What is the nature of the Project?
The Vishnugad Pipalkoti Hydro Electric Project (VPHEP) is a run-of-river hydropower generation scheme on the Alaknanda River in Uttarakhand that is designed to supply 1665 Gigawatt-Hours (GWh) of electricity to India’s northern grid every year. The Project will especially help provide much-needed power during those times of the day when demand for electricity from households and industries in India is at its peak. The owner/developer of the project is THDC India Limited (THDC), which is jointly owned by Government of India and Government of Uttar Pradesh.
Electricity from VPHEP will have a low-carbon burden: If a coal or oil-fired thermal plant of the same capacity (444 Megawatt) were to be built instead of VPHEP, approximately 1.6 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions would be added to the atmosphere each year.
What is the infrastructure footprint of VPHEP?
The major Project infrastructure will be located on the right bank of the Alaknanda River (opposite National Highway 58) in Chamoli District of Uttarakhand. A 65-meter barrage near Helang village will divert water from the river into a 13.4-km headrace tunnel. This tunnel will carry the water to an underground powerhouse near Haat village for electricity generation. All the water will then be returned to the river via a 3-km tail race tunnel. The diversion barrage will help create a small pondage to store some 4.9 hours of average river flow to allow the Project to meet its generation obligations during peak demand periods every day.
What measures have been taken to ensure that the project is safe from earthquakes and other technical risks like floods and landslides?
Extensive technical studies and physical modeling were carried out as part of the project preparation, including detailed seismic analysis. The project design has been cleared by the Indian National Committee on Seismic Design Parameters. The project formed an international Panel of Experts (POE) who gave additional guidance on all aspects of the technical design. To date, the POE has undertaken three visits to site and additional visits will be carried out during the construction period.
Will any villages be submerged as a result of the Project?
No. The Project is located in a deep, narrow and largely uninhabited gorge and only a small amount of unused government land is being submerged. No fields, or houses or any other major infrastructure will be lost to the small pondage created by the diversion barrage; only one footbridge is likely to be submerged and THDC will replace that with a new motorable bridge.
Has any assessment of the impact of the Project on the lives of the people living in the vicinity been conducted?
Yes. A detailed Social Impact Assessment (SIA) for the project area was completed in April 2008. It included consultations with stakeholders, information on socio-economic and cultural aspects of the population, and villagewise baseline data about impacts on local communities. These data were subsequently verified and updated through further consultations with the villagers, as a result of which the final list of project-affected people was determined in November 2009. The assessment has informed THDC’s development of measures to ensure that all negative impacts on local communities are mitigated and that people receive benefits from the Project.
How are adverse impacts defined in the Project?
THDC has gone beyond the usual narrow definition of project impacts and has assessed not only direct and indirect impacts but also perceived adverse impacts.
The direct adverse impacts include (i) loss of land, including trees; (ii) loss of houses, shelter and all other structures associated with houses and; (iii) loss of livelihood. The indirect adverse impacts covered under the Project include (i) loss of common property resources that contribute to livelihood such as van panchayat (community forest) land provides fuel and fodder for most villagers and; (ii) loss of sources of livelihood such as cultivable land. Detailed compensation and mitigation norms have been laid down for each such category of adverse impact.
The Project has also taken into account perceived impacts such as fear of subsidence due to tunnel construction below some villages / habitations, the concern about damage to houses by blasting. Although technical studies showed little likelihood of these impacts occurring, THDC took note of the people’s apprehensions and has decided to insure all houses in the corridor above the headrace tunnel. It also responded to a request from the people of Haat village (the site of the proposed powerhouse) that their entire village be acquired in view of the disproportionate noise and disruption during construction, allowing these villagers to move to the opposite side of the river to a suitable site.
What are the land acquisition impacts of the Project?
As a run-of-river project located where the Alaknanda River runs through a deep gorge, VPHEP’s requirement for private land is comparatively limited. Of the total 141.5 hectares of land being acquired under the Project, only 22 percent (31.6 ha) is privately-owned land; the rest is government land and forest land.
Sixty-four percent of the private land being acquired is coming from the village Haat. Land owners here had offered their land (20.27 ha) and houses to the Project and expressed a desire to be relocated in light of the disproportional impacts of construction in their village, the site of the proposed powerhouse. THDC agreed to their request and, as a result, of the 265 families being relocated under the Project, 242 families or 92 percent are those people from Haat that voluntarily chose to resettle. Eleven families from the hamlet of Hatsari in Haat chose not to relocate so THDC shifted the location of the switchyard to already-acquired government forest land, and also realigned an access road so as to minimize the impact on these families.
