Before the meeting, in December, the government had told the apex court that existing and under-construction dams had aggravated the damage during the Uttarakhand flooding tragedy of 2013 and new dams should come up only after a comprehensive and cumulative impact study, which would take a year.
Business Standard reviewed minutes of the meeting held on January 15 at the PM’s Office (PMO). It was decided that in tandem with the power ministry, the environment ministry would put the “correct picture” before the courts “regarding the critical need of the (hydroelectric) projects in Uttarakhand for green power and for livelihoods”.
The meeting also concluded that the Centre would “review” the existing eco-sensitive zone in certain river stretches of Uttarakhand that prevents new dams from coming up.
Subsequent to the meeting, the attorney-general, representing the environment ministry, changed his stand and told the court in February that the six new projects under question were “worthy of clearance”. He gave an affidavit, stating: “The (expert) committee has observed that whatever was mandated in the procedural and substantive requirement of the law for environmental clearance, forest clearance and consent to establish, these projects have not been found to be deficient in such respects except for wildlife clearances, which have not been accorded so far."
The government’s selectively picked paragraphs from the expert committee report, which had in its conclusions warned that the six new projects presented a threat to the people, ecology and safety of Uttarakhand in their current shape, and should be reviewed and not permitted to be built (https://www.business-standard.com/article/current-affairs/sc-kept-in-dark-about-threat-from-six-uttarakhand-dams-115022100042_1.html).
The committee had warned that though the six projects had most of the clearances, these dated to years before the 2013 tragedy, which had completely changed the region’s physiology. And, that the projects did not address the safety concerns raised from the event.
The U-turn by the central government following the PMO meet came in a case where the apex court had asked the government to find if and how the hydropower projects in Uttarakhand had contributed to the tragedy that killed thousands in the hill state. While asking for this, the court had put a ban on any new projects in the state.
With the government’s reversal of stand favouring six new projects, another company, with four more projects in the Yamuna valley region of the state, has also approached the court, asking to be given a go-ahead.
Minutes of the meeting in the PMO that triggered the change in the government’s stance to favour the dams also indicate the Union government willingness to let other new hydropower projects go ahead without the fresh and detailed assessment it had earlier recommended. The minutes read, “Though some hydro-electric projects were conceived and planned, they were facing several difficulties, leading to stalling of the development process of Uttarakhand.”
And, “Environment ministry may finalise the norms — e-flow, inter-dam distance, quality, etc — based on such (existing) scientific studies by February 15, 2015. Once finalised, no retrospective changes should be allowed at subsequent stages (of clearances).”
The minutes also talk of the 24 new projects (including the six specific ones the Supreme Court inquired) that the environment ministry’s earlier expert committee had already recommended to be scrapped. The minutes indicate a willingness to accommodate these as well.
They read, “The findings and recommendations of various studies conducted by the ministry of environment and ministry of water resources through reputed and capable institutions on aspects of carrying capacity, cumulative impact assessment, biodiversity impacts, water quality, etc, need to be examined. These studies and the clearances already granted to these hydroelectric power projects may be duly factored.”
The meeting was attended by senior officials from the cabinet secretariat, the PMO, the environment, water resources, transport and power ministries, member of the Central Electricity Authority and the chief secretary and officials of Uttarakhand, as well as the Uttarakhand Jal Vidyut Nigam.