Killing a country’s ecology

“The Centre agreed with the Expert Committee that the seven main Indian rivers ought to be kept pristine.” Picture shows the Srinagar dam over river Alakananda  

A battle of epic proportions between the hydroelectric power companies and the people of Uttarakhand has now culminated with the struggle shifting to the office of the Prime Minister of India. It began with the extraordinary and far-sighted 2014 decision of the Supreme Court in the Alaknanda Hydro Power Company case, where the Court said it was concerned with the >mushrooming of hydroelectric projects adversely affecting the Alaknanda and Bhagirathi river basins.

The cumulative impact of dams, tunnels, blasting, the construction of power houses, garbage creation, mining and deforestation on the eco system has not yet been studied. The >June 2013 tragedy that affected the Char Dham area of Uttarakhand, where thousands of people were killed and there was massive damage to property, forced a rethinking on projects. It was now considered important to make a cumulative assessment of bumper-to-bumper projects, where the rivers of the Himalayas are diverted from their normal course and channelled into tunnels, released at a lower level, then re-channeled into another pipeline, which ultimately leaves the main course of the river without water. The mistake made in the earlier environmental assessments — treating each project as stand-alone without going into the cumulative effect of all of them — was questioned by the Supreme Court. The Court, therefore, ordered the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) to constitute an Expert Committee to study the cumulative effects of such projects on the environment, on the stability of the Himalayas, and their adverse effect on the Himalayan rivers.

>Read: Damned by development

Unreliable assessments

The Expert Committee’s report is possibly one of the best ever made on the fragile ecology of the Himalayas. It almost unanimously found that Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) clearances were unreliable, wrongly prepared, made on the basis of false information submitted by the Hydroelectric Projects (HEPs), and that the clearances, in some cases, were motivated. These clearances, therefore, could not be relied upon for the continuation of these projects.

The Committee concluded that EIA reports should be done by an independent agency and not by the project proponent, and said that HEPs had an irreversible negative impact on the environment.

Five of the six projects now being examined afresh are in the para-glacial zone, rendering them extremely hazardous. As the glaciers recede due to construction activity, the land exposed becomes unstable, and an unusual cloudburst could again result in tragedy. The adverse impact on rivers and water quality and on forests, biodiversity and wild life are set out in detail.

The scathing report of the Wildlife Institute of India that pointed to the devastation that would be caused to wildlife in the Himalayas was also relied upon. One chapter deals with the proximity of HEPs to national parks and eco-sensitive areas and the impact on these areas. The report responds to the classic defence of project proponents that they would do compensatory afforestation by concluding that such afforestation was poorly done. The Committee concludes that the negative impacts of HEPs cannot be mitigated. The blasting of rocks, creation of garbage, and the receding of glaciers are a concomitant of all industrial activity in the Himalayas and, if the Himalayas and the Ganga are to be saved, there is no way forward but to scrap such projects.

Government support

To its credit, the Union of India initially supported the Expert Committee Report, pointing out that even prior to this report the B.K. Chaturvedi Inter-Ministerial Group, the Planning Commission, the G.B. Mukherjee Task Force Report, the CAG report, the Neeri report, and the Geological Survey of India (GSI) report had all recommended that hydroelectric projects be severely curtailed as they destroyed the environment. The Union of India pointed out that the Gangotri Valley and the Valley of Flowers were in eco-sensitive zones. It agreed that the seven main Indian rivers ought to be kept pristine, that the Himalayas are weak, the rivers drying up, and, in 2013, as against the state claim of 65 per cent forest cover, the actual cover was only 46 per cent.

The Union said that earlier environmental clearances had to be reviewed and a cumulative environmental impact approach adopted, with sensitive areas in the Himalayas avoided for development work. Referring to the GSI report, the Union of India said the entire Ganga basin was in Seismic Zones IV and V, which carries the highest degree of catastrophe possibility. A reference was also made to the Planning Commission recommendation that the projects be decommissioned.

However, despite the Union of India’s stand, the Minister for Environment and Forests, Prakash Javadekar, does not agree. He has made it his life mission to clear all projects, irrespective of their environmental impact. It is this attitude that has made India a country of toxic rivers, destroyed forests, declining groundwater resources, and the highest degrees of air pollution in the world. After the Union of India took a public stand that fully supported the findings and recommendations of the Expert Committee, Mr. Javadekar has set about clearing all projects. In typical bureaucratic style, a four-member Committee of Experts was appointed to make a report on a report. However, it did not play ball, pointing out that though environmental clearances were granted, the six projects studied would adversely impact aquatic and terrestrial biodiversity and the flow of the river.

They would impact the protected areas of the Nanda Devi National Park and Biosphere Reserve, the Valley of Flowers National Park (World Heritage Site), the Kedarnath Wild Life Sanctuary, and the Alaknanda III, Bhyundar and Dhauli Ganga biodiversity-rich sub-basins, which are the habitat of the rare and endangered Himalayan Brown Bear. The diversion of water through the construction of underground tunnels poses a serious risk to water life. The Committee of Experts unanimously noted that environmental clearances have to be reviewed and the six projects must not be taken up as they have the potential to cause a significant impact on the environment.

The future of the Himalayas and its rivers are at stake. Indeed, the future of India is in the balance. Within the government, well-meaning officials and Ms. Uma Bharti are fighting to clean up the Ganges, while Mr. Javedkar and his friends in industry battle to finish off what little is left of the Himalayas, its rivers and glaciers. The Prime Minister of India has to decide on which side he stands.

(Colin Gonsalves is a senior advocate in the Supreme Court and founder of the Human Rights Law Network.)

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Printable version | Oct 20, 2021 10:57:33 PM |

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