Death On The Beas – Many Questions, One Cover Up

It is quite evident that the Larji project has not been following the prescribed safety and environmental protocols that its licence imposes on it, and that the practices it does follow are harmful and damaging to the environment and the residents of that area.

As more details emerge about the disaster at Thalout, and as the Himachal Pradesh Government continues to obfuscate, one thing is becoming clearer by the day – this was no accident, this was manslaughter by a sovereign entity that has repeatedly ignored warnings about its reckless tampering with the environment.

The Larji Project, directly responsible for this tragedy, was always a misconceived, ill-designed and environmentally harmful hydel project where malfeasance has reigned from the beginning.

It has created a generating capacity of 126 MW at a cost of more than 1200 crores, which is at least 30% more than the standard cost.

Generating efficiency of a run of the river hydel project is provided by the “head” created, or the “fall” of the water which provides the force to turn the turbines.

The engineers of the HP State Electricity Board (HPSEB) turned engineering logic on its head by using huge volumes of water instead to provide the force, pushing up all costs.

It now appears that in order to reduce costs they have severely compromised on safety provisions and have failed to provide, or operationalise, the safety features that a project located in such a densely populated region, along a National Highway, demands.

Himachal CM@Beas Tragedy Site: In enquiry or a cover up?
Himachal [email protected] Tragedy Site: In enquiry or a cover up?

Notwithstanding the Himachal Pradesh Chief Minister’s clean chit to his officers,and the defence offered by the latter, there are many questions that need quick answers.

[1]  Why was it felt necessary to suddenly release 200 cusecs of water at 7.00 PM?

HPSEB has said that they were asked by the northern grid authorities to back down on power generation as the system was overloaded.

This is a ridiculous defence for many reasons. Firstly, at the time of the incident the whole of north India had been subjected to a prolonged heat wave with demand for power outstripping supply everywhere: there can be no question of the system not requiring power.

Secondly, the period 7.00 PM to 10.00 PM is the peak period when the power demand spikes exponentially: this in fact is when hydel projects are specifically supposed to provide “peaking power” (something thermal plants cannot do), not back down!

Thirdly, why was only Larji ordered by the Grid Authority to back down? – it is my information that none of the other hydel projects in Himachal were asked to do so.

Something smells very bad here.

[2]   Who cleared the release of such huge volumes of water?

It is inconceivable that this could have been done at the level of the Resident Engineer, the nominal scapegoat.

Impounded water for a reservoir based project is its inventory – it is literally to be valued in rupees, for this is what will generate the electricity.

Releasing it without sufficient reason is like an industrialist setting fire to his raw materials. So the decision had to have been taken at a higher level and we must be told the facts.

[3]  Even if generation was to be reduced on that evening (an argument I don’t buy), was it necessary to release the waters?

It needs to be investigated at what level the dam waters stood that evening and whether there was a cushion to retain the waters below the danger level.

Since there have been no rains over the week before the tragedy and only snow melt was filling the reservoir, I have a feeling that there was perhaps no urgency to release the waters in such quantities.

[4]  Release of huge volumes of water suddenly is always fraught with downstream risks, and that is why dam managers always effect the discharge in a calibrated manner. The only exception is in the case of massive inflows posing a danger to the dam itself.

Was that the case in this instance?

If there was no such danger then why could the release not have been done in a gradual manner, providing a calibrated warning to those downstream?

[5]  All hydel projects in Himachal are by law required to maintain a constant discharge of 15% of mean flows from the dam, and to maintain an automated record of the same for inspection.

In a report submitted to the HP High Court in 2010 I had categorically stated that NOT A SINGLE PROJECT IN THE STATE WAS COMPLYING WITH THIS REQUIREMENT.

I am absolutely certain that the Larji project too was not compliant on this fateful day. TV videos and still photos by the students themselves of the site establish this.

I have myself crossed this patch of the river many times and have always found the river course downstream of the dam bone dry.

This factor / omission assumes importance and relevance to the tragedy because had this discharge been maintained faithfully and continuously there would have been a natural partial depletion of the reservoir and there would have been no need to suddenly release 200 cusecs of  water, with its disastrous consequences.

[6]  Was the water actually released to flush out the silt from the dam? If so, why are the project authorities concealing this fact?

