Irrelevance of 66 MW Loktak downstream hydroelectric project in Manipur

The increased irrationality of hydel projects as energy source amid the growing viability of alternative options like solar energy need be carefully considered to achieve energy sustainability in Manipur.

On August 2020, the Loktak Downstream Hydroelectric Corporation Ltd signed a Power Purchase Agreement (PPA) with the Manipur State Power Distribution Company Ltd (MSPDCL) for 66 MW Loktak Downstream Hydroelectric Project. According to the PPA, the government of Manipur envisaged to purchase the entire power to be generated by the project. The terms and conditions of PPA and cost of per unit power to be purchased by the government remains concealed. For long, the government refused to sign the PPA due to the high cost of the power per unit cost. The NHPC has long mounted pressure on the government to sign the PPA for the project. And the deal was sealed.

The 66 MW Loktak Downstream Hydroelectric Project (LDP) is proposed as a run of the river scheme intending to utilise the tail race discharge from the powerhouse of the 105 MW Loktak Multipurpose Hydroelectric project (Loktak HEP) along with the inflow of the River Leimatak for power generation. A 28 meters high barrage over the Leimatak River near Tousang Khunou Village will be built for the project. The project cost is Rs 867.77 crore as of 2006. The project cost of LDP stands at Rs 1,250 crore by 2015, which increased to Rs 1391.65 crore by December 2018.

After the MoU for the Loktak Downstream Project was signed between the government of Manipur and the NHPC on September 26, 2008, the Loktak Downstream Hydroelectric Corporation Ltd (LDHCL) was formed as a joint venture company of National Hydroelectric Power Corporation (NHPC) with a stake of 74 per cent and the government of Manipur with 26 per cent stake for the implementation of the proposed project. The LDHCL is a subsidiary company of NHPC Ltd.

The 59th meeting of Expert Appraisal Committee (EAC) of the Union Ministry of Environment and Forest and Climate Change on July 20-21, 2012 recommended environmental clearance for the project. Concerns persists that the Stage-1 Forest Clearance has been cleared to divert 211.50 hectares of forest on March 3, 2011 without adhering to Forest Rights Act, 2006. The LDHCL maintained that the total catchment area of the project span over 554 Sq km and the land requirement is 211.50 hectares, including wet paddy fields on river bed of Leimatak River, agriculture land and forest, which affected communities, viz, Rongmei tribe rely for their subsistence.

Delays in PPA signing and JICA is financing Plan

The initiation of the Loktak Downstream Project has been delayed as the NHPC and the Manipur Government failed to sign the power purchase agreement (PPA) till July 2020. The high power tariff of Loktak Downstream Project at around Rs 6.17 per unit as of 2017 was key reason for the refusal of Manipur Government sign the PPA. In 2015, the former Power Minister of the Government of India earlier asked the Government of Manipur and NHPC to reduce the power tariff to Rs 5.30 per unit as Rs 400 crores would be given as grant by Central Government. The NHPC in July 2006 LSO urged the Government of Manipur to relinquish its 12% free power entitlement from the 90 MW Loktak downstream power project to bring down the cost of the power and to optimize the estimated implementation cost and the electricity tariff for the project. In lieu, NHPC proposed that the state government may take up equity in the project.

For long, NHPC has been pressuring the Manipur Government to sign the PPA as soon as possible but the latter contended that the power tariff is higher than admissible. The Chairman and Managing Director (CMD), Mr. Joshi of NHPC again met the Chief Minister of Manipur, Mr N. Biren on 14 December 2017 pursuing for an early commencement of the construction of LDP over the Leimatak River. However, the PPA was finally signed on 31st August 2020, with Manipur Government agreeing to purchase entire power from the project.  Earlier, the Government of Meghalaya and Tripura signed PPA on 20 June 2003 and 19 June 2003 for purchase of power from the project.

In February 2018, media reported that the Government of India sought financial assistance from the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), to fund the LDP. On pretext that the power tariff would be too high when the project is funded by the Government of India, an alternative of seeking the necessary fund from JICA has been explored. The Government maintained that if the project is funded by JICA whose interest is exceptionally low, the power tariff can be reduced to Rs 5 per unit. The plan to pursue financing from JICA indeed laid bare the challenges in financing process of LDP.

Public Hearing for the LDP Project

Earlier, an environment Public Hearing for the LDP project was conducted on June 7, 2011 at Longjang (Thangal) village in Tamenglong district, Manipur. The Environment Impact Assessment and Environment Management Plan has not been furnished. The project area falls in high seismic zone V. Civil societies attending the hearing expressed concerns with multifaceted impacts of the project. Representatives of Zeliangrong Students Union, landowner of Toushang Village, Soubung village, Chakanglong Peidai, Taoshang village, etc raised concerns at the hearing. Many villagers who attended the public hearing also expressed support to the project without gaining access to pertinent information on impacts of the project. Clearly, the adherence to free, prior, and informed consent of the affected communities remains another concern.

