations and not have any responsibility fixed?
The obvious answer to the above seems NO.
Some Recommendations: As we have seen above, many man made disasters have happened in India over the last decade and governments and dam operators have learnt no lessons. The avoidable tragedies are repeating without any change. India is possibly the only country in the world where such events have been happening in such large numbers. Here we are recommending some basic steps if we want to avoid or minimise occurrence of such tragedies in future.
MEASURES FOR TRANSPARENT, INCLUSIVE MANAGEMENT NORMS IN OPERATION OF ALL EXISTING DAMS AND HYDROPOWER PROJECTS:
For every operating Dam and Hydropower project in India there should be clearly defined operating procedure in public domain. This operating procedure will include the steps taken before release of water from dam or power house, how the releases will be increases (the increase should be in steps and not suddenly releasing huge quantity) or decreased, how these will be planned in advance, who all will need to be informed about such plans in what manner and what safety measures will be taken. This will also include who all will be responsible for designing, monitoring and implementing these measures. There should be boards at regular intervals in the downstream area in language and manner that local people and outsiders can understand and the boards should also indicate the danger zone and what kind of sirens and hooters may blow before the releases.
The operating procedure will take into account where there are upstream projects and how the upstream projects are going to influence the inflow into the project and how information will be shared with upstream and downstream projects and in public domain. The Power Load Dispatch Centres should also remember that when any hydropower project is asked to shut on or off, there are consequences in the river and they should be asked to keep such consequences in mind and time required to alert the regions in risk.
For every dam there should be a legally empowered official management committee for the project management, in which 50% people should be from govt and 50% should be non govt persons, including local community representatives and this committee should be in charge of providing oversight over management, including operation of the project and should have right to get all the information about the project.
Hourly water levels and release data of hydropower dams be made available in public domain on daily bases. Water levels corresponding to discharges (and possible timings where applicable) should be physically marked on the river banks, local communities should be involved in this, evacuation methods and mock drills should be organised by dam proponent from time to time in all places along the river where the impacts reach.
THE EXISTING DAMS AND HYDROPOWER PROJECTS SHOULD BE MANDATED TO PUT ALL THIS IN PLACE WITHIN A PERIOD OF NEXT THREE MONTHS THROUGH A LEGALLY EMPOWERED STEP IN ALL STATES.
SANCTIONING PROCESS FOR NEW PROJECTS, INCLUDING FOR UNDER CONSTRUCTION PROJECTS:
Safety measures related to, including water releases for all kind of eventualities and their downstream impacts and management plan should be an integral part of EIA and EMP. The aspect should be thoroughly discussed while appraising the project, and clear cut roles and responsibilities fixed. Mitigation measures should include proper siting of the project, gradual upramping & Downramping of releases in a clearly defined way and where planning is mandatory, safe operation of discharges through dams, etc.
Entire clearance mechanism for cascade hydropower projects in the Himalayas and elsewhere needs to be revisited to include the operational safety measures considering the cumulative operation of the projects. Projects where operational safety measures alone will not be sufficient due to massive fluctuations/location/upstream projects, etc., should be urgently dropped.
Peaking power projects should be restricted to certain locations like deep mountain gorges, after proper studies. Such projects should not be permitted as rivers enter into floodplains, due to their significant impact on the downstream and also in biodiversity rich river stretches.
SAFETY MEASURES BEFORE AND DURING WATER RELEASES:
Primary safety measures like informing the administration well in advance before release, sirens, hoots, alarms, lights, buoys should be strictly enforced and a clear responsibility of these measures should be adopted, for the entire zone in risk, sign boards at every 50 mts interval in such zones in languages and manner that local people and outsiders can understand, and which also show the specific risk zone. Where sudden unseasonal releases are likely, include police surveillance of the risk zone during danger period.
WHEN THERE IS DEATH AND DESTRUCTION IN THE DOWNSTREAM AREA:
Exemplary punishments should be fixed not only for dam operators,but also engineers and dam companies in case of negligence. Independent inquiry will be required since departmental or inquiries by District administration or government officials are not likely to be credible.
Since the designed safety measures in case of Larji were clearly inadequate, not just the operational staff but all those responsible for such shoddy safety plan should be held accountable.
It is unacceptable that a life giving and beautiful entity like a river should be converted into a dangerous and deadly force for our energy needs, without even the most basic precautions in place.
-Parineeta Dandekar, Himanshu Thakkar
In 1999, 39 people and hundreds of animals and livestock in Cambodia was washed away and drowned by the release from Yali Falls Dam on Sesan in Vietnam. Mekong River Commission took a strong view on this. http://www.threegorgesprobe.org/pi/Mekong/index.cfm?DSP=content&ContentID=8946
 http://www.daijiworld.com/news/news_disp.asp?n_id=124216, http://www.indiawaterportal.org/articles/1-dam-2-projects-many-fools
7 Students Get Justice 16 Yrs after Meeting Watery Grave
By Express News Service Published: 18th September 2014 06:03 AM
BHUBANESWAR: In a significant judgment, a civil court on Wednesday awarded a compensation of `25 lakh each to the families of seven students of University College of Engineering (UCE) of Burla __ now VSS University of Technology __ who were swept away by unannounced and untimely release of water from Hirakud dam 16 years ago.
Civil Judge (Senior Division), Bhubaneswar, Sangram Keshari Patnaik, who pronounced the verdict in his 31-page judgement, ordered that the compensation be paid with 6 per cent interest effective from 2001, the year when the case was filed before the court.
The tragic incident had occurred on January 30, 1998 when eight students of the UCE of Burla were taking pictures on a sand bar of Mahanadi as part of the Spring Festival activity. The water flow of the river rose menacingly and barring Soubhagya Barik, the rest seven second-year engineering students were swept away and met their watery grave.
The Hirakud Dam authorities had allegedly opened nine gates during the non-monsoon season which led to the tragic incident as no caution was sounded before the release of the water.
The State Government ordered a Revenue Divisional Commissioner-level inquiry into the incident and the then RDC Hrushikesh Panda submitted the report to the Government on March 29, 1998. The Government accepted it on May 19.
The RDC, in his report, had examined 77 witnesses and 31 affidavits were filed. Panda, in his report, had highlighted the irresponsibility of the engineers and stated that even the Sambalpur Collector and the Superintendent of Police were not intimated about the release of water, let alone the public.
Basing on the report, the State Government had announced a compensation of `3 lakh each to the family of seven students. However, considering the compensation inadequate, a petition was filed before the Orissa High Court. In 2001, the HC directed that the case must be filed before a civil court since it pertained to compensation.
According to Madhumadhab Jena and Sidharth Das, counsels for the deceased’s families, the Civil Judge Court took into account various aspects, including the academic background of the students of UCE.