All dams regularly resort to this flushing, so why is Larji being coy about it?

Is it because admitting it would then raise the question – why do it at night, almost surreptitiously?

Which in turn would lend credence to the claims of the local villagers that the project personnel are in league with the illegal sand mafia, that the flushing is always done late in the evening so that the flushed out sand can be conveniently removed at night.

[7]  If there is an iota of truth in the above claim then the role of the Mining Department and the Mandi Forest Department also needs to be investigated.

They could not have been unaware of this illegal nocturnal pursuit: even the TV grabs show well defined truck tyre tracks on the banks of the river at this site!

[8] Was there a warning system installed at all? If it existed was it activated on that evening?

All evidence points to the contrary and I would rather believe the local villagers than the dam management or even the Chief Minister who has been misinformed.

In fact all logs of that day should have been immediately seized by the administration to verify this point – by not doing so the government has by now given enough time to the project to tamper with, create and falsify the records.

Moreover, the question is not only whether a couple of sirens were installed as a proforma measure in Thalout bazaar and other locations, but whether it was an effective system, whether signages were put up along the road and river banks, whether a schedule of release (of water) was prepared in advance and given wide publicity, whether this schedule was strictly adhered to.

It is quite evident that the Larji project has not been following the prescribed safety and environmental protocols that its licence imposes on it, and that the practices it does follow are harmful and damaging to the environment and the residents of that area.

It has not installed a “fish ladder” (to enable migrating fish to move along and over the dam) as its environmental clearance mandates it do.

I learn from a reliable source that the contractor who was awarded the job has been given the full payment but has absconded without completing the work!

Quite evidently, as John Wayne might have said: ” There do be plenty of money in them thar waters…!”

It is imperative that the CONSENT TO OPERATE which the Larji project has been given should be immediately suspended by the HP Pollution Control Board for its prima facie violations of safety and environmental regulations. (This will be no loss to the country since by its own admission it has been asked by the Grid to reduce its generation!).

Thereafter a judicial enquiry MUST be instituted as I have argued in my previous article.

The rot runs deep not only in the Larji project but in all hydel projects in the state thanks to the laissez faire attitude adopted by ALL state governments in the past.

All aspects of the affair, including the points raised above, need to be thoroughly investigated, and perhaps completely new protocols need to be drawn up.

An enquiry by a Divisional Commissioner (which is what the government has ordered) is not adequate.

I personally know the Divisional Commissioner. He is a fine officer but his job is a non starter with the Chief Minister already giving a premature clean chit to his administration.

 This is the very least we can do for the twenty four young lives we have snuffed out in the name of development.

Avay Shukla retired from the Indian Administrative Service in December 2010. He is a keen environmentalist and loves the mountains. He divides his time between Delhi and his cottage in a small village above Shimla. He used to play golf at one time but has now run out of balls. He blogs at http://avayshukla.blogspot.in/

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8 Comments

  1. says: Nikhil

    I agree with you questions raised sir. Larji officials are responsible for this hilarious act, side by side students and their respective authorities are equally responsible,as per video footage, they we’re standing in the middle of river, which is never a safe place. Well this ongoing season is tourist season, and officials know these things very properly,then why they did this blunder mistake of leaving water and though at night time. As natural disasters are unstoppable, we agree but this was a man made disaster what I feel. No fencing, no alarms, nothing was there, a kuchha road is also their which shows illegal mining. Now rather than doing politics govt should take immidiate steps of fencing around the banks of river including all power projects in himachal with alarm signals installed there. A proper time should be fixed for opening gates so that everyone is aware including tourists,for that sign boards are mandatory on the main roads as well as on banks of rivers.life never comes again if lost once.so take it seriously and work for it without delaying any step. Disaster management teams should be present on spot. Equipments like nets, speed boats should be available 24×7 in case of emergency. localites have heir moral responsibility to inform any tourist if they come in touch with. CCTV could be installed with in a range of 3-5 km on banks to have a look before leaving water from gates.Tourist should be treated properly as they have no one of their own in other states, this could be a condition for any resident of any state. Empathy and sympathy should be on par to help others. People of himachal are always willing to help others. But case in point is, is himachal ready for any disaster or any natural calamity?

