Dam(n) it, what’s wrong with India’s hydropower push?

India is undertaking large-scale hydropower development without transparent, independent assessments that offer an objective view of the impact of these projects on environment & economy
Dam(n) it, what’s wrong with India’s hydropower push?
Dam(n) it, what’s wrong with India’s hydropower push?X

The hydropower lobby in India makes a number of claims, saying hydro is clean, green, cheap, renewable, and now they also add: “Hydro is climate-friendly.” Such claims are useful to numb your senses and accept what looks clearly not plausible. The reality is that none of these claims are backed by any credible independent studies. The reality is quite the contrary. There are other ways used to ignore the realities: phrases like geological surprises (to hide the fact that proper geological assessments are not done), peaking power, run of the river, flood management benefits are some of the pet make-believe themes the hydropower lobby loves and throws around. In doing so, they do not allow science to come in their way!

When nothing else works, they also love playing the victim card. It came handy during the Uttarakhand disaster of June 2013 when multiple hydropower projects faced devastation, the Chamoli disaster of February 2022 when Tapovan Vishnugad and another hydropower project got destroyed and the Sikkim GLOF (Glacial Lake Outburst Flood) of October 2023 when the 1,200 MW Teesta-III hydropower project, besides several others, got damaged. During the Sikkim GLOF event, two of state-run NHPC Limited’s projects were damaged and a third project of the public sector enterprise of 132 MW was out of operation for almost four months. Another 96 MW private hydropower project was also damaged and remains out of operation till date. These disasters also claimed the lives of hundreds of people as some of them got trapped in hydropower projects trying to open the gates or were caught in landslides or got washed away by floods due to changes in the river course caused by the obstruction created by dams.

Hydro projects regularly face disasters during their construction and also during operation and have been the source of disasters in numerous cases

Post the June 2013 disaster, in fact, the hydropower lobby also played the saviour card when they claimed that if it was not for the Tehri dam, the disaster would actually have reached Delhi! It does not matter to them that Tehri is in Upper Ganga basin and Delhi is on the banks of Yamuna.   

The hydropower lobby also plays the victim card when asked about the social and environmental impacts of large hydropower projects. Some of us have been asking to show even one honest EIA (Environment Impact Assessment) or SIA (Social Impact Assessment) of a large hydropower project in India. We have not found one as yet after going through scores of voluminous works, all titled EIA of some hydropower project.

Compromised governance

For the regulators at the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC), it does not seem to matter what is written inside those volumes. They have never rejected a single EIA or a project with such an EIA, inspite of many of us pointing out to them that they are dishonest or plagiarised. I am reminded of what a former Assam Power Minister once remarked about these assessments. He said that the EIAs of hydropower projects in Arunachal Pradesh are made sitting in Gurgaon or an Assam Hotel or at the most, by taking a helicopter round of the project location.

Just to provide another snapshot of compromised environmental decision-making of hydropower projects, we have had several cases when persons from hydropower companies are found sitting in the MoEFCC’s Expert Appraisal Committee (EAC) on Hydropower and River Valley projects, to clear projects of their own companies — a clear conflict of interest that should be inadmissible.

89 percent of India’s operating hydropower projects generate at below the promised power generation

Hydro projects regularly face disasters during their construction and also during operation and have been the source of disasters in numerous cases. In most such cases, the hydro projects never accept their responsibility for the damage caused. There is never an independent assessment to understand what happened during the disasters, which agency played what role and what lessons can be learnt from the disaster. If we do not even take the first step towards learning lessons and fixing accountability, how are we going to improve?

Similarly, there is never a credible, independent post facto evaluation of projected versus actual costs, benefits and impacts of any hydropower project. If we had this on a periodic basis, we would have realised that 89 percent of India’s operating hydropower projects generate at below the promised power generation. Half of these underperforming projects generate at less than half the promised power generation. The graph of Million Units generated per MW installed capacity has been going downhill for over three decades now.

Peaking power

The most important USP (Unique Selling Point) of hydropower projects is that they can provide peaking power. True, they can be started and stopped at short notice. It may be added here that when a hydropower project is operated in peaking mode, there are severe downstream impacts, on river, environment and society. But do our hydro companies even bother to assess these?


India has over 47,000 MW of installed hydropower capacity. Almost all of those projects were justified in the name of generating peaking power. Who, in that case is monitoring as to what proportion of power generated by hydropower projects in India meet peaking power requirements and how can it be optimised? The answer is no one.