The compensation amounts and resettlement entitlements and other benefits are governed by the provisions of THDC’s Resettlement and Rehabilitation Policy for the Project, which goes beyond the requirements of the National Policy on Resettlement and Rehabilitation 2007. The transfer of land and houses in Haat is also based on formal land acquisition procedures to ensure complete recording of ownership and to allow for payment of compensation and assistance provisions in THDC’s Resettlement and Rehabilitation Policy to villagers in Haat.
Apart from the acquisition of private land in seven villages, people living in the remaining 11 project-affected villages will lose access to government forest/grazing and/or van panchayat land. A total of 11 villages lose access to about 2.5 percent of the government forest land that they use at present for grass collection and grazing, and a total of eight villages lose access to about 1 percent of the van panchayat land they use for collecting fodder and firewood.
THDC will compensate the villagers for this loss of access to community lands: All households in the affected villages will receive compensation equivalent to 100 days of minimum agricultural wages for a five-year period, which would give them a supplementary income until the fodder and trees being planted on vacant government forest and van panchayat land have matured and can be used.
Did THDC take any steps to avoid negative impacts?
Yes. An essential part of the project design process was to avoid or minimize the impacts on people living in the area. In the course of project preparation, THDC studied five alternate sites where it could situate the diversion barrage and chose the one at Helang as it was an uninhabited area. It chose to locate the powerhouse underground, deep inside a mountain, which minimizes the surface impact of the Projectand maintains the visual appeal of the landscape. Most significantly, it elected to drive most of the headrace tunnel (12 km of 13.4 km) with a tunnel boring machine (TBM) to ensure that local communities were not disturbed by the noise, vibrations and dust, which are considerably greater when the traditional drill-and-blast method is used to drive tunnels. It has also changed the location of some infrastructure facilities like roads and the switchyard to avoid certain habitations.
Are any indigenous communities affected by the Project?
The Project does not trigger the World Bank’s policy on Indigenous People as there is no distinct Scheduled Tribe community in the project-affected area. The population in the project-affected villages is predominantly Hindu general castes (about two-thirds) and scheduled castes (one-third). Twelve Bhotia families living in the Project area migrated from the upper reaches of the Alaknanda Valley 15 years ago, but they were found to have assimilated completely into the general community. They do not speak a separate language from that of the majority population (Garhwali and Hindi), nor do they have any distinct religious practices or political institutions that separate them from the majority population.
Have the affected people been duly informed about the impacts of the Project?
THDC has, over the last four years, set up direct and two-way channels of communications with the local communities in the Project area. THDC hired two trained social workers and retained the services of a reputed local NGO to interact with the villagers on an ongoing basis in order to bolster its capacity for communications and outreach. This team provided people with information about impacts, consulted with them about possible mitigation and compensation measures and is now helping implement these agreed measures, including the Resettlement Action Plan and the Livelihood Restoration Activities.
Throughout the project preparation period, THDC operated two Project Information Centers (PIC), one at Haat and the other at Pipalkoti on National Highway 58. These were set up to allow local communities full access to project information and to provide them a platform for registering their queries and concerns. All relevant documents and studies – including the Environment and Social Impact Assessments, the Environment Management Plan and the Resettlement Action Plan – are available here in Hindi. With the completion of THDC’s permanent project office in December 2010, these PICs were consolidated into one at Siyasain.
Over the last four years, THDC has also held some 109 formal consultation sessions; five Project-wide public meetings (including two statutory public hearings that are part of the environmental clearance process); 11 meetings focused on environment issues and; innumerable informal meetings with Project-affected persons. Details of most of these formal consultation sessions can be found in the PIC at Siyasain.
Are the local people being involved in assessing and mitigating these impacts?
The local people were involved at every point in the assessment of the impacts and in drawing up the mitigation measures needed. The consultants conducting the Social and Environment Impact Assessments drew upon the people’s local knowledge and their perceptions of the possible impacts from the project.
Will the local communities get any benefits from the Project?
Although the project causes adverse impacts, it will also bring positive benefits to the local population. Some of the infrastructure being constructed for the Project – like roads and bridges – will help improve public access and connectivity in this remote mountain area. The local villagers will also have access to some of the facilities THDC is setting up like their field dispensary (the Out-Patient Department is already operational), school and cooperative store.
