Itanagar / New Delhi: Even as Arunachal Pradesh rushes to produce much of the power India’s countless cities and villages so desperately need, there is a major snag springing up on the horizon: transmitting all that electricity through the infamous “chicken’s neck”.
Power Grid Corp. of India Ltd, or PowerGrid, will have to set up 12 high-voltage transmission lines carrying 46,000MW of power through a 22km strip that tenuously connects the North-East with the rest of the country.
India has been working on a so-called integrated grid that will connect the current five regional grids in the country. This will help meet its deadline and promise—“power for everyone by 2012”.
The power potential of Arunachal Pradesh, where companies are investing nearly Rs4 trillion to produce more than 55,000MW of hydropower in a decade, can make or break that promise.
But the difficulties in transmitting this electricity to the rest of India are enormous.
For one, the 12 transmission lines PowerGrid plans will create a tremendous electromagnetic field (EMF) in that available thin strip of land that could mean evacuating all the people from the area.
Ground reality: The Lower Subansiri project. PowerGrid will have to set up 12 high-voltage lines in a narrow stretch to transmit power from the region. Experts say these will not only be easy targets, but the electromagnetic field created will make it impossible for people to live in the zone. (Indranil Bhoumik /Mint)
Add to it the fact that this area borders the neighbouring countries of Bhutan, Nepal and Bangladesh, and the security issues start looking ominous.
Planning for evacuation of the electricity has already begun, said a PowerGrid official at a substation in Arunachal Pradesh. He did not want to be identified because he is not authorized to speak to media.
“The capacity to generate power here is huge, but we do not have a transmission capacity to evacuate this power, and there are (other) challenges, too,” he said. “Implementation will start in two years, once we have a solution for the chicken neck. When the system is ready, it will be the longest transmission corridor in the world that is carrying this much power.”
But the PowerGrid official’s colleague in New Delhi, who also did not wish to be identified, disagreed with the characterization. “We are already in the process of setting up a 6,000MW transmission link through the chicken neck for which even an ADB (Asian Development Bank) team visited the site as we will need some funding for the project from them. We have never heard of any such objections. There is no other option available for this evacuation,” this official said.
But even supporters of the project cannot deny the challenges of geography. All 12 high-voltage transmission lines will run over mountains, forests, villages, rivers and plains from deep in Arunachal Pradesh and arrive at the 22km-wide stretch. Here, they will have to bunch together, huddling in close proximity?to?each?other.
Experts say this is dangerous because it makes for an easy target for attacks or accidents, and the EMF created by these bunched-up power lines will make it impossible for people to live or work in the zone.
Project watchers say it is likely to become an important issue because West Bengal’s second largest city, Siliguri — with a population of more than a quarter-million people—lies in the path of these lines.
Mint first reported on the challenges of transporting power on 17 September in a front-page story. Then, Shubhranshu Patnaik, an executive director at audit firm PricewaterhouseCoopers, had said the project must continue—through the chicken’s neck or an alternative means.
“India has already signed an umbrella agreement with Bhutan for power utilization. However, the alternatives have to be looked into. The feasibility of the project has to be established as the chicken neck has some issues due to the limited right of way and (the) ecology of the area. There is an alternative available through West Bengal,” Patnaik had said in an interview.
Others fear the project is a security risk. This strip of land was drawn at independence in 1947 to give India access to the North-East. Sandwiched between Nepal, Bangladesh and Bhutan—with many sensitive installations around—this area is classified as sensitive, and is heavily patrolled by the Assam Rifles, the Border Security Force and the West Bengal police. It is a popular transit route for illegal entries by Bangladeshi rebels and Nepalese insurgents.
Security experts warn that militant organizations such as the United Liberation Front of Asom, or Ulfa, and the National Socialist Council of Nagalim, or NSCN, also have been using this corridor for their movement.
According to DefenceIndia, a New Delhi management consultancy firm for defence issues, Pakistan’s intelligence agency, Inter-Services Intelligence, is using the Siliguri corridor—as the chicken’s neck is also known—to smuggle arms and narcotics from Bangladesh into the north-eastern states of India.
There is also a technical risk. “If even one line trips, the entire system can come crashing down like a circus tent, poles and all. The impact of grid failure can be devastating in this case,” said Prayas Energy Group’s N. Sreekumar.
Prayas Energy Group is a Pune-based non-profit that analyses policy in the Indian power sector.
Sreekumar said that ideally, there should be much more distance between every line.
Right now, there are only two places in India where 10 transmission lines run in close parallels—in Singrauli in Uttar Pradesh and Farakka in West Bengal—“but these run for a very short distance and, in both these places, NTPC Ltd owns all the land through which it runs and all the land surrounding it,” said Sreekumar. “So it is not clear what the EMF will be around these lines over such long distances. No studies have been done.”
Unlike other parts of the world, India does not have any laws governing EMF radiation. Other countries have been grappling with this issue for many years now. After a seven-year, $9 million (Rs38.5 crore now) study, the California health department published a report on power frequency EMF in 2002 which concluded that EMFs increased the risk of childhood and adult leukaemia, adult brain cancer, Lou Gehrig’s disease and miscarriage, suicide.
In Connecticut in the US, the government is required to bury power lines that pass near residences, schools, hospitals and other sensitive facilities.
To avoid creating a massive EMF in a strategic area such as Siliguri, the only solution would be to spread out the transmission lines, which means these lines would have spill over into neighbouring Bhutan or Bangladesh—posing yet another security challenge.
“I don’t know what the political ramifications of doing that are, but that is the only safe way to bring power into mainland India,” said Sreekumar.
P.R. Chari, former bureaucrat and research professor at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, said it was not clear how such an arrangement would work since getting Bangladesh to work with India has always been so difficult. The recent Maitree Express trains plying between Dhaka and Kolkata were an exception, he said.
“Historically, they have never agreed to anything and see every issue as political. It was with great difficulty that they agreed to the rail link,” Chari said. “Bhutan may agree to such an arrangement due to India’s long relationship with that country, and will be paid for such an arrangement. I am not so sure about Bangladesh.”
(This is the fourth in a series of articles on Arunachal Pradesh. Part 5 will focus on the issue of religion in the north-eastern state, where—fearing the wave of Christian conversions in the region—tribal groups have institutionalized their religious practices, borrowing ideas from Christianity, Hinduism and Buddhism.)