The Central Electricity Authority (CEA) does not do it. Nor do the Central Electricity Regulatory Commission (CERC) or State Electricity Regulatory Commissions (SERCs) or the power departments. If we are neither monitoring nor trying to optimise peaking power generation from existing hydro capacity, on what basis are we proposing to add more hydro in the name of meeting peaking power requirements? There is evidence from official agencies that shows that indeed a lot of hydro projects that can operate as peaking stations, end up operating as base load stations. Until we start monitoring and optimising peaking power from existing hydro, there is clearly no justification for pushing more hydropower projects to be developed as peaking power stations. Similarly, until we employ available measures to manage peak load, can there be a justification for adding more hydro projects?

Look at the cost of power from hydropower projects. The capital cost of any hydropower project that will be commissioned now or that is under construction or proposed will not be less than Rs 10 crore per MW of installed capacity. The cost of power from any such project won’t be less than Rs 6 per unit. This is almost double the cost of power from solar or wind projects.

Pumped Storage Projects

Since solar and wind projects provide power intermittently depending on the availability of the sun or wind, there is a need to store the power to make it available when solar or wind power cannot be generated. That is how more hydro projects and now Pumped Storage projects (PSP) are justified. The Union Ministry of Power’s (MoP) April 2023 guidelines on PSPs describes these projects as “clean, green, safe, and non-explosive” and an “environment-friendly” option. No credible independent studies are provided for these sweeping claims. The fact is that when a major infrastructure intervention like PSP is taken up, it will have significant social and environment impacts. The claims are clearly wrong. 

According to the CEA, India already has 4,746 MW of existing PSP capacity, out of which only 1,450 MW is being used in PSP mode as project developers do not find it viable to operate the projects in PSP mode. In addition, four projects of 2,780 MW are under construction. The CEA also reports that 24 projects of 26,630 MW has already been allotted by states. The total PSP capacity coming up in India (in operation + under construction + allotted PSPs capacity) is, therefore, already way above what is required by the 2032 Draft National Electricity Plan: 18.8 GW by 2032.

The EAC for River Valley and Hydropower projects and the MoEFCC itself has been recommending and giving environment clearances for PSPs, at least since 2019, most indiscriminately, without any guidance from the MoP or CEA about how much capacity is required. By December 2022, a total PSP capacity of 67.105 GW has been given stage-1 environment clearance, over 3.5 times the capacity that the draft NEP says is required. When we watch these figures closely, it gives an impression of a major scam in the making.

The fact that each river basin has multiple, almost bumper-to-bumper, hydropower projects necessitates credible, safe construction and operation of hydropower projects

Moreover, the non-PSP storage options like Battery Energy Storage Systems (BESS) are getting cheaper by the day and considering the high cost, high impacts and high gestation period of new PSPs, it may be better to also look at the alternative energy storage options, including their costs, gestation period and impacts using life cycle approach. It is based on such an exercise that we need to see how much of the new PSP capacity is viable and justifiable.

Most private sector companies have quit or are in the process of quitting new hydropower projects. Most hydropower projects now under construction or being proposed are being taken up as public sector projects. Hence transparency, accountability, and participatory and scientific decision-making in PSUs become even more important.

Dam(n) it, what’s wrong with India’s hydropower push?
Arunachal Pradesh govt approves allotment of 2 hydropower projects to NHPC

Hydro projects as force multiplies in disasters

Here one may add that most new hydropower projects are to come up in the Himalayan region, which is inherently vulnerable to disasters, including flash floods, erosion, landslides and seismic activity. In the context of climate change, these vulnerabilities are compounded and more are added like more intense floods, GLOFs and avalanches. When we add major interventions like hydropower projects in these regions with all the attendant reservoirs, tunnelling, blasting, deforestation, roads, colonies and so on, they act like force multipliers for disasters in the region. The fact that each river basin has multiple, almost bumper-to-bumper, hydropower projects necessitates credible, safe construction and operation of hydropower projects. But we have none today. Nor do we have a credible cumulative impact assessment or carrying capacity studies.

It cannot be anybody’s case that no hydropower projects or PSPs should be taken up. The need is to take informed and democratic decisions. This includes honest appraisal and assessment of social, environmental and disaster impacts, genuine public consultation, appraisal process, monitoring and compliance mechanisms, genuine options assessment, cost-benefit analysis, periodic independent dam safety reviews, regular post-facto analysis and imperatives of climate change need to be taken up. More than anything else, these are necessary for our own economy and society. 

The author is Co-ordinator at South Asian Network of Dams, Rivers and People (SANDRP).

Disclaimer: This is an Op-ed article. The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own. PSU Watch does not endorse nor support views, opinions or conclusions drawn in this post.

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