Rashmi Shrestha.

Making hydropower development mutually beneficial

Hydropower development is important to achieve energy security and green growth in India; the northern state of Uttarakhand is going as far as to try and harness all the potential hydropower in the state.

But what does this mean for local people who are living in the vicinity of the projects? Local communities are rarely included in the planning of hydropower projects, which has led in protests by villagers who have experienced negative impacts to their ecosystems and livelihoods due to deforestation, decreased irrigation and other disruptions to their agricultural activities. These protests, in turn, hinder hydropower projects and discourage further investment.

One of the many components of the HI-NEX (Hydropower Irrigation Nexus) research project aimed to understand local benefit sharing practices, mechanism and issues in selected hydropower projects in Bhilangana basin (see figure below). The study highlights the value for all parties to follow a fair and structured benefits-sharing protocol that would avoid the current conflict-riddled hydropower development process.

Selected field sites in Uttarakhand State, India.

The three hydropower projects analyzed in the research were plagued by continuous agitation and protests arising from the local communities. These communities found that hydropower development negatively affected their livelihoods without offering any benefits. In the 3 MW Agunda Thati project, a single affected village is fighting six court cases after seven years of project operation. In the 22.5 MW Bhilangana project, agitated local people were taken into custody three times, and in the 24 MW Bhilangna III project, protesters held a hunger strike for 18 days. As a result, the hydropower projects suffered delays and incurred additional cost.

Local affected communities complained about loss of agricultural activities and drying out of springs, which people rely on for farm and household purposes. In addition, they were not experiencing the benefits from electrification and long-term employment they had understood they would receive. Research found that lack of proper communication on benefits and project impacts was a major issue.

Focus group discussions with affected communities revealed communication problems and the losses felt by the villagers.
Dinesh Jayara.

“We did not know anything about the project until the developer started the construction on the weir side. That is when we started our protest and it lasted for 60 days. There were many meetings between power developers, district administration, and us, the community. We put forward our demands for a school, irrigation water, development money and road network. Now almost all demands have been met and the new school is under construction. It is the outcome of continuous protests and negotiation. But if we had been fairly included from the beginning, things would have been different.” - Pradhan, Phalenda village, Bhilangana 22.5 MW project.

Local benefit sharing in the form of revenue sharing has been legalized through the “Policy for Developing Small Hydropower in Uttarakhand, 2015”. However, the mechanism for such benefit sharing has not yet been institutionalized, and the outcome depends on the negotiating power of local affected people, which to date has been the outcome of continuous agitation and obstruction of project implementation. Hydropower developers are frustrated and have little interest in further hydropower development due to tensions with local communities and demand from different sectors.

Hydropower development has faced many challenges due to the lack of communication.
Rashmi Shrestha.

“The project was halted for six months and we were mentally harassed by the local people. At first we tried to convince a few people in the community and there were many meetings with affected communities and district administration. Now we have signed an agreement with all the four affected villages and we are providing benefits as per the agreement. However there are still more demands from people and I have to spend six months in a year dealing with the complaints and demands of people.” Project Manager, Bhilangana 22.5 MW project.

In Bhilangana, villagers succeeded in negotiating certain demands, which has has driven developers to take longer term responsibility. Yet, this lengthy process could be avoided for future projects if developers and local authorities follow the research recommendations for a transparent social and economic impact assessment (where local people are involved in monitoring the impacts), a framework for mediated negotiation between parties, and a grievance redressal system. These steps would encourage a more efficient, sustainable and mutually beneficial hydropower development in these rural communities.

New school under construction by the Bhilangana Project in Phalenda.
Rashmi Shrestha.

The research recommendations are:

  • initial involvement of villagers to understand the pros and cons of development
  • a framework to monitor and evaluate progress
  • a local level platform whereby villagers can raise issues and developers can manage expectations (eg regarding employment, electricity, irrigation etc)
  • a framework on how to administer a Local Area Development Fund to be used to provide better health facilities, education, employment and improved local living standards

Adequate, mutually beneficial local benefit sharing from hydropower projects could reduce conflict at the local level. This can create positive perception among local affected people and ultimately drive more sustainable hydropower development in Uttarakhand.