As clearances turn into hurdles, Brahmaputra edge lost to China

With China commissioning Zangmu Hydropower station on upper Brahmaputra earlier this month, India seems to have lost its shot.

Written by Anil Sasi | Updated: October 21, 2015 8:48 am
dggs The Zangmu Hydropower station is on the Yarlung Zangbo River — the Tibetan name for the Brahmaputra

Early into the summer of 2009, China kicked off construction work on a controversial project, the Zangmu Hydropower station on the Yarlung Zangbo River — the Tibetan name for the Brahmaputra. In six years flat, the Chinese managed to commission a gravity dam on the bend of the Yarlung Zangbo in the Tibet Autonomous Region, just before the river enters India via Arunachal Pradesh.

Around the same time that the Chinese started work on this project, India commenced the process of awarding a shelf of 14 hydro power projects in Arunachal Pradesh, most of which were lower down on the Brahmaputra. For India, the implications of the Chinese project go way beyond this being the first dam on the Brahmaputra. That the clock was ticking fast for India was evident from the fact that it needed to establish its ‘lower riparian right’ by setting up a hydel project downstream on the Brahmaputra, thereby creating a strong bargaining position to detract China from building hydel projects on the river’s upper reaches. Under the doctrine of prior appropriation, a priority right falls on the first user of river waters. China now has that right. Ironically, all 14 Indian hydro projects in Arunachal Pradesh are still languishing, with construction yet to begin on even a single project. With the exception of one project, all the others are stuck with want of green clearance. The sole project that cleared the environmental hurdle, is stuck for want of funds.

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The Zangbo flows through 1,625 km in Tibet, and then enters Arunachal Pradesh, where it is known as the Siang. Further down, the Siang — after its confluence with the Dibang and Lohit — is known as the Brahmaputra. The Chinese construction activity on the dam — part of the run-of-the river Zangmu Hydropower Project that supports a 510-MW hydro station on the upper reaches of the Brahmaputra — was not exactly a secret. Even though the Chinese officially denied having any information on the project for well over a year, in April 2010, Yang Jiechi, the then Chinese Foreign Minister, officially revealed that China was actually constructing the Zangmu Dam on the river but extended the assurance that the dam was “a small project” that “will not have any impact on the river’s downstream flow” into North-East India.

The assurance may have been flimsy, but the response of the Indian administration in terms of fast-tracking the Arunachal hydro projects was considerably more sluggish. For instance, between 2008 and 2010, 25 projects were put on bidding block and then allotted to various private players. When they came to the Central Electricity Authority (CEA) for concurrence, the apex planning body of the Ministry of Power gave clearance to 14 of these projects. Subsequently, the Central Water Commission gave clearance to the dam for most of these projects and the seismic flood safety, while the Geological Survey of India cleared the safety of terrain and modelling studies. But despite the strategic hue to these projects from an Indian standpoint, all of these clearances were not enough. Environmental clearances held up pretty much all of the projects, with just one reaching financial closure, only to run out of money.

In fact, well before the shelf of these projects, two Central sector projects — NHPC Ltd’s Lower Subansiri and NEEPCO’s Kameng — started in 2004-05 in the Eleventh Plan and were to be wrapped up by the early years of the Twelfth Plan. For these two projects, an 800kv, 6000 MW HVDC transmission line costing Rs 12,000 crore has nearly been completed by Power Grid Corporation but there is simply no electricity to evacuate from Arunachal Pradesh. Local agitation has put paid to these plans, resulting in these two projects hanging fire too. Officials in the CEA said that Kameng has a history of inept management and contractual disputes while Lower Subansiri has been held up due to protest by Assam.

hydroFor instance, in March this year, the forest panel of the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests had shelved the 3,097 MW Etalin Hydro Electric Project in Arunachal Pradesh, pending the completion of an environment impact assessment study of the state’s Dibang river basin. The Rs 25,000 crore Etalin project was to be a run-of-the-river project where little water storage was required.

The sorry state of progress on the hydel projects in his state had forced Arunachal Pradesh chief minister Nabam Tuki to erupt in anger at a meeting of the hydro task force in September 2013, where he underlined his frustration on how the foundation stone for the 3000 MW Dibang hydro project — touted as the nation’s largest — was laid by no less than then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh way back in February 2008 but had failed to move an inch because of red flags raised by the environment ministry.

Ironically, from a policy point of view, the Centre had been pushing the Arunachal Pradesh government to expedite the development of storage hydroelectric projects on the Brahmaputra. Efforts have been on to get the state to allot at least one storage hydroelectric project in each of the sub-basins of Siang, Lohit and Subansiri rivers. Even if all clearances were to come through, however, the ability of the state to execute these projects fast has been under cloud, considering that road and rail links, a prerequisite for transporting equipment to project sites, are lacking desperately in Arunachal Pradesh.