  2. says: Manohar Thakur

    Some official did not do his duty, and students are careless,they must have to act responsible…The locals were trying to warn them.
    But might be they thought water pressure will not go up.There was a clear cut warning board written. Don’t you think so students were bit careless and you are totally blaming officials. Nonsense it is.
    Yes it’s a big disaster.

  3. says: Akhil Shama

    With due regards to all the learned personnel commenting above, i doubt if any of them are from, or even are remotely related to hydro-power stuff as a whole. No doubt, loss of life in any form (well in this case it was about our future engineers) is unfortunate and can never be justified. But rather than focusing on the main loophole, we as a normal Indian have a tendency to play the blame game and we in fact feel a bit lighter from inside when we point out or rather make out the so called “what i think” reason, and put it on any damn body’s shoulders (sarkari karamcharis are the usual scapegoats).
    Not to bother the readers’ more about the subject, i’d like to clarify the point wise observations made at the very origin of this thread.
    First of all the power generated from any hydro-power source is ‘just’ not dependable on the so called head as u say it. And no engineer is dumb or i’d say perspicacious enough to have turned engineering logic on its head to generate the required power just out of the discharge quotient or as u say huge amount of water itself. Any senior secondary school textbook would provide you the required formula, which is
    P=ηρQgh
    where
    P is power in watts
    η is the dimensionless efficiency of the turbine
    ρ is the density of water in kilograms per cubic metre
    Q is the flow in cubic metres per second
    g is the acceleration due to gravity
    h is the height difference between inlet and outlet
    So the power generates is equally dependent on the “huge volumes of water” and on the height difference too. No need to clarify more.
    And as about further observations raised,
    1&2) SIR, there seriously wont have been a sudden need to release 200 cusecs of water at 7.00 PM intentionally or deliberately or even unconsciously. It all depends on the grid requirements which are governed by central regulatory bodies as to whether to keep any particular unit in operation or not. The whole procedure is well chalked out that there is no room for doubt in it. Trust me sir when I say it is NOT at all the whims and fancies of the Residential Engineers at site or any higher official which rules the starting or stoppage of the machines, it is entirely grid’s concern.
    3) This being the peak season for summers, the discharge in these snow borne rivers is usually 5 to 6 times of what it is in the lean seasons. Also Larji structure being just a barrage and not a dam is not capable of storing water. After a certain limit, the radial gates have to be opened else the water will itself start flowing above the structure and the “1200 crore” structure along with its “inhabitants” would have been perished within no time and the IRONY is that the water would have still flowed to the said place along with dismantled ruins which would have made it a bit more lethal.
    4) As about your concern at point no. 4, I second your thoughts and MAYBE the disaster would have been avoided if the gates had been opened gradually as per norms.
    5) Regarding maintaining a constant discharge of 15% of MEAN flows from the dam, and to maintain an automated record of the same for inspection, I’d request you to kindly focus on the word MEAN flows which signifies the 15% of natural flow of the river. And going by the video, we are quite sure that at least 25%, if not 15% of the natural discharge was there in the river, before the mishap occurred. Also it is not just you and me, who knows these details, the local inhabitant are much more vigilant these days and even a single stone turned in their vicinity is being reported to the central bodies these days. As far as I know the minimum flow issue is being taken so seriously that it is being monitored through satellite pictures these days. So let us say there are many others there whose headache this issue is.
    6&7) About these points, I’d say my post has already lost its catch being too long by now, so I don’t consider these “iotas” to be discussed here, right now.
    8) As about seizing of logs concerning safety precaution records or the hooters to be specific, that is a different issue which can’t be discussed here as you’ve already confirmed there tampering and falsifying BY NOW.
    But regarding the installation of couple of sirens in Thalaout bazaar and other locations, it is the real point to be discussed here. I mean are the dam authorities expected to install sirens/hooters all along the downstream flow of the river till the next dam and then the next dam to take over the case of installing hooters and so on till the river reach its physical borders or what. The location of mishap is about 2 Km or maybe more downstream from the dam and the dam authorities have already installed (as you’ve confirmed the “PORFORMA” measure) the sirens in the nearby vicinity. How more and up to what long are they expected to do so, is the point to be deliberated thoroughly.
    As far as signage and boards are concerned, let me share a link here with the readers https://www.facebook.com/SHIMLA.AnupRanta/posts/734068649965008.
    The link says it all, even if there were regular warning boards at the site, none of them or maybe if I was there would have adhered to.
    About the fish ladders not being installed, I guess its like comparing Sachin being not able to score a century because Tiger Woods had an affair. Its just so illogical. Even if you are pointing towards it just in context of “SAFETY AND ENVIRONMENT” protocols required then I’d request you to kindly visit the dam once more (as you’ve already crossed it many times and this being the peak tourist season too), because I’ve been living nearby since last 4 years and as far as I can remember, the fish ladder was always there. Just have a look at downstream face of the barrage on the left bank and you’ll find it.
    And about your reliable source, I’d confirm you that such reliable sources are not so reliable these days, because there is hardly any hydro-power project that I know, where contractors have left the site without finishing their job, but about getting the full payments, I doubt that.
    So the bottom line is that at no point am I being insensitive to the mishap that occurred here, but what I am trying to say is that still we are not accepting the fact. Rather than changing our own mindset by creating awareness amongst ourselves and teaching our younger generation when not to play with fire and when to burn the stage if required, we still are pacifying our guilt with this stupid blame game. The guilt is that if I’d been at that place, I’d be the first one to reach that stone in the middle of the river. At this age, that is human tendency, to be the coolest one, or at least to predict so, not only to the contemporaries out there, but also to rest of the buddies by clicking a cool pic and having an account of my coolness posted on Facebook and then counting the comments and likes underneath. This accident should at least be taken as a reality check and at least we should try if not force of our gen next to be aware of your surroundings and act accordingly. May be that’ll loose their innocence and exhuberance but there is a price for every good thing out there.

