Long objected to by Pakistan, the Rs 5,750-crore Kishanganga Hydro Electric Project is finally set to be inaugurated by PM Modi next month. The Indian Express traces the long road to this strategic project a few hundred metres from the Line of Control.
It is about as far from his Jharkhand home as Sanjay Kumar, 42, could have imagined. And it could not be more different from the 45-48 degrees C summers in Rajasthan where he worked earlier. When Kumar arrived in the freezing cold of Gurez in November 2009, snow covered his work site — a river below and the rock face of a mountain above. Within days, there was fresh snowfall, and temperatures plummeted to -23 degrees C.
“We were told there was a market beyond the campsite, and we could buy essentials there. A colleague and I tried walking to it, but gave up after a few steps,”says Kumar.
There were about 100-120 of them at the site, and living arrangements, inside containers, were basic. A few hundred metres away, at the Army camp, the artillery guns with their barrels, all pointing in one direction, left no one in doubt about where they were: a few hundred metres from the Line of Control.
“I used to look at these mountains on both sides and think, yahan dam kya, kuch bhi nahin ban sakta (forget the dam, nothing can be built here),” Kumar recalls.
Nine years later, and after as many twists and bends as in the Kishanganga, a tributary of the Jhelum river on which it stands, that dam has now been built. It is the first in a chain of several components, spread from Gurez to Bandipora in Jammu & Kashmir, that together make the Rs 5,750 crore Kishanganga Hydro Electric Project (KHEP).
The three unit-330 MW power project, work on which began under UPA-I, was commissioned by the NHPC in March. But the power generation has been stopped for now as workers race to give the finishing touches, which includes plugging leaks in the tunnel detected during the commissioning, in time for a May inauguration by PM Narendra Modi.
The project will produce 1,713 million units of electricity annually — in power generation terms, small change. But that is hardly the main point of KHEP, that has been a bone of contention between India and Pakistan since its announcement more than a decade ago — it was stalled once by an international court of arbitration, and ran into a shelling scare in 2016. Pakistan continues to object to it.
Besides being a showpiece feat of engineering in the Himalayan heights, and a successful “inter-basin” transfer of water from the Gurez Valley to the Kashmir Valley, KHEP is an assertion by India over the territory of J&K and over its resources. And from top to bottom, everyone understands that the “power” from the project means more than electricity, and expresses it in their own way.
“More than its commercial value, this is a project of great strategic value. It is an assertion of India’s rights under the Indus Waters Treaty,” says Amresh Kumar, the project General Manager, NHPC, referring to the 1960 river water sharing pact with Pakistan. He said the Army had “constantly been with us to boost the morale and security of workers”.
Sanjay Kumar, a senior time keeper at the dam site for Hindustan Construction Company, which executed the project for the NHPC, says watching the dam come up has been a matter of pride. “Many times I felt like a soldier myself, performing a national duty. Otherwise you can’t last here.”
Starkly beautiful, Gurez was once part of the ancient silk route and Kashmir’s gateway to Gilgit-Baltistan. Located at around 8,000 ft (2,580 mts) it is normally cut off from the rest of J&K for upto six months of the year. While the dam was under construction, men and material had to be transported by military helicopters.
“Workers could not work in the open, it was difficult to hold or touch the material. We had to face avalanches, we had medical emergencies that had to be airlifted,” says A I Benny, HCC’s Project Manager for the KHEP.
HCC adopted Russian methods of working in winter: a half-hour break after every two hours of work, moving all the workers to a specially heated up portion of the tunnel that was being bored then, and giving them something hot and sweet to drink. Those who had done a 12-hour shift, from 8 am to 8 pm, could report to work slightly late the next day. The entry to the tunnel was closed with steel plates and air-curtains to cut off icy winds, while work on the dam wall and spillway channels was carried out under tarpaulins with heaters. To mix concrete for the dam wall, water was heated to 50 degrees, so that it was the required 10 degrees at the time of pouring. Site supervisors also conducted motivational meetings twice a day.
In November 2016, when there was heavy shelling from the Pakistani side, some 18 shells fell on either side of the dam site, Sanjay Kumar recalls. “All of us ran into the tunnel, villagers also took shelter there,” Kumar says. That was the only time, he adds, that he experienced this hazard of working at the LoC.
But even more challenging than the weather was transporting the state-of-the- art Tunnel Boring Machine (TBM) up to Bandipora. Its parts were transported in 160 containers. “The biggest issue we faced was to bring the cutter from the Jammu side through the Jawahar Tunnel because of its height. We had to deflate the truck tyres to get a few more inches at the top,” says Benny.
Working like a giant earthworm, the Italian TBM burrowed 14.5 km of tunnel through rock towards Gurez from Bandipora, even as it fixed concrete segments on the walls. From the Gurez end, the traditional drill blast method was used to bore 9 km of the tunnel. Starting May 2011, it took more than 30 months for the entire 23.24 km tunnel to be completed . According to the engineers at the site, this was also the first time a TBM was used successfully in the Himalayas.
