SC kept in dark about threat from six Uttarakhand dams

Government did not disclose warnings in the expert committee report against permitting the projects in their current shape; instead, gave opposite picture


Nitin Sethi New Delhi
The Supreme Court asked the Union environment ministry to review six specific hydroelectric projects on the upper Ganga basin in Uttarakhand. On Wednesday, the ministry informed the apex court that its expert committee had checked and found the six had almost all the requisite and legitimate clearances. But, the ministry did not tell the court the experts, in the report to the ministry, had also warned these dams could have a huge impact on the people, ecology and safety of the region, and should not be permitted at all on the basis of old clearances.

They warned that even the Badrinath shrine could be at threat, added by the lack of safeguards in one of the six projects.

The cherry-picked reading of the committee report to the Supreme Court comes out giving the impression the experts gave a clean chit to the six dams in question and the court can give the go-ahead. The truth is just the opposite. The experts, in reality, have warned the projects received their clearances long before the Uttarakhand tragedy of 2013, in which thousands were killed.

The experts say in the report that the projects were not assessed comprehensively when the clearances were given. They warn the projects need comprehensive assessment based on the revised understanding after the Uttarakhand disaster and the altered physical and material condition of the sites. They concluded the six projects should not go through in their current shape.

Business Standard reviewed the report by the four experts of the government. The committee was set up under Vinod Tare of the Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur; V B Mathur of the Wildlife Institute of India; Brijesh Sikka, scientist in the environment ministry, and Dalel Singh, a hydrologist from Dharamsala. The committee was convened by another scientist of the environment ministry, B B Barman. The government did not file the complete report before the Supreme Court but extracted select bits and reported these as part of its affidavit in the previous hearing.

The expert panel report concludes, "Considering the existing available reports on the subject and after interaction with the developers as well as interveners as per the order of the MoEF, committee is of the view that the six projects may not be taken up as they have potential of causing significant impacts on the biodiversity, riverine system, wildlife and other fragile ecosystems in the areas where these projects are located due to altered hydrological parameters. As such, the entire process of according clearances to these processes warrants review."

These six projects are, the 171 Mw Lata Tapovan project of NTPC, the 195-Mw Kotlibel - IA of NHPC, the 108-Mw Jhelum Tamak of THDC, the 300-Mw of Alaknanda of GMR, the 4-Mw Khirao Ganga and the 24.3-Mw of Bhyundar Ganga of Super Hydro Electric Power.

But in contrast to the expert panel's conclusive findings, the government affidavit reads: "It is submitted that the 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 affidavit left out any mention of the serious and conclusive comments of the experts against the projects. The court took on record the submissions of the attorney general on record to mean the projects could now be approved. It's ordered a final hearing on the entire matter in mid-March and asked the ministry to file its final affidavit.

A detailed emailed query sent to environment minister Prakash Javadekar and the environment secretary went unanswered. Officials contacted on phone in the ministry said both were participating in a day-long meeting outside Delhi.

The government's need to assess six specific proposed projects on the Ganga tributaries arose out of two previous Supreme Court orders. The court had earlier imposed a ban on any new dams in Uttarakhand while the government studied how existing ones had contributed to the 2013 calamity in Uttarakhand that killed thousands. The government submitted in December 2014 that all expert advice and government committees warned that the dams had played a part in the disaster. They asked for a year to study all the projects cumulatively and comprehensively in the wake of the disaster.

But the court, on the plea of some developers, asked the ministry to assess six specific projects first. In one order they asked the projects be assessed as a cluster and a report be presented on these specifically. In another order, the court said the government should also come back on whether the six projects had all the requisite clearances at the time the proposals were appraised.

The ministry set up the four-member panel to do so. The panel did both - checked the status and legality of the existing clearances of the six projects and assessed their impact as a cluster in view of the Uttarakhand disaster. The panel found while the projects had most of the clearances at the time of the appraisal, these had been given much before the calamity in most cases. In the project-specific analysis of the impact, the committee found serious risks to the environment, people and biodiversity had not been assessed.

The panel said, "The construction of all six proposed projects in Alaknanda III, Dhauliganga and Bhagirathi IV sub-basins would almost double the impact in terms of the river length that would be affected. Projects in Bhagirathi IV and Dhauliganga basins would additionally affect 39 per cent and 29 per cent of the river lengths." All these basins are part of the larger upper Ganga basin. "The ecological footprints of these individual projects are significant and cannot be ignored in terms of their impacts... Moreover, five out of these six proposed projects fall within the critical wildlife habitats," the experts concluded.

It noted, "The committee is of the unanimous opinion that the clearances or licences needed to be viewed for any deficiencies as per the latest knowledge of environment and ecological protection and assessment methods. It was of the opinion that in the larger public interest and the safety and environmental and biodiversity security of the area surrounding these projects as well as to protect the unique ecological character of the area should be the prime concern in viewing these (old and existing) clearances."

The committee noted none of the six projects had carried out comprehensive hydrological studies to show how their dams would change the flow of the river. They had also not been studied on a cumulative basis though they are coming up close to other projects or in a cascade formation. In the Alaknanda project specifically, the experts concluded requisite safeguards against glacial formation had not been done. They said the Uttarakhand disaster of 2013 had caused extensive damage and devastation in the area of the project. "Any repeat of such an event would be catastrophic considering the religious importance of the Badrinath shrine."

The government's affidavit to the Supreme Court did not mention a word about these serious warnings in the report the committee gave the ministry.

First Published: Feb 21 2015 | 12:28 PM IST

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