    I guess most if not all the observations have been deliberated. Also Sir, there never was an iota of disrespect to all the points you’ve made, but maybe it is the vent to all the grudges for wrong perspectives of hydro-power being the villain, that these media guys are displaying these days just to increase their TRP’s. And I guess I took your post also one of them. So no hard feelings.

    P.S. – I am not at all concerned with Larji Dam Officials.

  4. says: Avay Shukla

    Akhil, I take your comments in the spirit they are intended but some of them need to be rebutted to set the record straight:
    [1] Larji HEP is not a financially viable project and never was: The State Electricity Commission, while finalising its power tariff, has accepted a project completion cost of only Rs. 900 crore, whereas its actual cost is about Rs.1220 crore. This means it won’t get credit for the extra Rs. 320 crore it has spent and therefore its IRR will suffer.
    [2] The primary reason for this huge cost, as I said, is the small ” head” it obtains. T o make up for this it has to rely on larger volume( of water). This pushes up all the associated costs- the size of the Headrace and Tailrace tunnels, the size of the desilting chambers, the turbines etc. Both civil and mechanical costs go up, as do maintenance costs subsequently. That is why the per MW capital cost for Larji is Rs. 10 crore wheres the standard should be between Rs. 7 and Rs.8 crore.
    [3] Not only is Larji a poorly designed project, it is also a badly executed one. It has had a time over-run of almost five years and a cost over-run of about five crores.
    This is the background to its now trying to save on safety and environment related measures.
    [4] Granted that it is the Load Despatch Center and the Grid authority that decides generation levels of various projects at various times. But doesn’t it make you wonder why only Larji was asked to back down at a time when all other projects in the state( INCLUDING THE PRIVATE ONES) were allowed to produce power BEYOND their capacity? I smell a rat and a deeper scam here: with the differential tariff regime now in place projects get a higher tariff for power generated at peak time- this in fact is when hydel projects make their real money! Was the Load Despatch Center favouring the private generators at the cost of a govt. project? How long has this been going on? And why did HPSEB ( the owner of Larji) not object to this, or bring this anomaly to the notice of the SEC? Something is very fishy here and needs to be thoroughly investigated.
    As regards the ” fault” of the visiting students, I agree that they too should have been more careful. But was their fault so severe that they should have paid for it with their lives? Safety systems are designed to compensate for such faults, which Larji’s did not. And yes, sirens need to be installed till the very last point where the waters reach- if you can dam every meter of a river, and impound every drop of water in it, then you can certainly protect every single downstream inhabitant from the effects of your actions. And why only sirens?- there should be CCTV cameras along its entire stretch and mobile vans to physically and individually warn people if the cameras show the need for doing so. Welfare and safety of the people has to be at the heart of any project, not profits.
    Let us admit that we have been found wanting, and let us not assign blame to those who lost their lives. Let us see this as an opportunity to rectify the defects in our protocols, practices, thinking and systems.