Once the tunnel was built, it provided an all-weather access route to Gurez, cutting the distance by one-fourth, and making it far easier to transport material from Bandipora to the dam site. Loco engines pulled carriages loaded with material up and down. Many times, locals too hitched rides on this “train”.
For another component, the surge shaft — to moderate the flow and absorb a sudden increase in water pressure before the water left the tunnel to enter the pressure shaft — workers dug 108 m vertically down into a mountain side.
The dam is built in an area that falls in seismic zone 4. Officials from Halcrow, the British company that designed the project, say it is built to withstand such seismic activity. “The NHPC got a study done by IIT Roorkee, and our design is based on their findings,” says Atul Agarwal, Kishanganga project manager at the design consultancy.
Simply put, KHEP diverts water from the Kishanganga, uses it to generate electricity, and then sends it back through a different route to the river at the point where it merges with the Jhelum in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir. When India announced its intention to build the project in 2005-06, Pakistan challenged the planned diversion under the terms of the Indus Waters Treaty, red-flagging the impact on its own 1,000 MW Neelum-Jhelum Hydro-Electric Project (NJHEP), under construction downstream of the same river in PoK where it is known as the Neelum. Pakistan contended that its project was conceived in 1989.
The World Bank-brokered Indus Waters Treaty, the most enduring agreement between India and Pakistan, lays down that Pakistan will have “unrestricted use of all waters of the Western Rivers”, namely the Indus, Jhelum and Chenab and their tributaries, while giving India the same rights over the three Eastern rivers, the Ravi, Beas and Sutlej and their tributaries.
Under the Treaty, India may use the waters of the Western rivers in “non-consumptive” ways. That includes “run of the river” hydel projects, which do not change the course of the river and do not deplete the water level downstream.
In 2010, Pakistan took the matter to the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague, which stayed the project for three years. In a set of two “awards” in 2013, the Court ruled that the KHEP was “a Run-of-River Plant within the meaning of the Indus Waters Treaty and that India may accordingly divert water from the Kishenganga/Neelum River for power generation.” However, the Court also decided that India is under an obligation to “construct and operate the KHEP in such a way as to maintain a minimum flow of water in the Kishenganga/Neelum River,” which was decided as 9 cumecs. Before the matter went to the Court, India had already decided to lower the height of the dam from the planned 98 m to 37 m.
The ruling was a landmark victory for India, and work began full swing on the project once again.
But it did not end there. In August 2016, Pakistan asked the World Bank to appoint a Court of Arbitration into the design of the Kishanganga project, as well another project on the Chenab, the 850 MW Ratle project, which it claimed were violations of the Indus Waters Treaty. India’s contention was that as the objections were technical in nature, the matter should be decided by a neutral expert, one notch lower in the conflict resolution mechanism provided by the Treaty.
The World Bank set in motion both processes, but after objections raised both by India and Pakistan that the two could arrive at contradictory findings, thus endangering the Treaty, the World Bank paused both, and held several rounds of talks, the last of which took place in September 2017.
After the NHPC commissioned all three KHEP units last month, Pakistan wrote to the World Bank, demanding that it ensure that India abides by the Treaty. On the Indian side, though, officials are sanguine. “Kishanganga is now fait accompli. Pakistan is reconciled to it,” said one official, pointing out that the intended target of its 2016 demand for a court of arbitration and its continuing objections to Kishanganga was not so much this project but Ratle. Indeed, Pakistan too commissioned one unit of the NJHEP earlier this month.
In Bandipora, the shattered glass on a vehicle used by the HCC attests to what the locals of Mantrigam, the village where the construction company and the NHPC have site offices, think. “I changed the glass twice, now I have just let this be,” says the vehicle’s driver. “People here get irritated seeing anything Indian,” says another Kashmiri working at the site office. The temporary offices of the HCC at Mantrigam have grills to protect the windows from the stoning. Staff says it happens with such regularity that they are used to it. “It’s not really about us. Some of them are working with us. But when Hurriyat calls a protest in Srinagar, people are out on the roads here too throwing stones, and we are an easy target,” said one staff member.
“What are we getting out of this project?” is a common question among locals.
“Our land was acquired at low prices. They promised us jobs, but that remained only talk,” says Mohammed Maqbool Tantray of Kralpora, where the power house and switchboard of the KHEP are located. When the construction work was on at full swing, the project employed 1,400 workers, plus another 800 semi-skilled and unskilled workers from the villages around through sub-contractors. Even now, it employs about 200-250 people from the area.
Tantray himself is a sub-contractor. “Every family in the village has a member still working at the site. But these are small contract jobs. What we want are permanent jobs. The project will go on, but they need to compensate us for taking our land,” he says.
According to the NHPC, there are 801 “project affected families” — 171 in the powerhouse area in Kralpora, and 610 in the dam area in Gurez. The compensation payouts have created an undercurrent of resentment between the two regions, as well as between families that are “fully affected” and those “partially affected.”
In Kralpora, Tantray says all the families have united to go to court and demand that there should be no differentiation in the relief package offered. “Everyone should get Rs 15 lakh,” says Tantray.
