The Himachal Pradesh High Court has refused to stay the transfer of forest land to an Asian Development Bank-funded hydropower project in the state's Kinnaur district being executed by the state-run Himachal Pradesh Power Corp Ltd.
However, local residents, activists and environmental groups, who are opposing the project, said the court order for the 130 MW Integrated Kashang Stage II and III project is "disappointing".
It was passed "without looking into the merits of the case, which include violations of constitutional laws like Panchayat (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act of 1996 and Forest Rights Act of 2006", they said in a statement to the media on Saturday.
These acts are meant to safeguard the rights of tribal communities.
Dismissing the petition, a division bench led by Chief Justice Surya Kant on January 7 said: "Prima facie it appears that this writ petition has been sponsored by private hydro project proponents as apparently the project is likely to affect the productivity and/or monopoly in market of the nearby private project(s)."
"Our suspicion is strengthened by the fact that earlier the setting up of the project by Himachal Pradesh Power Corp Ltd was opposed tooth and nail by one Paryawaran Sangrakshan Sangarsh Samiti Lippa whose Vice-President was Tashi Cherring."
The bench said "the same Sangarsh Samiti had earlier approached the National Green Tribunal also but having failed to stall the project, now the grievance is sought to be projected through the Gram Sabha".
Listing the case for next hearing on April 2, the bench, also comprising Justice Ajay Mohan Goel, asked Cherring to file an affidavit giving details of the members of the Sangarsh Samiti, details of its bank accounts, the donations, if any, received by it and source of expenditure incurred by it in litigations.
The Gram Sabha of Lippa village, known for endangered Chilgoza trees, has been struggling against the forest diversion for the hydro power project for over a decade.
The villagers say the construction and tunneling activity for the project will lead to severe destabilisation of the land in the region and affect the natural water sources.
Even the diversion of the Kerang stream for the project will impact the local hydrology.
The state cabinet on October 12, 2018, granted the lease for the forest diversion of 13.47 hectares to Himachal Pradesh Power Corp Ltd.
"This was done without the company having taken a no-objection certificate from the gram sabha of Lippa as mandated by the National Green Tribunal order of May 4, 2016, and the provisions of the Forest Rights Act," the environmental groups said.
"The (high) court has made assumptions about the motive behind the case and did not look into the merits of the case and serious violations of laws like Panchayat (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act and Forest Rights Act and Himachal Pradesh Lease Rules of 2013 are disappointing," they said.
They said even the state government has not adequately apprised the court of the process and implementation of an act like Forest Rights Act that empowers forest dependent people.
The groups comprise environmentalists and intellectuals, the Himachal Van Adhikar Manch and the Save Lahaul Spiti Society and activists like Akshay Jasrotia of Kisan Sabha, Gulab Singh and Manshi Asher.
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