Apart from these, THDC has made specific provisions to ensure that the host communities can systematically share the benefits that will flow from the Project:
Free electricity: THDC will provide 100 kWh of free electricity per month from VPHEP for a period of 10 years to every affected household.
Local area development: THDC is setting aside two categories of funds for helping build community infrastructure in project-affected villages. The first is a dedicated fund of Rs 310 million that will be used for the 18 affected villages over the five years of the construction period to build footbridges and footpaths, improve schools and panchayat ghars (community meeting halls), provide street lighting and drinking water etc. The villagers will select the schemes to be built and plan the investments. The civil works will be carried out by contractors or by the gram panchayats with monitoring by the beneficiary community. In addition, during the construction period, contracts for small civil works will to the extent possible be given to eligible PAPs. Once the Project is commissioned, one percent of the power generated by the project (or the monetary equivalent) will be made available for local development activities in a wider area comprising both directly and indirectly affected communities. The mod
alities for how this fund will be used will be worked out by the state government.
Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) works: THDC, in consultation with the project-affected communities in the VPHEP area, has identified certain community development activities like alternative drinking water facilities; pathways to river; temples; generator sets to the village panchayats; furniture for panchayat office and schools; school uniforms and books for students; etc that can be implemented through its CSR funds. In the last financial year, THDC has spent Rs. 5 million towards CSR activities.
Scholarships: THDC is sponsoring scholarships for local youth from project-affected in local schools and at several vocational training institutes, including the local Industrial Training Institute at Gopeshwar.
Employment: A small level of employment of project-affected people (PAPs) is already being provided and more will come in the construction phase via the contractors.
How will the Project impact the environment?
THDC carried out an Environmental Impact Assessment over 2005-2006 and then followed it up with additional studies over 2008-2009. The consolidated EIA was prepared in 2009. It analyzed the possible impacts of the project on (a) forests, due to felling of trees and diversion of forest land for the project; (b) terrestrial biodiversity, due to impact of the project activities on flora, fauna, aquatic, fish and other wildlife; (c) water quality, availability and river flow changes; (d) muck generation and disposal; (e) river bed utilization and downstream impacts; (f) health and safety of community, labor and staff; (g) archaeological, cultural and religious properties; and (h) construction-related impacts. The assessment found that the identified impacts were fully manageable and a detailed Environmental Management Plan (EMP) was drawn up. The EMP has a budget of Rs. 762 million.
This EIA/EMP was reviewed internally by THDC, shared with the local people for their feedback, cleared by the Ministry of Environment and Forests and also discussed with THDC’s Panel of Experts on Social and Environment issues.
Subsequently, the Government of India, in order to gain a better understanding of the potential cumulative impacts of hydropower development planned in the Alaknanda and Bhagirathi basins including VPHEP, commissioned a cumulative impact assessment which was completed in April 2011 and a study of the impact on wildlife in these river valleys which is scheduled for completion in September 2011. The assessment of the institutions conducting these studies -- IIT Roorkee and the Wildlife Institute of India – confirmed that the environment impacts expected from VPHEP were not significant and could be mitigated and managed with identified measures. The draft assessment is available on the website of the Ministry of Environment & Forests.
Will there be water left in the river after the Project has diverted water for power generation?
Yes. Although power generation requires some water to be diverted from the river, THDC will ensure that a specified minimum flow always remains in the river.
The Alaknanda flows through a deep gorge in the Project area. As a result, the villages in the area are not located close to its banks and the local communities also do not depend upon the river for either irrigation or drinking water.
However, the river needs a certain amount of water to maintain its aquatic health and to sustain the biodiversity in its waters. This is achieved by ensuring that the Project releases a certain minimum amount of water (commonly referred to as the environment flow) at all times.
VPHEP has the distinction of having one of the highest environment flows in the country. Following the comprehensive assessment of cumulative impacts of hydropower development by IIT Roorkee and the Wildlife Institute of India, the Ministry of Environment and Forests increased the mandatory environment flow from the Project to 15.65 cumecs (cubic metres per second). This figure has been identified by the experts as being the amount of water needed to be maintained in the river downstream of the VPHEP diversion barrage to preserve its aquatic health and support the riverine biodiversity. THDC has committed to maintaining this minimum flow at all times.
A lot of muck is typically generated by hydropower projects. What efforts are being taken to ensure that this debris is disposed off properly and does not flow into the river?
Muck disposal is a very important aspect of environment management in hydropower plants. Excavating tunnels and caverns generates huge amounts of debris. If care is not taken to dispose this in designated areas, the muck can fall into the river and contaminate its waters.
