In his article in The Hindu, “Down a slippery slope in Uttarakhand” (Op-Ed, August 31, 2013), Bishnu Prasad Das very correctly points out that the “devastating landslips were caused by the undercutting of fragile hillsides for highways.” However, he gives a clean chit to hydroelectric projects, and asserts that “dams actually helped mitigate the floods.”
Mr. Das’s statement shifts the burden of the landslips solely on the “large network of new highways and road widening schemes” in the fragile Himalayan belt, which he describes as a “human intervention.” He fails to acknowledge that dams too are a form of human intervention.
At present, Uttarakhand has 98 operating hydropower projects (of all sizes) with a total installed capacity of 3,598.7 MW, around 41 hydropower projects under-construction with a combined capacity of 2,378 MW, and about 197 planned projects with a capacity of 21,212.8 MW.
In February 2009, as a result of a Supreme Court’s directive, the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) commissioned two studies, from the Alternate Hydro Energy Centre (AHEC) at IIT Roorkee and the Dehradun-based Wildlife Institute of India (WII), on the cumulative impact assessment of hydropower projects in the Alaknanda and Bhagirathi river basins.
The WII conducted the study on the cumulative ecological impacts of 70 hydropower projects. Its report, which was made public on April 16, 2012, concluded that the 24 dams in the Alaknanda and Bhagirathi River basins should be scrapped as they will cause irrevocable harm to the biodiversity in Uttarakhand. However, the MoEF and the Expert Appraisal Committee (EAC) both refused to follow the conclusions made in the report.
On August 13, 2013, the Supreme Court of India directed the MoEF to constitute an expert body “to make a detailed study as to whether Hydroelectric Power Projects existing and under construction have contributed to the environmental degradation; if so, to what extent and also whether it has contributed to the present tragedy occurred at Uttarakhand in the month of June 2013”.
The Supreme Court judgment directed the MoEF “to examine, as noticed by WII in its report, as to whether the proposed 24 projects are causing significant impact on the biodiversity of Alaknanda and Bhagirathi River basins.”
The court also noticed that unlike the WII, the AHEC report did not suggest any restrictions and instead suggested promoting projects on river basins.
The apex court order thus concludes, “…prima facie, we are of the view that the AHEC Report has not made any in-depth study on the cumulative impact of all project components …. and its consequences on Alaknanda as well as Bhagirathi River basins so also on Ganga.”
A Comptroller and Auditor General of India’s report, “Hydropower Development through Private Sector Participation,” states that “negligence of environmental concerns was obvious as the muck generated from excavation and construction activities was being openly dumped into the rivers contributing to increase in the turbidity of water.”
These assessments and conclusions falsify Mr Das’s claims of “critical and stringent examination” of the projects by the MoEF before giving environmental clearances.
An analysis of the minutes of the meetings of the EAC for the last six-and-a-half years shows that there are cases when the inadequate impact assessment, improper public consultation, poor records of the developer, and violation of the EAC’s environmental norms have been pointed out. Even in such cases, the EAC has never rejected environment clearance to any project.
Mr. Das misses counting operating projects like the 400-MW Koteshwar, 280-MW Dhauliganga, 240-MW Chibro, 198-MW Ramganga, 144-MW Chilla, 120-MW Khodri, 94.2-MW Tanakpur, 51-MW Dhalipur, 41.4-MW Khatima, 33.75-MW Dhakrani and 30-MW Kulhal hydropower projects, which have significantly affected the environment and ecology of the State. Though all these projects are not on the Alaknanda and the Bhagirathi basins, they cannot be neglected while examining the cumulative impact of projects in Uttarakhand.
He states that “no project component or its vicinity has suffered from landslip-induced failure.” This statement flies in the face of hydropower projects like Maneri Bhali-I and II, Vishnuprayag, Dhauliganga, and Srinagar which at present are non-operational due to damages incurred during the catastrophe. Under construction projects — Singoli-Bhatwari and Phata Buyang — have also incurred heavy damage.
In another falsely stated fact, Mr. Das writes, “less than 40 km of the riverine stretch has been impacted by these [hydropower] projects out of 800 km of main river and tributaries.” Notably, just between Maneri Bhali-I and II, Tehri, and Koteshwar dams, more than 60 km of the Bhagirathi river is either submerged in reservoirs or has been bypassed by the tunnels.
His claim that “the Tehri reservoir on the Bhagirathi held back the incoming devastating flood” is falsely exemplified. During mid-August, water from the Ganga flooded the villages in Haridwar’s Laksar belt. Moreover, around 50 villages above the Tehri dam were cut off as a bridge over the dam reservoir got submerged when the level in the dam increased. During that period, the Ganga downstream of the dam was just a metre below the danger level. But even that time, around 1,100 cumecs of water was being released from the dam, resulting in flooding of some downstream areas.
Mr. Das has been a member of the EAC of the MoEF since April 2007. For over two years this committee was chaired by former Power Secretary P. Abraham, who had to resign under issues of conflict of interest since he was on the board of hydropower companies and yet sat to clear the projects of such companies.
On August 22, 2013 he had to appear before the National Green Tribunal since he was summoned to explain this conduct. Other members of the EAC including Mr. Das were all party to the compromised decisions that Mr. Abraham is being held accountable for. Mr. Das has tried to defend these indefensible decisions with poor facts and wrongly assessed results.
(Himanshu Thakkar is the coordinator of the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People.)