As someone with a distinguished career of over 30 years in hydropower, it was only fitting that Devendra Kumar Sharma was, in April 2017, appointed to run one of India’s most successful dams, the Bhakra Dam, immortalised in the words of Jawaharlal Nehru as the “New Temple of Resurgent India”. Sharma is the new chairman of the Bhakra Beas Management Board (BBMB).
As a child growing up in Bilaspur near the dam, he used to be fascinated by all the engineering challenges it faced. A kind of mythology grew up around Bhakra Dam. On a more humdrum level, when engineers used to build roads to his village using survey instruments like levels and theodolites, Sharma, as a young boy, watched them and felt inspired to become a civil engineer, a desire that was encouraged by his school teachers.
Before taking on his current job, Sharma was associated with the Himachal Pradesh State Electricity Board for more than 10 years. He was instrumental in implementing and commissioning the Tata Hydro Power Station in Bhutan that opened the Indo-Bhutan association in hydropower. Recognised for his acumen in implementing power stations, he has also been associated with Larsen & Toubro for its infrastructure development projects.
Sharma cites several reasons for his optimism about the power sector: the approximately 24,500 MW of generation capacity, 8,500 MW of renewable generation capacity and 68,000 MVA of substation capacity that have been added; the fact that the renewable generation capacity addition and transmission capacity addition during 2016 were the highest for any calendar year; and finally, the fact that the energy deficit as well as the peak power deficit in the past year were the lowest for any calendar year.
“With all this progress, the performance of the sector has been very encouraging. And then, you have various policy initiatives by the present government also starting to show results. In such a scenario of highs, it is not easy to look for lows,” he says. But as a hydro professional, he cannot escape acknowledging the fact that the hydro segment has been lagging for a few years now, eclipsed by other faster-growing sectors, with its share in the total energy pie dwindling to 14 per cent, a fall of almost 32 per cent in the past 50 years.
Sharma is keenly aware that only around 31 per cent of the hydropower potential has been harnessed in India whereas countries like Canada and Brazil have harnessed 50-70 per cent of their potential. “Some countries in Europe have harnessed more than even 80 per cent of their hydropower potential,” he adds. But here too, Sharma feels that efforts are being made to put hydro back on its feet after a period of stagnation. Some of the issues that held the sector back have been recognised and are being tackled.
“The main reason for hydro’s declining share in the country’s energy mix has been the consistent non-achievement of targets. Projects have struggled on account of various issues. In spite of various problems however, the significance of hydropower cannot be undermined because of its inherent requirement for grid stability, flexible operation, peak load requirements and flood control,” he says.
Sharma notes that the segment needs to be ramped up through suitable policy initiatives, single-window clearances, tariff innovations, exclusion of social infrastructure costs, treatment of hydro projects as renewable energy projects regardless of their nature (run-of-the-river or storage), introduction of hydropower purchase obligations, levy of GST and transmission charges at par with those for solar projects, bundling of hydropower with renewable energy, deferment of free power (wherever possible), and access to long-term funds at affordable interest rates.
While there may be a need for some of the measures outlined above, the problems bedevilling the segment remain the same as they have for years: land acquisition challenges, environmental issues, difficulty in getting forest and wildlife clearances, elusive financing and evacuation, scarcity of contractors and skilled technicians/workers, law and order problems because many projects are in disturbed areas, interstate disputes, geological surprises that can affect costs and deadlines and, of course, the controversies and complexities of rehabilitation.
“There is an immediate need to treat hydro as a renewable energy source so that incentives are made available to developers. Hydro projects are capital intensive and, therefore, suitable measures need to be taken for arranging financing over a longer period and at lower and more affordable interest rates,” he says.
A graduate in civil engineering from the University of Indore, Sharma pursued his interest in energy abroad. In 1982, he won the Dutch government’s fellowship to study for a master’s in Water Resources Engineering from the Asian Institute of Technology, Bangkok. Later in his career, he attended courses in hydropower in Canada, Sweden, Hungary, Japan and Norway.
Apart from having experience of working in the public sector in India and in Bhutan, he has experience of working in the corporate sector in senior positions for almost six years, constructing hydroelectric projects. But it is primarily in the public sector that he has made contributions, such as in the Nathpa Jhakri project (1,500 MW) in Himachal Pradesh and the Tala Hydroelectric project (1,020 MW) in Bhutan.
While working as managing director, Himachal Pradesh Power Corporation, from 2012 to April 2017, he was responsible for developing hydropower in the state. Two new projects, Kashang (165 MW) located in Kinnaur district and Sainj in Kullu district, were commissioned. A third project, the Sawra Kuddu project (111 MW), is nearing completion except for a small portion of the tunnel. Also during his tenure, two new projects were taken up for construction in Chamba district. “Being from the hills and the district where the Bhakra Dam is located, I was always keen to contribute to the welfare of the people through the development of hydro projects in the state. It is a challenge to work towards the development and construction of hydropower projects. I have done my bit and I am happy with my contribution,” he says.
At BBMB, he feels everyone has to recognise that it is a “unique” organisation, which has been constituted under the Punjab Reorganization Act, 1966, and has “wonderfully” served the people of Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan, Himachal Pradesh and Delhi for more than 50 years. “Like any other organisation, with changing times, BBMB is evolving, especially in the area of technology, renovation, modernisation and upgradation of its power projects. The equipment and various processes are being replaced with new ones. There is a constant purging of people and processes, which are not relevant in today’s time,” he says.
One of Sharma’s main challenges is to ensure that the water of three rivers – the Sutlej, Ravi and Beas – allocated to India under the Indus Treaty of 1960, should be utilised and regulated in such a manner that no water goes across the international border.
The other target is to operate and maintain BBMB power stations in such a manner that whatever water releases are made from the reservoirs of BBMB, goes through the machines of power houses, thereby maximising hydropower generation, which is one of the cheapest available forms of energy in India. Thirdly, Sharma aims to modernise the power houses through the deployment of new technology and best practices. Of course, these goals can only be achieved if the staff is aligned with them. Sharma knows that he has to create synergy among the officers and employees of four partner states, who all come from diverse backgrounds. “Changing their mindset, which is still steeped in older times, replacing older and less efficient methodologies/processes with new ones, and training staff are some of the other challenges we face,” he says.
During his long career, some milestones stand out. One was designing of the Nathpa Dam with unstable slopes above the dam; increasing the installed capacity of the Kol Dam project from 600 MW to 800 MW at its planning stage; construction of the river diversion system of the Tala Dam ahead of schedule, including flooding of its diversion tunnel; construction of a 10 metre wide approach road and two major bridges in strife-torn Jammu & Kashmir; tackling of social issues for the development of a hydropower project in Arunachal Pradesh; and the construction/commissioning of the Kashang project (3×65 MW) having a gross head of 840 metre with a river diversion structure located at more than 9,300 feet elevation. That is quite a list of challenging assignments and it is by no means complete.
Sharma is a team worker. He believes in team building and the creation of high performance and efficient teams. He prefers close monitoring, a good work environment for employees, placement of the right person in the right job, succession planning, assigning of clear responsibility in a quantitative manner, appreciation for good work done, and the use of modern project management tools – all these form elements of his management style.
According to Sharma, “The most rewarding aspect of this job is that we are responsible for providing food, water and energy security to the country in a substantial manner. We are instrumental in ushering in green and white revolutions and accelerating industrialisation in northern India. That kind of contribution gives me satisfaction.”