In its latest judgment on hydropower projects in Uttarakhand, the Supreme Court has restrained the Union and the state governments from giving further environmental or forest clearances to hydroelectric projects until further orders.
The court has also directed the ministry to assess the scale of environmental degradation due to existing and under-construction hydropower projects on the Ganga. Even though the order is welcomed, it is bit late in the day and also insufficient. Much could have been saved in the Kedar Ghat area in June had the decision-makers listened to the warnings of environmentalists.
Over the years, green groups and locals have been opposing rampant construction in the valley. Their view was considered radical and anti-development. It is important to remember that in 2009, the Ganga was declared our ‘national river’ and yet, till now, there are no laws for the conservation and protection of this national heritage.
In 2010, the Uttarakhand Disaster Management Authority submitted a report after the flash floods in Asi-Ganga and Rudraprayag to the state government. The report said that construction all along the river was the main reasons for such a disaster. Yet no action was taken.
In all, 69 hydropower projects have been cleared in the valley. Many of them (on the Dhauli Ganga, the Alaknanda and the Mandakini) were washed away in the recent disaster in Uttarakhand.
It has taken just four projects (Maneri Bhali 1&2, Tehri and Koteshwar) to destroy 120 kms of the Bhagirathi. It will take only five projects (Kotlibhel-1&2, Srinagar, Vishnugad-Pippalkoti, Tapovan Vishnugad and Alkananda hydroprojects) to destroy the Alaknanda and three (Ram-bhada, Singoli-Bhatwadi, Phata Byung) to destroy the Mandakini.
The projects that are functioning have caused devastation in the area. Dried water sources, cracks in houses, land-sinking at Chai Gaon, etc, have become common occurrences. Every monsoon the rising water level in the Tehri dam poses a threat of floods downstream. It is not just the existence of dams that is destructive for the valley, but the process of construction irreversibly damages the fragile ecosystem.
Unfortunately, even committees constituted by the government talk of ‘development’ and not about conservation of the environment. The cumulative impact assessment done by the Alternative Hydro Energy Centre in 2011 was opposed by environmentalists but their comments were brushed aside as the report paved way for several projects. Now, post the June disaster, the apex court has agreed that it was not a competent authority.
The BK Chaturvedi committee also agreed that the biodiversity of the Himalayas has been compromised because of the projects and stated that a few of the tributaries of the Ganga must be left untouched. But there are already projects under-construction on these and for a pristine river-path, they must be stopped. Strangely, the panel doesn’t agree with this idea, thus contradicting its own recommendation.
Thanks to the state’s development agenda, little has been done to conserve the region and even the smallest attempts made by the Centre are opposed by the State: About 130 kms of the Ganga was declared as an eco-sensitive zone in 2010 but it was notified only in December 2012. The State, however, refuses to implement it.
The ministry of environment and forests agrees that the June disaster was man-made. It is heart-warming to note that the ministry has instructed to set up a committee to review the situation in Uttarakhand.
To prevent it from being another futile exercise, it is important to do more: recommend more eco-zones in the valley, cancel all projects that have not started or have been washed away in the June disaster, consider alternate means of generating power and preserve the sanctity of the Ganga and the Himalayas.
Mallika Bhanot is a member of Ganga Ahvaan. The views expressed by the author are personal.