Uttarakhand’s Furious Himalayan Flood Could Bury India’s Hydropower Program
SRINAGAR, Uttarakhand, India – On May 24, 2003, as part a national plan to generate more electricity from sources other than coal, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee directed India to pursue one of the most daring energy production campaigns in history.
Vajpayee called on his nation of more than 1 billion people to break through corruption, bureaucracy, and its own doubts and build 162 big hydroelectric power projects by 2025. The dams and power stations would be capable of generating 50,000 megawatts of electricity, the equivalent of 50 big coal or nuclear-fired power plants.
At the time, India’s utility sector had the capacity to generate 108,000 megawatts – one-tenth as much as the electrical sector in the United States. Some 27,000 megawatts, or a quarter of India’s total energy production, came from hydropower.
Vajpayee’s announcement was robed in the formality and national determination comparable to U.S. President John Kennedy’s 1960s plan to land a man on the moon and bring him back safely within a decade. Energy sourced from moving water, Vajpayee said, was desperately needed in a country demoralized by hourly supply disruptions, daily brownouts and regular blackouts.
“Power is a critical input for any economic activity,” the prime minister said. “Its sufficiency is a prerequisite for speeding up India’s economic growth and improving the living standards of all our citizens. Without power, we cannot empower our people in the economic dimension of their lives. It is a major determinant of the quality of life.”
And just like the American space program, not much was discussed in public by the government about the extraordinary risks. Meeting the prime minister’s vision would be technically challenging and extremely dangerous.
Almost all of the new projects — 113 dams and power stations capable of generating 40,000 megawatts of electricity —- were planned for five Himalayan states. Of those, 33 of the new hydropower schemes were targeted for the high mountain valleys in Uttarakhand.