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The Himalayas are young mountains, and naturally restless. In the last century and a half, the middle Himalayan region — now Uttarakhand — has suffered at least 50 major tremors and flash floods. But the biggest disaster since the 1803 Garhwal earthquake was more than just a natural calamity. Worse, the 2013 catastrophe had been long in the making.
In 2009, a series of flash floods and landslides killed more than 70 people in the state. This was a warning — which was repeated in another killer flash flood in 2012. That same year, two centres of excellence — the Wildlife Institute of India, Dehradun, and the Indian Institute of Technology, Roorkee — submitted conflicting reports on the collective impact of hydropower projects in the Alaknanda and Bhagirathi basins.
While IIT-R merely recommended a string of measures to reduce the dangers of harnessing these rivers so intensively at such altitudes, the WII said 24 out of the 39 proposed dams would cause irreversible harm to the rivers, and should not be allowed. By then, another 31 projects had already been commissioned or were under construction on the rivers concerned.
This called for a difficult policy revision. Soon after it became a state in 2000, Uttarakhand was showcased for its hydel potential, second only to that of Arunachal Pradesh, by the A B Vajpayee government that announced dozens of projects in 2003. By 2006, new dams were coming up in the state. In 2009, Uttarakhand drafted its Vision 2020 statement on the theme of ‘Pahad Ka Pani, Pahad Ki Jawani’.
While governments in Delhi and Dehradun remained indifferent to any course correction, calamity struck in June 2013. Although shaken, the state government stood its ground — and reiterated days after the tragedy its goal to make Uttarakhand power surplus by 2016.
However, the Supreme Court took suo motu cognizance of the disaster — and stopped clearance of any more hydel projects until further orders. It also directed the Environment Ministry to set up an Expert Body (EB) to assess the role of “mushrooming of hydropower projects” in escalating the impact of the flash floods.
In April 2014, the EB, led by Ravi Chopra of the research and development non-profit People’s Science Institute, submitted its report, which agreed with the WII on the potentially disastrous impact of the 24 proposed projects.
In its affidavit to the Supreme Court in December 2014, the Environment Ministry accepted the EB’s findings that hydel projects had exacerbated the disaster both directly (by blockage) and indirectly (by ecological damage).
The SC Bench of Justice Deepak Misra, to which the case had been shifted after Justice K S Radhakrishnan retired in May that year, lifted the statewide ban on hydel projects. Only the 24 projects in question were put on hold until the EB report had been analysed and policies finalised.
Six aggrieved developers then joined the case with the plea that their proposed hydel projects be allowed to go ahead since they already had clearances from the Environment Ministry. The apex court narrowed the scope of the case and directed the Ministry to set up yet another committee — now to consider these six hydel projects as a cluster.
This four-member committee under Vinod Tare of IIT-Kanpur, in its report submitted in February 2015, acknowledged that the six projects had all necessary clearances — but warned against allowing these proposed dams, which could have a serious impact on the region’s ecology. The Environment Ministry, however, presented before the court only the fact that the six projects had all clearances.
Following a media outrage over the selective reading of the report, the Supreme Court asked the Ministry for the entire report. Unfazed, the Ministry decided, in May 2015, to form yet another committee, under the chairmanship of B P Das, to decide the fate of the six projects. As vice-chairman of the Ministry’s expert appraisal committee, Das had earlier cleared 3 of those 6 projects.
In October 2015, the Ministry told the court that the Das committee had recommended all 6 projects, but it would still consult the other stakeholder ministries — Power and Ganga Rejuvenation — before finalising the policy. Thereafter, it claimed in a January 2016 affidavit that the government had reached a policy decision — based on a 1916 agreement between Madan Mohan Malviya and the colonial government — to allow any hydel project that releases at least 1,000 cusecs (cubic feet per second) of water into the Ganga or its tributaries.
However, Uma Bharti, Minister for Ganga Rejuvenation, wrote to her counterpart in the Environment Ministry, expressing shock that the latter had made a submission to the court even though no policy consensus had been reached. Following media reports, the Supreme Court in April asked both the Power and Ganga Rejuvenation ministries to file their own affidavits.
For many, 2013 revived the nightmares of 1991 when a deadly earthquake hit Uttarkashi. The floods laid bare the risks of unbridled growth — and a quake of that magnitude is likely to cause much greater damage today. Yet, the zonal master plan for the Bhagirathi Eco-Sensitive Zone (ESZ) — in which 4,179.59 sq km between Gomukh and Uttarkashi was to be designated as a green zone to fight unplanned growth — was buried even before the wounds of 2013 had healed.
On January 13, 2015, at a meeting chaired by Nripendra Misra, Principal Secretary to the Prime Minister, the Environment Ministry accepted that an ESZ could not be declared without a proposal from the state government. Uttarakhand had claimed that it had not been consulted while notifying the Bhagirathi ESZ, which restricted most development projects in the area, and impacted livelihoods.
The agenda of that meeting held at the Prime Minister’s Office was “to discuss issues relating to Hydro-Electric projects in Uttarakhand”.
The Power Ministry has already submitted its affidavit in support of the Environment Ministry’s century-old 1,000-cusec formula. If Uma Bharti relents, it may soon be business as usual in Uttarakhand, and work will begin on new dams.
For wilful amnesia, it appears three years is a long time.