UTTARKASHI: The clear blue sky, breathtaking view of Bhagirathi river valley, sound of chirping birds en route Gangotri is mesmerising. The beauty, and the view, however is marred by the rusting signboards of Pala Maneri and Lohari Nagpala hydro-power projects, abandoned buildings and dark tunnels. These are the remains of the power projects that were stalled owing to environment and religious reasons in 2010.
Pala Maneri (480 MW) and Bhairo Ghati (381MW) were the Uttarkhand Jal Vidyut Nigam Ltd projects while Lohari Nagpala (600 MW) was National Thermal Power Corporation (NTPC) entity. The Lohari project was stalled at a time when most of the work was completed and millions had been spent. All three projects were tunnel-based run-of-the-river hydro-power projects.
Scrapped, stalled, discontinued
GD Agrawal, a retired professor from IIT-Kanpur, sat on fast for 38 days demanding that Lohari Nagpala should be scrapped as it hampers the free flow of Bhagirathi. He was joined by All Indian Akhara Parishad, a powerful body of seers. In August 2010, a three-member Group of Ministers – then finance minister Pranab Mukherjee, power minister Sushil Kumar Shinde and environment minister Jairam Ramesh — scrapped the project.
The other two projects were stalled by the then BJP government headed by BC Khanduri citing environmental reasons. National Ganga Basin River Authority in its order dated January 3, 2011 finally discontinued the projects.
Today, the remains of the machines, gaping tunnels, and wild bushes at the sites explain that the projects are unlikely to get a fresh lease of life. The eco sensitive zone (ESZ) notified in 2012 in the entire Bhagirathi valley has put a ban on the construction of hydro-power projects beyond 2 MW.
Further, in 2013, under-construction hydro-power projects in the Ganga basin were held responsible for enhancing the impact of the flash floods that created havoc in the river valley.
Projects, good or bad?
Activists are divided on whether the hydro-power projects are environmentally viable for the hill state. A section says such projects are not only harmful for the ecology but are also putting in danger the lives of lakhs who resides in the valley. But again, there is second set of people who believe projects should not be stalled on the basis of religious beliefs or half knowledge (about environment).
In August 2013, the Supreme Court directed the Uttarakhand government not to give clearance to new projects. It also directed for fresh impact study of the 24 under-construction projects, barring the Srinagar power project.
On August 19, 2016, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) on a petition of Srinagar Bandh Aapda Sangharsh Samiti and Matu Jansangathan ordered GVK, constructing the Srinagar project, to pay ₹9.26 crore as compensation to the affected people for the destruction and damage caused during June-2013 flash floods owing to the project.
“After NGT’s order, the question is whether political parties would keep check on the hydro-power companies who abuse people’s rights,” asks Vimal Bhai of Matu Jansangathan, which is against the construction of power projects.
Avdhash Kaushal, chairman of Rural Litigation of Entitlement Kendra (RLEK), NGO believes the debate on environment versus development is worthless.
“We have to find a middle path. Hydro-electric power is the cleanest, cheapest, renewable, non polluting source,” says Kaushal.
Over the years, several hydro power companies have shown interest in setting up projects in the hill state owing to the adequate amount of water available in the Ganga basin. Insiders say more than ₹19,000 crore is at stake due to the uncertainty over hydro-power projects in Uttarakhand.
Environmentalist Sundar Lal Bahuguna who had opposed the Tehri hydro-power project for more than three decades underlines that “big dams are terrible for environment but not the small, tunnel based run-of-the-river projects”.
Whom to blame?
Amid deliberation over the projects, people like Kush Butola and Amit Kumar feel lost. Residents of a village in the Bhagirathi valley, they used to work in the kitchen at the Lohari Nagpala project site. After the project was scrapped, they had to look for other jobs.
“Pehle khana banate they, ab road banate hain (We used to cook food and now we lay roads),” says Kush. He now works with Border Roads Organisation at Gangotri national highway.
Madan Mohan’s story is no different. He has a small tailoring shop opposite to a “ghost tunnel” of Lohari Nagpala project site. He used to make upto ₹400 per day stitching clothes for people employed at the project site. Now, he hardly makes ₹100 a day. “We have a little agriculture field in the village but that too is difficult to protect from wild animals,” he rues.
Interestingly, in the ongoing poll season, the contesting candidates from different seats in the valley have preferred to keep silent on the issue of power projects. In fact, the hydro-power projects have also not found mention in the vision document of the opposition BJP and manifesto of the ruling Congress.