The environment seldom wins against development, MK Pandit, director of the Centre for Inter-disciplinary Studies of Mountain & Hill Environment (CISMHE), tells LATHA JISHNU
Pandit’s 10-volume report on the carrying capacity of the Teesta river system has created history for two reasons. Firstly, it is the first time such a detailed study has been conducted in India. Secondly, and more significantly, the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) has accepted its advice that no hydroelectric projects should be permitted above Chungthang in Sikkim although the state government and National Hydroelectric Power Corporation (NHPC) lobbied strongly against the recommendations.
How important is this decision by the MoEF at this stage?
It’s an extremely significant decision. There have been few instances where environmental concerns have won against development. Could the environmentalists stop the Tehri project? Or the Sardar Sarovar project on the Narmada. I can count the successes on one hand — the Chipko movement, the Silent Valley project and now this.
So why did you think the MoEF accepted your recommendations? Was it because of local protests?
I think it was purely on the scientific merit of the study carried out by our centre (CISMHE) and supported by reputed institutions: Wapcos, IIT-Delhi, North Bengal University and Sikkim Government College. Our report did say the cultural and social concerns of the local population must be given due consideration, but in the end it was the scientific basis of our argument that won the day. It was based on the geological vulnerability and the biological and ecological fragility of the region.
Sikkim has approved more than two dozen projects on the Teesta and this decision will only stop three projects. Hasn’t the MoEF acted too late?
Where does that leave the massive (50,000 Mw) hydro power initiative of the Prime Minister’s Office?
We are not sure if there is anything sacrosanct about 50,000 Mw. It could be less or more depending on the geological vulnerability, ecological fragility and socio-cultural sensitivity of the areas where these hydro projects are located. More than 85 per cent of these projects are located on the Himalayan rivers and this calls for a serious assessment of risks. The most important is that the Himalayas are the youngest mountain chain and geologically unstable. Therefore, our dreams must be consistent with reality. We should also be careful about the possible damage to the endemic and endangered Himalayan species as a result of habitat destruction and degradation that follow large-scale developmental projects. Our studies have already shown that we are likely to lose 25 per cent of endemic Himalayan species by the turn of the century if the present rate of destruction continues.
Are hydroelectric projects feasible at all in the country given these constraints?
There is no denying that energy requirements of the country are galloping and hydro power is considered cleaner than thermal and less dangerous than nuclear power. At the same time there are ecological and social problems involved with hydro projects. We must look for a middle path where we balance environmental conservation with power development. We should build hydro projects in areas where the ecology has already been disturbed and leave out the areas where natural ecosystems are relatively pristine. In this context I believe nuclear is a better bet.
In spite of the risks that nuclear power poses? Isn’t solar energy a better option?
Look, we have to make hard choices. If the Tehri dam bursts several hundred thousand people will die. Delhi will be under 3-4 metres of water. A nuclear plant is no threat to biodiversity and, hopefully, will not blow up. But I agree that our best bet is solar energy. If anything can sustain us in the long term it is the sun.
Your study took five years and cost Rs 4 crore. Can it become the norm?
Unfortunately, no. Project developers will not wait that long, nor will the government. Look at the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) studies that are being rushed through in six months, sometimes less. You need time for a rigorous study, at least a full 12-month study. But who does that? The EIA studies are a joke, carried out by people who have no expertise at all.
So why does the MoEF accept such studies?
Some ministries are more important than others. More often than not economic ministries get the better of the MoEF. Our obsession with double-digit growth is compelling us to take short cuts on this issue.
Are you saying such growth is not sustainable?
The present economic model is simply unsustainable. There is no such thing as sustainable development, it is an oxymoron. Why are we all in denial mode? All development has to destroy something, so all you can have is a less damaging development. Let’s leave something for posterity.