Small Hydro Power: A tradeoff between local economic development (if and when it happens) and environmental Impact. Who defines the limits for the latter?

Access to Energy and its linkages with poverty alleviation are well established and much talked about around the globe, especially in the developing world. On a recent visit to villages Jaltalla, Kotla and Khunnu- Rudraprayag district, Uttarakhand these linkages seemed abstract in absence of inclusive and integrated approach to development. For the villages which have been electrified for over twenty-five years now – with roughly eight to ten hours of electricity available primarily during nights- the local communities still seemed to be living in a social and economic deprived state of existence. In particular, the women of these villages bear most of the brunt, spending 5-6 hours collecting firewood for cooking and heating every third day in the precarious terrain, working in agriculture farms whose produce is dependent on natural rains producing just enough to suffice for up to a month food requirement, taking care of livestock fodder among others.

The visit entailed visiting recently operational Kaliganga-I, 4 MW Small hydro power (SHP) project along with 6MW Kaliganga –II project under construction located in these villages. Small hydro power is universally - especially in Project Design documents (PDD) of Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) and in similar project proposals of developmental banks funding soft loans- linked to providing electricity to the local communities which would lead in achieving a very crucial objective of local people and communities’ socio-economic development. Unfortunately, this is the biggest paradox encountered in these villages as the power from the already operational Kaliganga-I plant is fed to the substation 24 kilometers away bypassing the local feeder, which distributes electricity to these villages. Had this small provision of supplying in parallel the electricity from SHP to the local feeder been made, it would have led to a much better acceptability and inclusion of the local villager’s – both affected and not so affected- and not limiting the benefits of project to few families whose member have got temporary or apparently permanent employment.

Small hydro power project opens up immense opportunities for social and economic upliftment of the village communities, if, other crucial aspects like - basic road infrastructure for transportation, promotion of income generation small industrial activities based on local resource availability like wool, cotton and agriculture produce like oranges, better and higher education facilities which helps in reduced migration and lesser financial burden of sending their kids to other districts and states for education, basic health facilities among others- are integrated through various other state or central policies.

And with the mandatory component in SHP projects- wherein project proponent in consultation with gram panchayat of villages affected by project have to execute development activities as per the requirement of local communities for example providing cement concrete roads, water tanks, school ground in villages, skill development training to women and so forth- viable alternatives can be sought which could lead to a more sustainable and integrated development by taking into consideration their actual need.

Although small hydro power could lead to socio-economic development and strengthen livelihood changes, their ecological and environmental impacts needs to be quantified in a manner useful to understand whether and of what capacities small hydro power development should happen in a region which will not lead to unprecedented implication on river ecology at local level and the Himalayan ecosystem at a system level. Further the plants which are developed must mitigate the negative impacts of SHP development, to the extent possible even if such mitigation impacts project economics. For instance, with respect to the projects discussed above the least which could have been done to protect river ecology is by providing fish passage’s for fish movement downstream, proper deliberation and roadmap in terms of utilizing the muck generated out of the tunneling in construction purposes reinstating the slopes damaged during cloud burst and other natural phenomena before this muck is led to flow with the monsoon waters, calculating the environmental flows and enforcing its application.