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Edited Image Courtesy: pmp.gov.np
Modi Government’s governance skills for big-ticket infrastructure projects would come under global gaze with the start of the process of seeking mandatory approvals for Nepal-India Pancheshwar multipurpose project (PMP).
This Rs 34,971.94-crore power-cum-irrigation project in the Himalayan foothills bristles with challenging environmental and social issues whose management requires proactive approach. The five-star activists, who are a thorn in Mr. Narendra Modi’s inclusive growth agenda, are likely to exploit issues to spark anti-dam protest and public interest litigation (PIL). More of this later.
Mooted way back in 1956, the project would comprise two dams – Panchaeshwar dam with a total power generation capacity of 5600 MW and the downstream Rupaligad Re-regulating dam with a capacity of 240 MW. The project’s revival and fast-tracking follows Prime Minister Modi’s two visits to Nepal in 2014. The visits paved the way for multi-facet bilateral cooperation in the power sector. 
To be completed in eight years from the date of securing all approvals, the project would supply power with an estimated levellized tariff of Rs 8.77/Kwh. It would also irrigate 245,000 hectares in Hardoi and Shahjahanpur districts of Uttar Pradesh and 13,000 hectares in Nepal, apart from significantly minimizing the risk of floods. 
According to Ministry of Water Resources (MWR), “The project will generate about 8378 GWh per year that will meet a substantial part of the energy and peak power demand of the Northern India. The project can also simultaneously cover the medium and long-term energy requirements of Nepal.” 
The rockfill Pancheshwar dam would be developed on Mahakali/Sarada River at a site that forms the international boundary between India and Nepal. It would be 315 metre high and 869 metre long reservoir. It would have the capacity to hold 53.44 million cubic metres of water. 
On 31st March 2015, MWR applied for first-stage environmental clearance for the project. MWR has submitted to Ministry of Environment and Forests (MOEF) the proposed terms of reference (TOR) for environmental impact assessment (EIA) of the project. EIA would cover worst-case scenario studies.
Apart from public hearing-followed final environmental clearance, the project would require other statutory approvals such as forest clearance, wildlife clearance, and tribals’ forest rights approval under the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act.
In August 2014, MWR constituted Pancheshwar Development Authority (PDA) to develop, implement and operate the project. PDA is an autonomous entity with equal representation from both the countries. The project would get rare tax exemptions. 
According to Central Electricity Authority (CEA), PDA, in its second meeting held on November 18-19, 2014, assigned to public sector enterprise, WAPCOS, the job of updating the detailed project report on PMP. 
The project would be implemented within the framework of Mahakali Treaty signed by the two countries in February 1996. It provides for integrated development of the river including Sarada Barrage, Tanakpur Barrage and Pancheshwar Project.
According to Project Feasibility Report (PFR), the Treaty’s main principle include equal entitlement for both the countries in the utilization of the river without prejudice to their respective existing consumptive uses of the water.
The total energy generated by the project is to be shared equally between India and Nepal. A portion of Nepal’s share of electricity shall be sold to India. The quantum of such energy and its price shall be mutually agreed upon between the Parties, it says. 
It adds: “The cost of the project shall be borne by the parties in proportion to the benefits accruing to them. Both the Parties shall jointly endeavor to mobilize the finance required for the implementation of the Project.”
The project structures, including the reservoir area, would lie in Almora, Champawat and Pithoragarh districts of Uttarakhand and in Baitadi and Dharchula districts of Nepal.
The Main reservoir of Pancheshwar would submerge 11600 hectares in India and 4000 hectares in Nepal. This area includes agricultural land, reserve forests and protected forest. The project would require resettlement and rehabilitation of several thousand inhabitants in both the countries. PFR has relied on outdated data about the number of project-affected persons that was collected in 1987. 
As put by PFR, “The project area is mostly covered with Sal forests, which could be classified as moderately thick. One endangered tree species,Alstonia Scholaris, is located in the project area.”
The document has listed many animals that can be found in project and catchment area. It has identified some of them as endangered or migratory. 
It says: “This region is rich in Mammalian fauna i.e. Sambhar, Barking deer, wild boar, Jackal, etc. The catchment area harboured a large number of big cats some time back. However, growth of human settlement has narrowed the wildlife habitat in this area to a significant extent. Due to terrain characteristics, the sighting of wildlife is poor.”
In proposed TOR, MWR has admitted that the project could be “affected by natural disasters causing environmental damage (e.g. floods, earthquakes, landslides, cloudburst etc).” It is located in high risk seismic zone IV of Seismic Zoning Map of India. 
As put by proposed TOR, “A dam break analysis shall be conducted to simulate hypothetical failure of dam including preparation of inundation maps. The dam break shall be conducted for scenario considering simultaneous failure of main dam and reregulating dam. The study shall be conducted using HECRAS model. A Disaster Management Plan (DMP shall be prepared for dealing with emergency situation. It shall include emergency preparedness plan, surveillance plan, evacuation plan etc including communication system.”
According to an analyst, the disclosures in the proposed TOR & PFR can be used by NGOs to swing public opinion against the project. Nepal and India would have to be on the guard against the risk of certain countries funding NGOs through complex web of financial flows to sabotage improvement in bilateral relations. The Governments of both the countries would have to outsmart NGOs through a pre-project local development agenda.
An environmentalists-dominated committee of experts constituted by MOEF following Supreme Court’s order sounded negative about Pancheshwar project in its report submitted in April 2014.
The Committee, whose report is available only on  a few NGO websites, points out that the ultimate installed potential of 27039 MW assessed by Uttarakhand Jal Vidyut Nigam Limited (UJVNL) is almost 50% higher than the hitherto authoritative figure of 18175 MW determined by CEA in 1987.
The Report says: “The UJVNL figure includes the 6630 MW Pancheshwar dam whose construction requires joint action by the Nepal government. That appears unlikely in the foreseeable future. Also, in November 2010 the NGRBA took a decision to notify the 100 km stretch from Gangotri to Uttarkashi as an Eco-Sensitive Zone (ESZ). The GoI notified this decision in December 2012. It led to the cancellation of several dams within the ESZ with a total installed capacity of about 2040 MW. Hence a more realistic estimate of the ultimate state hydro potential would be about 18,379 MW.”
PMP’s fate is expected to be influenced by the ongoing hearing in the Court over hydro-electric projects in Uttrakhand State.
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