(Feature image showing July 24 landslide blocking mouth of NTPC’s main tunnel. Mahadeep Panwar/Atul Sati via social media.)
The 520 MW hydro power project (HPP) Tapovan-Vishnugad having proved a recipe for disaster during Chamoli deluge on February 07, 2021, continues to jeopardize the local environment and play havoc with the lives and livelihoods of people in Joshimath area.
National Thermal Power Corporation (NTPC), the developer of the project was seen working round the clock, close to para glacial zone without installing any Early Warning System (EWS) and providing adequate safety equipment to workers before stuck down by the catastrophic event resulting in death of over 200 innocent workers there.
It has been 15 years, since the project was started in November 2006, at an estimated cost of Rs. 2978.48 crore with 2012-2013 as planned commissioning year, however the project is still far from completion.
Right from the beginning, the project has been damaged by flash floods and landslides multiple times. Subsequently its cost, completion deadline has been seeing repeated, seemingly unending extensions.
Before the Chamoli disaster the project cost had gone upto Rs. 13, 500 crore, was scheduled to be in operation by 2023. The report on its past environmental and economic disaster can be seen here[i]. The project is already economically unviable, with cost of electricity from the project likely to be completely out of reach of all the buyers, since electricity is available at much lower cost in India’s already surplus power grid.
The Chamoli flash floods has reportedly caused developers monetary losses worth Rs. 1625 crore and the project continues to face damages due to more flash floods, landslides post Chamoli incident.
Apart from adverse impact on local communities, the workers have time and again protested through sit-in agitation demanding timely payments and adequate safety gears. Lack of necessary response from the developers has meant delaying the work.
Tapovan-Vishnugad HPP after Camoli disaster
The deluge on Feb 7, 2021 severely impacted[ii] Alaknanda ecology by wiping out micro-organisms and fish for about 100 km downstream stretch and river experts feared river may take at least one year to heal itself if left undisturbed.
With a landslide lake upstream Rishiganga and continuous flow of silt into the river, the river water remained muddier[iii] for more than a month after the incident. The muck dumps by NTPC and Chardham road widening project have only worsened the siltation along the river.
There were flash flood spells in Alaknanda river during pre-monsoon rains in May 2021, revealing ineffectiveness of safety alarms and disaster preparedness adopted by project developers after Chamoli disaster.
The Rishiganga, Dhauliganga and Alaknanda rivers swelled dangerously creating panic[iv] among Raini villagers first on May 5, 2021. Then, more flash flood spells around May 20 and in last week of May caused major damages to both Rishiganga and Tapovan Vishnugad hydro projects and local infrastructure.
First, a newly built suspension bridge collapsed[v] on May 20 near Tapovan-Vishnugad barrage. The 30-meter-long bridge connecting Bhangyul and Tapovan (Gangapar-Joshimath) was opened[vi] for public on March 4, after the main bridge was washed away in February 7 deluge.
There was massive flash flood in Rishiganga, Alaknanda between June 17-19 creating erosion, landslips at Raini village and downstream areas.
The workers have been protesting against NTPC and sub-contractor Hindustan Construction Company (HCC) demanding unpaid wages and adequate safety measures. NTPC has mainly engaged three major contractors: Rithwik Project Private Ltd. (RPPL), Patel Engineering and HCC for construction of Project Barrage, Power Station and Tunnel respectively.
In first week of July, the workers sit on agitation[viii] against HCC said that they have been paid no wages for past five months. Many workers even refused to work on project and asked the company to make their full payment.
There are reportedly more than 200 workers working under HCC. On account of damages, financial losses, rainy season and workers strike; currently the tunnel construction related work has come to a standstill. Workers have alleged that HCC has neither paid their dues nor providing them work thus making their lives miserable[ix].
Similarly, RPPL is learnt to have sent over two dozen workers on forced leave in July 2021 and asking many others to come to work only for 15 days in a month. The workers say that they aided the rescue, restoration work day and night with all their might but now the NTPC, HCC are paying no heed to their legitimate demands.
Meanwhile, a landslide[x] on July 24 night has completely blocked[xi] the mouth of main tunnel also damaging its about 50 metre length. Then on August 5, a four storey building standing some 100 metre uphill the main tunnel collapsed. The Badrinath National Highway stretch running through the area has also suffered damages.
The tunnel construction work ongoing for years has made the area vulnerable to landslides. Locals say, the explosives used in the construction of tunnel in the past have caused cracks and damages to several homes, buildings in Selang village located uphill the tunnel. If not rehabilitated timely, the village may face major landslide disaster anytime in future.
Sadly, the judiciary has again failed the local people and environment when Nainital High Court on July 14 dismissed[xii] the plea seeking cancellation of both hydro projects and fixing accountability of project proponents for criminal negligence leading to disaster on reportedly questionable[xiii], insubstantial grounds.
Indeed, Tapovan-Vishnugad HPP has been a disaster in making for the past 15 years. NTPC is to be blamed for ruining the lives and lands in geologically fragile region. The company has been disregarding experts’ warnings and ignoring villagers concerns since beginning. Now, the workers are also left in lurch.
Moreover, given the scale of destruction and looming threats, the project would not see completion possibly even in another decade. Despite all this, the developers, state and central governments are pretending to overlook the writing on the wall and blindly pursuing the unviable project.
Bhim Singh Rawat (firstname.lastname@example.org)