Based on estimated excavation and the anticipated muck volume, THDC has designated four muck-dumping areas (at Haat, Siyasain, Jaisal and Gulabkoti) and the contract with the contractor who will carry out the civil works for VPHEP will specify that all debris has to be dumped at these spots. The contractors will also ensure that retaining walls are built to ensure that loose debris does not flow into the river and will maintain these walls, raising them as the muck increases and repairing them if they get damaged. Once these muck-dumping sites have been filled, THDC will rehabilitate them to restore the landscape with trees, shrubs and grasses.
The Project is in the vicinity of two protected areas. Will this not affect wildlife in these areas?
No. environmental and wildlife assessments conducted show that VPHEP will not have unmanageable or un-mitigable impacts on wildlife in the area. The Project barrage site is 5.2 km (aerial distance) from an eastern boundary of the Kedarnath Wildlife Sanctuary (KWLS) which falls in the valley adjacent to the Alaknanda River valley, from which it separated by high and sheer mountains; as a result of this topography, the terrestrial distance is somewhat greater. Several assessments of the project’s impact on KWLS, including by the Wildlife Institute of India, suggests no significant impacts as: (a) there is no acquisition of land within the Sanctuary; (b) major project infrastructure such as the powerhouse and the headrace tunnel are underground; and (c) the use of a tunnel-boring machine will mean that there is minimal disturbance to geological and soil strata.
The other protected area is the Nanda Devi Biosphere Reserve (NDBR) and the part of the project closest to it (the barrage site) is located 36 km away from the core zone of the NDBR.
Although no significant direct impacts of the project on the protected areas are expected, the EIA assessed that there is a possibility of wildlife movement in the area for water or as result of vibration disturbance during construction and operation. The EMP includes a wildlife monitoring plan which is in addition to the provision of Rs 24.35 million for wildlife management provided to NDBR and KWLS Forest Divisions of the State Forest Department under the CAT Plan of the project.
Is there robust baseline data on air, noise and water quality in the Project so that impacts, if any, can be duly measured?
Environmental assessments undertaken during project preparation adequately collated primary and secondary data on air, noise and water quality. In addition, base line data for flora, fauna and terrestrial bio-diversity were also collected. The base line data sampling has been oriented in such a way so as to allow for comparison and monitoring of locations during and after the project construction.
Will due monitoring be conducted to see that local environmental parameters remain within controlled limits?
Yes. The implementation of the Environmental Management Plan envisaged for the project includes provision for monitoring by THDC, responsible state agencies and an independent third-party monitor.
There is likely to be an influx of workers to build the Project. What steps are being taken to ensure that the local communities living in the area will not be inconvenienced by this large labor force?
The labor force working on VPHEP will be housed in designated camps carefully sited at two villages (Gulabkoti and Batula) to minimize their impinging upon the local communities and the local environment. THDC has laid out strict conditions in the contract document to ensure that these camps are run in a sensitive manner and maintain the required standards of health, hygiene, safety and security. The contractor will also have to dispose of all garbage and other solid waste properly so that the area remains clean. The workers’ kitchens will use liquefied petroleum gas so that there is no foraging for firewood. In response to a voiced concern from the villagers, the labor force will also not be allowed access to community forest lands to ensure the safety of women collecting fodder and firewood.
VPHEP is part of a series of hydropower projects being developed on the Alaknanda. Have any efforts been made to assess the cumulative impacts of these projects? If so, what were the main findings?
The Union Ministry of Environment & Forests (MoEF) in July 2010 commissioned a comprehensive assessment of the cumulative impacts of hydropower development for the Alaknanda and the Bhagirathi rivers. Two studies were conducted as part of this assessment. The Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Roorkee examined the carrying capacity of the river vis a vis the plans for hydropower development and the Wildlife Institute of India (WII) studied the possible impacts on terrestrial and aquatic biodiversity. The draft reports of this, India’s first ever comprehensive cumulative impact assessment, were submitted to MoEF in March and May 2011. (This draft assessment can be accessed at MoEF’s website.)
Based on the recommendations of these studies, MoEF is re-examining the regulatory regime that pertains to hydropower projects being developed on these rivers. It has already denied forest clearance to three proposed projects on the grounds that that they “support significant ecological/wildlife values that include irreplaceable components… Any form of development in these areas will have irreversible and un-mitigable negative impacts on these values”. For the cleared projects, it has substantially increased the mandatory environment flows that the project will have to maintain once they begin operation so that the river will always have enough water in it to sustain its ecological health.