Wednesday, 11 June 2014


    As more details emerge about the disaster at Thalout, and as the HP Govt. continues to obfuscate, one thing is becoming clearer by the day- this was no accident, this was manslaughter by a sovereign entity that has repeatedly ignored warnings about its reckless tampering with the environment. The Larji Project, directly responsible for this tragedy, was always a misconceived, ill-designed and environmentally harmful hydel project where malfeasance has reigned from the beginning. It has created a generating capacity of 126 MW at a cost of more than 1200 crores, which is at least 30% more than the standard cost. Generating efficiency of a run of the river hydel project is provided by the " head" created, or the " fall" of the water which provides the force to turn the turbines. The engineers of the HPSEB turned engineering logic on its head by using huge volumes of water instead to provide the force, pushing up all costs. It now appears that in order to reduce costs they have severely compromised on safety provisions and have failed to provide, or operationalise, the safety features that a project located in such a densely populated region, along a National Highway, demands.
   Notwithstanding the Himachal Chief Minister's clean chit to his officers,and the defence offered by the latter, there are many questions that need quick answers.
[1]  Why was it felt necessary to suddenly release 200 cusecs of water at 7.00 PM? HPSEB has said that they were asked by the northern grid authorities to back down on power generation as the system was overloaded. This is a ridiculous defence for many reasons. Firstly, at the time of the incident the whole of north India had been subjected to a prolonged heat wave with demand for power outstripping supply everywhere: there can be no question of the system not requiring power. Secondly, the period 7.00 PM to 10.00 PM is the peak period when the power demand spikes exponentially: this in fact is when hydel projects are specifically supposed to provide " peaking power" ( something thermal plants cannot do), not back down! Thirdly, why was only Larji ordered by the Grid Authority to back down?- it is my information that none of the other hydel projects in Himachal were asked to do so.
Something smells very bad here.
[2\   Who cleared the release of such huge volumes of water? It is inconceivable that this could have been done at the level of the Resident Engineer, the nominal scapegoat. Impounded water for a reservoir based project is its inventory- it is literally to be valued in rupees, for this is what will generate the electricity. Releasing it without sufficient reason is like an industrialist setting fire to his raw materials. So the decision had to have been taken at a higher level and we must be told the facts.
[3]   Even if generation was to be reduced on that evening( an argument I don't buy), was it necessary to release the waters? It needs to be investigated at what level the dam waters stood that evening and whether there was a cushion to retain the waters below the danger level. Since there have been no rains over the week before the tragedy and only snow melt was filling the reservoir, I have a feeling that there was perhaps no urgency to release the waters in such quantities.
[4]  Release of huge volumes of water suddenly is always fraught with downstream risks, and that is why dam managers always effect the discharge in a calibrated manner. The only exception is in the case of massive inflows posing a danger to the dam itself. Was that the case in this instance? If there was no such danger then why could the release not have been done in a gradual manner, providing a calibrated warning to those downstream?
[5]  All hydel projects in Himachal are by law required to maintain a constant discharge of 15% of mean flows from the dam, and to maintain an automated record of the same for inspection. In a report submitted to the HP High Court in 2010 I had categorically stated that NOT A SINGLE PROJECT IN THE STATE WAS COMPLYING WITH THIS REQUIREMENT. I am absolutely certain that the Larji project too was not compliant on this fateful day. TV videos and still photos by the students themselves of the site establish this. I have myself crossed this patch of the river many times and have always found the river course downstream of the dam bone dry. This factor/ omission assumes importance and relevance to the tragedy because had this discharge been maintained faithfully and continuously there would have been a natural partial depletion of the reservoir and there would have been no need to suddenly release 200 cusecs of
 water, with its disastrous consequences.
[6]  Was the water actually released to flush out the silt from the dam? If so, why are the project authorities concealing this fact? All dams regularly resort to this flushing, so why is Larji being coy about it? Is it because admitting it would then raise the question- why do it at night, almost surreptitiously? Which in turn would lend credence to the claims of the local villagers that the project personnel are in league with the illegal sand mafia, that the flushing is always done late in the evening so that the flushed out sand can be conveniently removed at night.
[7]  If there is an iota of truth in the above claim then the role of the Mining Department and the Mandi Forest Department also needs to be investigated. They could not have been unaware of this illegal nocturnal pursuit: even the TV grabs show well defined truck tyre tracks on the banks of the river at this site!
[8] Was there a warning system installed at all? If it existed was it activated on that evening? All evidence points to the contrary and I would rather believe the local villagers than the dam management or even the Chief Minister who has been misinformed. In fact all logs of that day should have been immediately seized by the administration to verify this point- by not doing so the govt. has by now given enough time to the project to tamper with, create and falsify the records. Moreover, the question is not only whether a couple of sirens were installed as a proforma measure in Thalout bazaar and other locations, but whether it was an effective system, whether signages were put up along the road and river banks, whether a schedule of release( of water) was prepared in advance and given wide publicity, whether this schedule was strictly adhered to.
   It is quite evident that the Larji project has not been following the prescribed safety and environmental protocols that its licence imposes on it, and that the practices it does follow are harmful and damaging to the environment and the residents of that area. It has not installed a " fish ladder" ( to enable migrating fish to move along and over the dam) as its environmental clearance mandates it do. I learn from a reliable source that the contractor who was awarded the job has been given the full payment but has absconded without completing the work! Quite evidently, as John Wayne might have said: " There do be plenty of money in them thar waters...!"
   It is imperative that the CONSENT TO OPERATE which the Larji project has been given should be immediately suspended by the HP Pollution Control Board for its prima facie violations of safety and environmental regulations.( This will be no loss to the country since by its own admission it has been asked by the Grid to reduce its generation!). Thereafter a judicial enquiry MUST be instituted as I have argued in my previous article. The rot runs deep not only in the Larji project but in all hydel projects in the state thanks to the laissez faire attitude adopted by ALL state govts in the past. All aspects of the affair, including the points raised above, need to be thoroughly investigated, and perhaps completely new protocols need to be drawn up. An enquiry by a Divisional Commissioner( which is what the govt has ordered) is not adequate. I personally know the Divisional Commissioner. He is a fine officer but his job is a non starter with the Chief Minister already giving a premature clean chit to his administration.
   This is the very least we can do for the twenty four young lives we have snuffed out in the name of development.

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