    1. Some suggestions and I hope dam/tourism and state government hears them some day.

    2. Build welcome centers at every entrance of state. Provide resting place, vending machines, collect entrance fees there and restaurant. Here is an example: http://www.dot.state.pa.us/Internet/Bureaus/pdoccr.nsf/WelcomeCenterPage?OpenFrameset
    3. Hooters are available which can be heard even around 10 miles.
    4. Keep signs inside enclosures at every accessible area of river and make them in Hindi and English.
    5. Simple steps, would help generate revenue for state, would look good on state and also would help protect lives.

  5. says: Akhil

    Sir, if Larji HEP was not an economical viable project and still gets its clearance from CEA and other regulatory bodies, then there is something which needs to be addressed at their end, not at the intended one.
    Also if there being a time over-run of about 5 years then i am sure the cost of the project has escalated mainly due to Establishment cost and IDC and not due to change in scope or dimensions of the work. Also price escalation in this time would have had a major role to play in overall increase of cost. If the change in scope or dimensions had a role in cost of project, am sure it might just be a minor one. Also it being an underground project, it is vulnerable to and am sure might have experienced many geological surprises which may have effected on time as well as cost overrun

    Also about sirens and hooters along with CCTVs all along the stretch of river, how many such hooters and sirens we see in case of road transport or railways where we see much more casualties on a daily basis. Its not that dams impound water for entire stretch of river, its just the length between intake and trt outlets.

    its just that these games can go on and on, but just painting a wrong picture about hydropower wont help any.

  6. says: Bhugol Chandel

    This is a great tragedy. As a Himachali and knowing the local factors it has moved me very much. I am very much surprised to read today that this tragedy has not changed a thing and we may soon hear the same thing again. It seems as 25 lives are not enough to make any change in people behavior to play with dangers. While the whole country is debating about the tragedy and trying to find reasons and fix the onus on the guilty something surprising is still happening. See the below link what people have learnt from this mishap?

    http://himachalwatcher.com/urnewz/25-lives-lost-still-not-enough/#.U51M4zhOm2d

    We all can have many arguments of faulty dam design, inadequate number of sirens, excessive water discharge etc. which may all be valid and helful as safety measures to avoid such a mishap in the future. However, none of these arguments are going to replace common sense and responsibility of personal safety. Nothing is going to help when people engage in reckless and dangerous behavior. Looking at the picture of the site, there is clearly a sign, warning people to stay away from the waters. Now the language of the sign may be in question. But then, in how many Indian and foreign languages are you going to put these signs?

    The most crucial factor which would have saved these lives is if these students had paid attention to the local people who asked them to come out of the river when they start noticing rise in the water level.

    Loss of lives at such young age is a very big tragedy. However, we all need to be careful while making judgemental statements. The worse thing which I see is how the political parties have started giving it a political spin. Hindsight is 20/20, so let us learn from our mistakes.

    Educating the tourists coming to Himachal about the dangers of tourism in Himachal is a good preventive and cost effective step in this direction. I was at pain to know about some of the problems these tourist are causing. No respect for law and order, beating police persons on duty who stops them, not paying restaurants and gas stations, teasing school going girls and walking women on the roads, and not letting other vehicle to over take them. These all problems can be addressed by educating these people.

    May God give strength to parents and relatives of these chikdren to bear their loss and the departed souls rest in peace! Hope every one can do their best to prevent such mishaps in the future.

  7. says: kshitij thakur

    A very good article .
    But I think rather than playing blame games which is what is always done .
    And putting the personal interests of anyone aside .Let’s focus on the problem which we as a nation we r facing and try to find solutions . Let the law take it’s course and let’s all come together to make sure no such incident happens again in the future . Because if we don’t we all our collectively responsible then for these type of tragedies and accidents .So let’s work collectively as a society and a nation rather than working personally.
    God bless all.

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