Uttarakhand HC junked plea against projects near Joshimath in 2021

Updated on Jan 17, 2023 03:42 PM IST

The petition raised a number of concerns about NTPC’s Tapovan Vishnugad project, which have resurfaced in the wake of the Joshimath crisis.

A total of 800 people from Joshimath have been shifted to safer locations so far. The high court observed that the petition was “highly motivated” and dismissed it after imposing costs.(PTI) PREMIUM
A total of 800 people from Joshimath have been shifted to safer locations so far. The high court observed that the petition was “highly motivated” and dismissed it after imposing costs.(PTI)
ByJayashree Nandi

A 2021 writ petition citing some of the reasons now being given for the subsidence at Joshimath, and pointing out that repeated floods in the region over the past decade-and-half called for new environment clearances for the 105 MW Rishi Ganga and 520 MW Tapovan Vishnugad hydropower projects was dismissed by the Uttarakhand high court, with costs.

Three residents of Raini village, which was devastated by the February 2021 glacier lake overflow flood, and two residents of Joshimath town filed a writ petition in July 2021 against the Union environment ministry, calling for a prohibition on blasting, stone crushing and mining activities in the Dhauli Ganga-Rishi Ganga sub-basin near Joshimath. One of their main prayers was that the ministry revoke the environment and forest clearances granted to 105 MW Rishi Ganga and 520 MW Tapovan Vishnugad hydropower projects in view of the February 2021 deluge as previous clearances had been rendered redundant.

Also Read: ‘Only for soundbites…': Supreme Court allows Uttarakhand high court to hear Joshimath matter

The high court observed that the petition was “highly motivated” and dismissed it after imposing costs. “This petition seems to be a highly motivated petition which has been filed at the behest of an unknown person or entity. The unknown person or entity is merely using the petitioners as a front. Therefore, the petitioners are merely puppets at the hand of an unknown puppeteer,” the high court said in an order dated July 14.

“Needless to say, this certainly amounts to abuse of the PIL jurisdiction. Therefore, this court is not convinced with the bona fide of this petition. Hence, this petition is dismissed, while imposing costs of Rs.10,000 on each of the petitioners,” the order added.

Also Read: SC refuses to intervene in the Joshimath issue

The petition raised a number of concerns about NTPC’s Tapovan Vishnugad project, which have resurfaced in the wake of the Joshimath crisis. The project is located to the north of the Main Central Thrust (a major geological fault in the Himalayas) and near the para-glacial zone (around an altitude of 2,000 to 2,500 metres and above).

On December 5, 2014, the environment ministry submitted an affidavit in the Supreme Court validating recommendations made by a top court-appointed expert body headed by Ravi Chopra. The expert body noted that high sediment load in and around para-glacial zones could pose serious threats to existing and under construction hydropower projects in Uttarakhand, which the ministry had acknowledged, the petition pointed out.

Further, work on NTPC’s Tapovan Vishnugad project was associated with the puncture of an aquifer in 2009, the petition pointed out. “In 2009, while digging a tunnel in Tapovan Vishnugad project, a mountain aquifer was punctured which resulted in loss of precious mountain water spring…” .

At the time, the State Disaster Management and Mitigation Centre cited negligence by authorities in this regard.

The petitioners also pointed out that the environment and forest clearances for these projects had become redundant as they were granted prior to the 2013 flash floods in Uttarakhand that killed over 6,000 people. The topography and geomorphology of the region had changed substantially after that.

The Supreme Court in 2014 stayed the construction of the proposed 24 new hydropower projects on the Ganga. Thereafter, a committee of experts commissioned by the environment ministry to review six hydro projects — not including the Rishi Ganga and Tapovan Vishnugad projects — which were granted clearances before 2013. The committee, headed by Vinod Tare, an expert member from IIT-Kanpur, recommended that the projects not be taken up in view of their potential impact on biodiversity and hydrological parameters and that the entire process of according clearances be reviewed.

On February 25, 2019, in a meeting convened by the Prime Minister’s Office, under chairmanship of then principal secretary, Nripendra Mishra, the Centre took a policy decision that no new hydropower projects would be allowed on Ganga and its tributaries, and that in-progress projects, where 50% of the construction was not yet complete, would be scrapped. Tapovan Vishnugad and Rishi Ganga were allowed to go ahead.

In February 2021, a glacier breach in the sub-basin led to extensive damage to these two hydropower plants and killed over 200 people, while also damaging Raini village. Raini was declared unsafe for habitation as cracks appeared in several houses. “The respondents are liable to bear the loss to human lives as well as ecology,” the petition said, praying for a direction from the high court for safe rehabilitation of Raini villagers and ecological restoration of the region.

The petitioners asked the high court to direct the scrapping of the Tapovan Vishnugad and Rishi Ganga projects for future safety and order the ministry of Jal Shakti to initiate ecological restoration of the entire watershed.

The residents also wrote to the ministry in July 2021 flagging how the 2021 flood itself had changed the river morphology and floodplain features and that the hydropower projects needed a review. A letter sent by RS Bora, under secretary to the state government dated July 19, 2021to the environment ministry’s regional office in Dehradun, seen by HT, acknowledged warnings by residents and requested the regional office to verify whether the conditions set during the environmental clearance of these projects were being met by visiting the site. The environment ministry did not answer queries on whether these conditions were being met; it was considering a reassessment of these conditions; and the subsidence at Joshimath.

“The home ministry is handling the situation in Joshimath. We will not be able to comment,” a senior environment ministry official said in response.

The Union government has refuted suggestions by environmentalists and some geologists that tunnel restoration work associated with NTPC’s 520 MW Tapovan Vishnugad Hydropower project near Joshimath town led to an aquifer burst that may have triggered land subsidence in the holy town.

In a letter drafted to be sent to the Uttarakhand government, the Union power ministry has stated that sub-surface seepage erosion by natural drainage, occasional heavy rainfall, periodic seismic activities and increased construction activities appear to be the main causes of subsidence, while stating that the NTPC tunnel is not passing under Joshimath town. The tunnel is at a horizontal distance of around 1.1km from the outer boundary of Joshimath town and vertically around 1.1km below the ground level. Construction of the tunnel in this stretch has been done through Tunnel Boring Machine (TBM) which causes no disturbance to the surrounding rock mass, the letter dated January 11, 2023 said. HT has seen a copy of the letter.

“We have absolutely no doubt that NTPC’s tunnelling has suddenly exacerbated land subsidence in Joshimath. The tunnelling was done earlier but restoration work in the tunnel started after the February 2021 Rishiganga deluge. In November 2021, 14 houses complained of cracks, now 678 houses have cracks. This is directly and certainly linked to restoration works in the tunnel,” said Mallika Bhanot, member of Ganga Ahvaan.

“Tapovan Vishnugad project is affected by glaciers in the upper reaches which was proved in 2021 tragedy. Now locals are saying they started blasting again to restore their tunnel after the February 2021 disaster which led to seepage of water into and around Joshimath. This clearly needs to be investigated as this is what locals have observed,” said Hemant Dhyani, an environmentalist who was part of the Supreme Court’s high-powered committee for the Char Dham Project.

NTPC did not respond to a query on January 13 from HT on the concerns raised by residents.

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