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About 15 km ahead of the Badrinath temple stands the Vishnuprayag hydro-power project, now rebuilt, with hardy any sign remaining of the damage caused by the 2013 flash floods in the Alaknanda. Downstream of the project, however, the river itself been reduced to a trickle. Four years after the Uttarakhand disaster, when overflowing rivers killed over 4,000 and stranded lakhs, a dry riverbed awaits the respite of monsoon rains. With almost all its water channeled towards the 400 MW project, the Alaknanda, one of the head streams of the Ganga, has all but disappeared under the combined effects of ecological changes and man-made projects.
“Even a nullah is bigger than this,” says Dhirendra Singh of Lambagar village, a kilometre from Jaiprakash Power Ventures Limited’s hydropower project. “For most of the year, the river remains dry. But, during the monsoon, when it rains incessantly and the water level in the barrage [of the Vishnuprayag hydropower project] increases, we get scared.”
Lambagar market, which was washed away in 2013, now stands on a kutcha road with tin sheds having replaced the concrete buildings for shops.
In June 2013, the flooded Khiron Ganga gushed to the Vishnuprayag barrage and jammed its gates so that no water could be released. The floods then breached the structure and gushed downstream, causing destruction in at least seven villages including Lambagar. “We were paid Rs 1 lakh each, but only after we protested for compensation,” Dhirendra says.
Since then, the barrage underwent substantial reconstruction. “During reconstruction, all the debris was dumped on the riverside,” says an employee on the site.
“We have constructed protection walls along the river,” says an official looking after construction. The official refused to comment on whether environmental norms were followed during the reconstruction.
“Sometimes dam authorities release so much water that, for fear of floods, we pack all our belongings and run uphill,” says Shiv Singh, a Lambagar shopkeeper.
At Srinagar Garhwal, it is the Srinagar hydropower project (330 MW) that continues to threaten the lives of people living downstream. Four years ago, when the Alaknanda flooded areas in Srinagar, houses in the town’s Bhaktiana and Shakti Vihar localities were filled with material from the dam.
Much of the ITI (Industrial Training Institute) building, which, according to Bhaktiana resident Surendra Dutt Raturi “was the identity” of the area, is still buried under the muck. “Many ministers came and promised they would restore the building, but nothing has been done so far,” Raturi said. “It took me three to four months to clear all the muck from my house. Only then could I return.”
Pointing to a house belonging to one Manav Bisht, Raturi added that “Manav hasn’t got the muck cleared yet; he cannot afford it”.
In 2016, the National Green Tribunal had asked the Alaknanda Hydro Power Company Limited (AHPCL), a subsidiary of GVK, to pay compensation of Rs 9 crore to residents who incurred losses. Later, the company challenged the order in the Supreme Court where the case is currently pending.
The Supreme Court has asked a committee to assess the extent to which the hydro-power projects contributed to exacerbating the deluge. The Chopra Committee report that followed held that the dams were responsible for the devastation in the Alaknanda and Bhagirathi Basins. The report also mentioned the results of a geochemical analysis that showed that the muck that had buried parts of Srinagar town had come from the power project.
The former Congress government and the current BJP government aim to tap the state’s water potential for generating 27,000 MW through 450 hydro-power projects. The Uttarakhand Budget for 2017-18 mentions: “All those hydroelectric projects which were stalled shall be looked into and efforts will be made to start them.”