Yet Another Government Committee to Study Hydroelectric Projects in Uttarakhand

A panoramic view of the Baglihar Dam across the Chenab in Jammu and Kashmir. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

A panoramic view of the Baglihar Dam across the Chenab in Jammu and Kashmir. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

New Delhi: Within over a year of appointing committees to study Uttarakhand’s hydroelectric projects and then getting their recommendations further reviewed by other committees, the Union Environment Ministry has, yet again, retracted from its earlier stand. It is now set to file an affidavit in the Supreme Court, proposing to appoint an expert body to review a four-member committee report on the feasibility of six projects in Uttarakhand.

On December 16, last year, the Supreme Court had asked the Environment Ministry to review whether the six projects had adequate clearances before the June, 2013 floods that had ravaged the region.

The ministry had then set up a committee of four experts to review the clearances of the projects. The committee, in its report which was submitted to the ministry on February 12, this year, had stated: “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… As such entire process of according clearances to these processes warrants review.”

Based on the committee’s report, the ministry will now file an affidavit in the Supreme Court stating that the report by the four member committee “will also be examined by an expert body in detail in order that the Government takes a final view.”

The ministry refrained from stating the committee’s findings in its affidavit, which will be filed on Tuesday.

The background

In June, 2013 heavy rainfall flash flooded the rivers across Uttarakhand and over 4,000 people lost their lives in the deluge. It was observed by many that hydroelectric projects worsened the situation during the disaster. Muck disposed of on river banks by the projects during construction was carried by the rivers during the flash floods and it filled the downstream areas. Many project structures were destroyed. Many areas downstream of the projects also suffered losses when the dam breach occurred in some projects and massive amounts of water and boulders escaped from behind the dam structures.

Considering this, on August 13, 2013 the Supreme Court directed the Union Environment Ministry ‘to constitute an Expert Body “to make a detailed study as to whether Hydroelectric Power Projects existing and under construction have contributed to the environmental degradation, if so, to what extent and also whether it has contributed to the present tragedy occurred at Uttarakhand in the month of June 2013.”

In the same order, the Supreme Court also ordered the ministry to examine the 24 projects mentioned in the Wildlife Institute of India’s report as causing significant damage to biodiversity of the Alaknanda and Bhagirathi basins.

Expert body critical

An Expert Body with 11 members including a geologist, a glaciologist, a wildlife expert, a rock mechanics expert, representatives of organisations working on environmental concerns, and a member of the Environement Ministry, submitted their report – the Chopra Committee report – to the ministry in April, last year.

The report was critical of the 24 projects and recommended that 23 of the 24 projects be cancelled.

However, the Environment Ministry, which was not willing to act on the Chopra Committee report referred it for review by a Consortium of Indian Institute of Technology (IITC). In its report the IITC gave a “go-ahead” to the 24 projects based on the criteria of aviral dhara (uninterrupted flow), environmental flows and longitudinal connectivity. The criteria considered by the IITC were clearly insufficient to review the projects.

Currently, the case in the Supreme Court is based on six projects – NTPC’s Lata Tapovan (171 MW), GMR’s Alaknanda Badrinath (300 MW), NHPC’s Kotlibhel 1A (195 MW), THDC’s Jhellum Tamak (108 MW), and Bhyundar Ganga (24.3 MW) and Khirao Ganga (4 MW) of Super Hydro Electric Power.

On December 5, last year the ministry filed an affidavit in the Supreme Court where it partially supported the recommendations of the Chopra Committee report. On December 16, last year the Supreme Court asked the ministry to get the licences of the six projects reviewed.

While a four-member committee which was formed to review the six projects stated that their clearances need to be reviewed, the ministry in its latest affidavit, which will be considered by the Supreme Court today, has stated that it would form another expert body to review the report of the four-member committee.