Project Impacts on villagers

The project authorities outlined that at least 705 families will be affected due to loss of their right over forest land for the LDP. The project authorities have been building the road from Tupul to Thangal village for a total length of 97.91 km to aid construction of the Dam, powerhouse, and pump House. The forest areas required is 40.9 hectares for the road from Tupul to Dam site, for road from Dam site to Powerhouse and for diversion of forest for construction of road from Pump House to Irang River. Another 144 hectares of land has been identified for compensatory afforestation for the loss of 72 hectares of forest land at Thangal Village to be acquired for the road expansion for the project.

Earlier, a group of affected villagers of Taosang Village filed a case against the step taken by the Government for resurvey for which the Gauhati High Court stayed the same. The survey and other works were suspended for quite some time due to the Court’s interventions. The Citizens Concern for Dam and Development (CCDD) on 15 December 2017 condemned the pursuance of the Chairman and Managing Director of NHPC, in his meeting with Chief Minister of Manipur to commence construction of LDP. CCDD stated pursuance of LDP by using water discharge from Loktak project is a disregard of the call of people of Manipur to decommission Ithai Barrage of the Loktak HEP.

The release of water from Leimatak Power station of Loktak project affected the water flow of the Leimatak River. The LDP project will further worsen the downstream impacts of Ithai Barrage. A man identified Jianthailung Riame (28 yrs) s/o Langangdaipou Riamei of Soubunglong Part-II village under Khoupum Sub-Division of Noney district lost his life while crossing the Leimatak River in June 2020, as the river current turned violent due to opening of shutter of the Power Station of Loktak project.

The LDP will lead to further militarization as the project authorities insisted to raise four battalions of security forces to protect the project and to protect establishment of related infrastructures like road from Tupul to the project site at Thangal village. As per the agreement between Government of Manipur and NHPC signed on 12 February 1999, provision of necessary security arrangement is the responsibility of Government of Manipur. One battalion of CRPF was to be deployed in the project area from 1 October 2000 to enable Border Road Organization build the Tupul to Thangal road. NHPC is slated to bear the cost of the deployment of the battalion estimated at Rs.112 crore.       

Loktak Downstream Project and Ithai Barrage

The NHPC’s push for LDP comes at a time, when indigenous peoples call for review and decommissioning of the controversial Ithai Barrage of the Loktak HEP intensified in Manipur. The NHPC’s push for LDP is notwithstanding the appraisal of the Chief Minister of Manipur to the Prime Minister of India on August 2, 2017 to remove the Ithai Barrage to prevent the recurrent flood situation in Manipur. The Governor of Manipur even join the call to decommission the Ithai Barrage considering the impacts of Loktak HEP project. The NHPC officials conceitedly rebuffed the call of the people of Manipur to decommission Ithai Barrage as emanating from ignorance. Bedi Ram, the project head of the Loktak HEP project, defended the Ithai Barrage maintaining that the opposition to the Ithai Barrage stemmed from “ignorance”.  Such statement of NHPC confirms the irresponsibility and unaccountability of companies like NHPC in Manipur.

The construction of LDP will worsen and prolong the suffering inflicted by Ithai Barrage.

The Loktak project instead of irrigating 50,000 hectares of agriculture land submerged more than 50,000 hectares of agriculture land and reducing Manipur to a food dependent state. Villages residing close to Ithai Barrage, such as Laphupat Tera, Khordak Nongmaikhong, Arong, Ithai Wakokpi, Kumbi, Thanga etc complained of repeated flooding and widespread loss of their properties due to the impoundment of water by Ithai Barrage. NHPC rather than assuming responsibility for the violations and the destruction of Loktak wetlands insisted on construction of additional mega dams in Manipur. The NHPC also downplayed the various academic researches and write ups detailing the Loktak projects’ impacts on the people, flora, fauna and culture in Manipur.

The Loktak HEP Project, commissioned in 1983 has been operating for almost Four (4) decades without guidelines on the functioning of the project. There has been no holistic and detailed impact assessment due to the continued operation of both Loktak HEP and the LDP. A continued operation of Ithai Barrage to operate the Loktak downstream project would further devastate Loktak Wetlands, aggravating livelihood loss for communities.  To consolidate profiting from the land and resources of Manipur, the NHPC aggressively pursues the Loktak downstream project. NHPC continues to reap maximum profit while destroying communities’ livelihood and Loktak wetlands.  Loktak HEP project is major sources of profit for NHPC, but for the people, the project is a simply a symbol of exploitation and plunder of Manipur’s land and resources.

