The environment ministry has constituted a third expert body to review hydropower projects on the Ganga basin in Uttarakhand.
This is in contrast to what it had told the Supreme Court (SC). It had said the government would let the existing expert body, along with four more scientists, take a final call on the dams. It has now set up a new committee, removing some of the non-official members who had conveyed critical views on the 100-plus dams planned in the river basin after the Uttarakhand tragedy of 2013.
Officials of the ministry defended their decision, saying the new panel was constituted according to court orders and by law.
In its previous affidavit to the SC, the ministry had told the courts, “The proposed study ... would be carried out by the already constituted expert body with wider representation, with a seismologist, a social scientist, a climatologist and a glaciologist.”
In the later part of the affidavit, the ministry said, “A decision has been taken that the report dated Feburary 12, 2015, will be examined by an expert body in detail, so that the government can take a final view.”
Based on the representation made by the government, the court had recorded in its orders, “A decision has been taken that the report dated 12.02.2015 will also be examined by an expert body in detail in order that the government takes a final view. The expert body will be constituted in the next few days... we are sure that the Union of India will be able to proceed with the matter, as undertaken in the affidavit.”
The earlier expert body had in April 2014 submitted a critical report, warning that the series of dams proposed in Uttarakhand should not be permitted in the wake of the 2013 tragedy. The ministry had taken the April 2014 report on board, admitting to the court that hydropower dams had played a part in the 2013 tragedy, where thousands were killed after a cloudburst.
Another four-member panel, formed on the SC’s orders, had rejected six projects, warning these could lead to a disaster in the state. The government initially did not present the four-member panel’s report to the courts. But after it was reported in the media, it said it would ask the existing expert body, which had studied all the dams, to take a final view on “seismological vulnerability of the region, glacial movement and likely impacts on hydro-power structures, cloudburst phenomenon, socio-economic impact impacts of the projects, identification of no-go areas for hydro projects, design of future projects, modification in existing ones and ecological carrying capacity analysis of disaster- affected river valleys.”
But sources in the ministry said the existing expert body had finished its work and its term had expired. Court orders, too, mentioned that ‘a’ expert body would be constituted, which the ministry has now done, they said. “The operative part of our affidavit said we would constitute a panel and the court’s order also says as much,” official told Business Standard on condition of anonymity. He said the bit in the affidavit about expanding the existing panel of experts might have been an “error”, overlooked while submitting the affidavit to the court.
While Business Standard could not ascertain the names of the members of the third panel, the group would now have to take a view on the future of all dams on the upper Ganga basin in six months. If this panel gives a go-ahead to the dams that have been stayed, the government can then overlook all previous studies in the matter.