The higher compensations paid to affected families in Gurez has created bitterness. “In Bandipora they have a better MLA, and the divisional comissioner was also a Gurezi,” Tantray says.The resentment has only increased as the affected families in Gurez have chosen to resettle in Bandipora. In village Sheikhpora, there is an entire neighbourhood of resettled people from Gurez. A new mosque is being constructed because the old one no longer has room for the increased number of people in the village.
“They have it good both ways,” says a Bandipora resident, who describes people from Gurez as “kattar Hindustani” because many of them are in the Army or are seen to help the Army.
Gurezis, on the other hand, complain that they received too little. In village Mastan Khopri in Gurez, where 13 homes got submerged due to the dam waters, Mohammed Yasin says he received Rs 35 lakh for his house and Rs 5.75 lakh for each of the five kanals he lost. He now lives in Bandipora, but is constructing a shop in Gurez.
“No amount of money can compensate for what I have lost. Living in Bandipora is not like living in my village in Gurez,” says Yasin.
Mohammed Bhaktawar Mir, the contractor in charge of building the mosque in Sheikpora, says he got cheated of his rightful compensation because he was adjudged to be partially affected rather than fully affected. “My petition is in the DC’s office,” he says.
Amresh Kumar of the NHPC says the compensation and benefits for Kishanganga project affected families “are the best in the country” and the same model is being adopted at other sites.
But now, there are new, more worrying fears in Bandipora, about water seeping out from the tunnel. In March, when all three units of the project were commissioned, there was flooding on farm land in Kralpora. “Our apple trees are going to die, because the water hasn’t stopped flowing since,” says Halima Begum, pointing to the water still coursing down the slopes near the family’s apple orchard. “The Horticulture Department was supposed to send a team to assess the damage but they haven’t shown up yet.”
Engineers at the site say it is a “minor” glitch. “The tunnel was immediately drained, and we are carrying out grouting work now to plug the leaks. There’s bound to be a little seepage,” says Benny.
Then, there are other larger questions. The perceived lack of agency over the state’s resources is right at the top on the list of “betrayals” that Kashmir nurses against Delhi. In Kashmir, there is widespread anger that while the 3,000 MW of hydel electricity generated in their state is sufficient to meet the state’s needs, it has no control over two-thirds of this, produced by NHPC in its seven projects in J&K. The growing demand that these projects be “returned” to the people of J&K was even reflected in the ruling PDP-BJP’s Agenda for the Alliance.
As in every NHPC project, 12 per cent of the power from Kishanganga will be given to the host state as “royalty”, apart from an extra 1 per cent for “local development”. The rest will go into the national grid, while J&K suffers from crippling power shortages. A state Power Department official says there was a proposal for the J&K government to buy KHEP-generated electricity from the NHPC at Rs 4.35 per unit, “which is not viable for us.”
“There is a general perception in Kashmir and even in Jammu that this 12 per cent is not enough and NHPC is exploiting the inability of the state to generate the required financial resources for harnessing its identified hydropower potential,” said Shakil A Romshoo, Professor and Head of the Department of Earth Sciences, University of Kashmir.
Romshoo says if the Centre could be more “accommodative” of the power needs of J&K, and enhanced the royalty from its present 12 per cent, there was “potential to generate goodwill for the Indian Union in J&K.”
He also rues a lost opportunity for India-Pakistan co-operation in J&K.“Instead of building two projects, it would have been far better, if India and Pakistan invoked Article 7 of the Indus Waters Treaty and built a single hydropower project. It would have generated enormous goodwill,” he says.
The people in Gurez, meanwhile, have “just one wish” — for a road tunnel between Bandipora and their valley, just like the one bored into the mountain for the dam. “You cannot imagine how useful the tunnel was for the people in Gurez,” 30-year-old Ghulam Mustafa Pintoo says. “You can’t believe how easy it became to travel between Gurez and Bandipora, winter or summer. Now they are going to fill it with water. But we need that tunnel. Ask them to build one more.”
# Three-unit, 330 MW power project, to produce 1,713 million units of electricity annually
# Winter temperatures at dam site: around -23 degrees C
# In Sept 2007, approved cost Rs 3,642.04 crore; by March 2018, Rs 5,750 crore
# Spread over 379 hectares across two Valleys
# 23.24 km of tunnel dug through rock, including first successful use of Tunnel Boring Machine in Himalayas
(*as provided by NHPC project director)
2005-06: NHPC begins work
April 2006: As Pak objects to storage-cum-hydroelectric project, India rejigs design, lowers dam height from 97 metres to 37, makes it run-of-the river project
2010: Pak goes to Permanent Court of Arbitration
Feb 2013: The court gives partial ruling upholding India’s main contention that it has the right to divert waters in a non-consumptive way for optimal generation of power
Dec 2013: Court’s “final award” in India’s favour
Sept 2016: Pak approaches World Bank over dam design
Nov 2016: For the first time, Pak fires shells near dam site
Dec 2016: World Bank asks India, Pak to settle the matter
March 2018: All three units at power project are commissioned