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Greening the white water

Hydropower vs environmentalists in India's hills

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The green bench of the has ordered Ltd to dismantle the thermal power unit at the company’s cement plant campus in Bagheri, near Solan (Himachal Pradesh), and also pay Rs 100 crore as damages for obtaining environmental clearance in a “dubious” manner. The bench, moreover, turned down the company’s plea that, since the thermal plant was already functioning, it should not be demolished. Though this judicial decree is path-breaking in some respects, instances of companies being asked to shut down their running units on ecological considerations are not that rare any more. Not too long ago, the Supreme Court barred the French multinational Lafarge from supplying limestone from Meghalaya to a cement plant in Bangladesh on environmental grounds. The Supreme Court’s forest bench took exception to tribal land in the East Khasi Hill District being transferred to the French company, and ordered mining to be stopped. This apart, several mining projects – particularly for coal and iron ore – have of late been asked to cease operation due to ecological issues.

The economic ramifications of such moves are considerable. Yet, compromising environmental protection for mining, power generation or similar activities is quite unacceptable, especially if the threats outweigh the gains. Of particular concern are cases – which, sadly, are numerous – in which the mined area is left without either post-project stabilisation or the restoration of green cover. Many remember with horror the colossal damage inflicted by indiscriminate lime-quarrying on the hill slopes around Mussoorie in the 1970s and 1980s. Miners would leave the vulnerable mountains bare and barren, not only ruining the much-admired green canopy of the slopes, but also threatening the region’s rich biodiversity and jeopardising the very existence of Mussoorie town. Elsewhere, the increased soil erosion from the surrounding, naked hills caused rapid sedimentation of the water bodies downstream, posing grave risks to the survival of the famed Sukhna Lake, near Chandigarh. Judicial intervention had to be sought to stop quarrying and replant protective vegetation to conserve soil and stabilise the region’s topography.

However, given the enormous potential for generating hydropower in the Himalayas, speedy environmental scrutiny of hydel projects is critical. The are known to be geologically young, unstable and earthquake-prone. Many companies besides Jaiprakash Associates are involved in constructing hydropower plants in the hill states. Environmental activists have exaggerated the risks of these projects in the past and will continue to do so. Clearly, stoppage of all development activities, as most of them would desire, is impractical and unwise. Instead, regulation must be clearly and quickly enforced, and the projects implemented must be lightweight and low-cost. That’s particularly easy for the hydropower sector, in which small and micro power projects neither consume too much water nor geologically disturb native rock formations. The court’s action on Jaiprakash Associates should serve as a warning that larger projects should be particularly careful in conforming to the letter and spirit of environmental law. The political climate has turned against aggressive exploitation of natural resources by private corporations.

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