In the wake of the Uttarakhand disaster, Himachal Pradesh, too, needs to be alert. A timely High Court stay order on blasting work at a hydel power project here, close to an ammunition depot, did just that

This year the possibility of a major accident in the higher Himalayan region was averted when on March 25, the High Court of Himachal Pradesh stayed any further blasting and excavation work on the gigantic 402 MW Shongtong-Karchham (SK) hydel project on Sutlej river in Kinnaur district.

This stay order was highly welcome as it can play an important role in preventing the possibility of serious explosives accident in high-altitude mountains of the State. The place where the blasting and excavation work of the SK hydel project was being carried out was located dangerously close to a huge ammunition depot of the Indian Army and the safety rules of this huge ordnance depot were being violated by the blasting work.

Consequently, the Union Defence Ministry and the Army authorities made repeated requests to the local administration and the State government to avoid blasting and construction work in this area, but to no avail. The Defence Ministry finally approached the High Court to get a stay on the blasting work of the SK project.

Here a question needs to be raised that if the administration was unresponsive to the pleas of the Army and that, too, when safety and security risks were involved, how can it be expected to be sensitive to the needs of ordinary villagers? It is well known that villagers experience various safety risks, loss of forests, pastures and agricultural fields as well as increased threats of landslides due to large-scale and indiscriminate blasting work carried out for dams and other huge construction projects in the Himalayan region.

The Defence Ministry pointed out in its petition that the ammunition depot located in Shongtong Powari area had huge inventory of ammunition and explosives which is sent from here to border areas depending on the requirements. Clearly the timely High Court order has averted the possibility of a big accident that could have taken place due to the blasting work for SK project, threatening the safety of Army personnel stationed here as well as other local people. In addition, wildlife and environment would've been threatened by such an accident.

Following the stay order, a decision has reportedly been taken at a joint meeting of civilian and military officials to shift the ammunition depot. However, this will not be easy and several factors relating to safety, security, costs and availability of alternative land will have to be considered. It'll be very difficult to find such a huge stretch of alternative land.

All this was, ironically, not considered at the time of the clearance given to the SK project. Therefore, what we need is a fresh evaluation of the costs, benefits and risks (direct as well as indirect). It is only after such an impartial and comprehensive re-evaluation that any final decision on SK project should be taken.

This is all the more necessary as earlier social, environmental and safety issues were sidelined. Another aspect is that this river is already oversaturated by hydel projects and the high risk of over-construction has become only too apparent after the recent disaster in Uttarakhand.