Unviability of Hydropower Project

The plan to build the Loktak downstream project needs to consider the increased unviability of building large dams. For long, the 66 MW Loktak Downstream Project has been delayed as the NHPC and the Manipur Government failed to sign the PPA, due to high cost of per unit power. The power tariff of Loktak Downstream Project would be around Rs 6.17 per unit as of 2018, which is comparatively high, prompting Manipur Government to desist from signing PPA with NHPC. When the LDP project was approved by the Government in 1999 at a cost of Rs. 697.67 crores, the corresponding tariff at that time was Rs 4.10 per unit.  With the project cost standing around 1500 crore at 2020, the cost of power per unit cost is slated to increase further.

The per unit price of power from hydel projects is much higher than the solar tariffs, which declined to Rs. 3 in July 2019 as compared to Rs. 4 from hydel power in India.  Indeed, India’s solar power tariffs hit a record low of Rs 2.36 per kilowatt per hour during a bid by Solar Energy Corporation of India Ltd on 30 June 2020. The per unit cost of solar power is set to fall to as low as Rs 1.9 per unit over the next decade through 2030 in India with new technologies boosting efficiency levels. Building hydropower projects is no longer cost effective. Building a hydel plant can cost Rs 7 to 9 crore per MW, compared with Rs 3.5-4 crore per MW for solar energy. As such, building hydro projects is unviable commercially. One need to ponder the commercial feasibility of large dams like 1500 MW Tipaimukh dam that will requires massive investment of over Rs 10,000 crore by 2020.

The signing of MoU and PPA for Loktak Downstream project need a clear reflection to address the prolonged demands of the indigenous peoples of Manipur to decommission the Ithai Barrage of 105 MW Loktak HEP Project. With the Government of Manipur agreeing to purchase the entire power from the Loktak downstream project, the ultimate question is whether it will economical or at a loss of State exchequer. The Government of Haryana refused to purchase power from 1200 MW Teesta III Hydroelectric project due to the high cost the power despite the PPA signed earlier.

NHPC is least bothered of the untold suffering inflicted by its Loktak HEP. NHPC today becomes a perfect symbol of corporate arrogance, blatant disregard of peoples’ voices and arbitration of all human rights norms. Entrusting the rivers, land and forest of Manipur to an unaccountable corporate body like the NHPC to build more dams like the 66 MW Loktak Downstream project and 1500 MW Tipaimukh dam over Leimatak and Barak Rivers would be suicidal for the people and environment of Manipur. With the push for 66 MW Loktak Downstream Project, NHPC proves its vision of development is detached from the development needs of the people of Manipur. The dismal performance of NHPC, its unaccountability and disrespect of indigenous peoples are reasons rife to restrict it from Manipur.

The construction of LDP project is irrational as the premise of utilizing water discharged from 105 MW Loktak HEP Project would only mean continued suffering of communities and total devastation of Loktak wetlands ecosystem in Manipur. The Loktak HEP project also failed to provide irrigation water as originally planned, in addition to the livelihood impacts and human rights violations on indigenous communities depending on Loktak wetlands for survival. The Government of Manipur and Government of India should urgently initiate steps to review and decommission the Ithai Barrage of Loktak project conceding the prolonged demands of the people of Manipur, instead of insisting on construction of another unsustainable dam project. The Government of Manipur should review and revoke the Power Purchasing Agreement with NHPC, given the high cost and lack of feasibility of the proposed 66 MW Loktak Downstream project. The MoU signed for the project should be revoked. The construction of the project is still pre-mature and the continued operation of 105 MW Loktak Multipurpose Hydroelectric Project and the project together will intensify suffering of communities.

The proposed financing request by the Government of India to Japan International Cooperation Agency for Loktak downstream project should be stopped, considering the larger implications and human rights violations unleashed by hydropower projects in Manipur like the Loktak Project and the Mapithel dam and further, the unaccountability of corporate bodies. The JICA should stop financing dams in Manipur and related supporting infrastructure as mega dams have caused enough hardship, much inconveniences and sufferings to the people of Manipur.

The increased irrationality of hydel projects as energy source amid the growing viability of alternative options like solar energy need be carefully considered to achieve energy sustainability in Manipur.

Destruction of Manipur’s land and resources for the profit of irresponsible multinational companies like NHPC should be stopped forever. The failure and irrationality of dams and wastage of scarce public resources to build such unsustainable projects with multifaceted implications on people and environment in Manipur need be fully reviewed. Recognition of indigenous peoples’ development wishes and self-determined rights is crucial in all development decision making and processes.  

(The views expressed are the writer’s own)

First Published:Sept. 29, 2020, 11:46 a.m.

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