Review projects in Himalayan states
Eight years after the Supreme Court (SC) imposed a moratorium on allowing hydro-electric projects in Uttarakhand, the Union ministries of environment, power and jal shakti have reached a consensus on green-lighting the construction of seven hydel projects on the Ganga and its tributaries in the state. Their consent has been conveyed to the SC. On the list is the Tapovan-Vishnugad project, which was destroyed by a flash flood in Chamoli district, in February. If the SC, which imposed the moratorium after the 2013 flash floods, accepts the decision, it may pave the way for several other hydel projects in the state. Since the moratorium, the environment ministry’s position has shifted from accepting the first expert committee’s report that blamed dams for aggravating the 2013 disaster to backing the latest expert panel’s conclusion that 26 hydel projects can be built with design modifications.
The unwise push for hydro-electric projects is not the only challenge. The ₹12,000 crore all-weather Char Dham road, which will connect the Hindu shrines of Gangotri, Yamunotri, Badrinath and Kedarnath, has contributed to the back-to-back landslides this monsoon. According to a report in this newspaper, the Char Dham road has witnessed 25 major landslides this season, forcing the closure of two stretches of roads at Tehri Garwhal for indefinite periods. Activists claim that since the commencement of the construction in 2016, there have been at least 200 landslides and the death of close to 200 people due to construction work or landslides. Just as it is doing in the case of hydro-electric projects, the State has moved ahead with the Char Dham road despite warnings by key members of a SC-empowered panel (2019). They have argued that the road width must be reduced to contain the adverse environmental impact of the project.
In an era of the climate crisis and extreme weather events, the Himalayas cannot endure the kind of rampant construction (highways, buildings, dams) that need large-scale hill cutting, change in the land-use pattern, fragmentation of natural systems and overexploitation of resources. Instead of the construction spree, the need of the hour is to go slow, evaluate what has been done, and draw up a sustainable development plan not just for Uttarakhand but all the Himalayan states. Keep their fragile ecology, not short-term political or economic considerations, at the heart of all decision-making. What is done today will have implications for generations to come.