For the Uttarakhand government, the hydropower story is becoming a case of 'so near and yet so far’. Its dream of building a network of projects on the Ganga has run into yet another roadblock. Last week, the Environment and Forests Ministry’s Forest Advisory Committee (FAC) decided not to give clearance to any of the proposed projects until the National Ganga River Basin Authority (NGRBA) conducts a cumulative impact assessment study of all the proposed dams. The decision came after an FAC team, under instructions from the Uttarakhand High Court, found that serious violations had occurred in some existing dams and that the government had inexplicably decided not to do any cumulative study on the effects of building so many dams on the Ganga. Only couple of months ago, the Comptroller and Auditor General of India warned that there would be no water in large stretches of the Alaknanda and Bhagirathi riverbeds if the state builds the 53 power projects on these two rivers.
Unfortunately, whenever violations are exposed, we are so often presented with a fait accompli. Take, for example, the Lohari Nagpala Hydel Power Project. Even though the Union Minister for Environment and Forests Jairam Ramesh accepts that there have been large-scale violations of green laws, he now says that it’ll be difficult to abandon it because Rs 600 core has already been spent on it. So what happens to the project developer and the officials who were in cahoots with the company? And, what about the threat of an environmental disaster in the future? Witness the kind of violations that are taking place in the projects underway. The Srinagar project, according to Bharat Jhunjhunwala, an economist, in his petition to the HC, was cleared as a 200 MW project in 1985. Then in 1987, it was raised to 330 MW and it was necessary for the project developers to obtain a fresh environment clearance. But no one bothered to apply for a fresh one.
Such total lack of regard for the law by the state as well as the central ministry can have far-reaching effects. For example, a $600 million loan for a 444 MW hydropower project in the state may be in jeopardy following allegations about the manner in which it received environmental clearance. In the hills, the protests are increasing and this should be a cause for worry for the state and the Union governments. How the Ministry of Environment and Forests in particular — and the Government of India in general — handles corporate violations of this magnitude will demonstrate how serious they are about saving our fragile environment — and how seriously they take their own laws.