The Centre on Monday admitted for the first time that hydropower projects had “direct and indirect impact in the aggravation of floods” that hit Uttarakhand in 2013, killing hundreds and leaving thousands homeless.
It also said that the projects caused “irreversible damage” to the environment and enhanced landslides and other disasters.
Filing its affidavit in the Supreme Court on Monday, the Ministry of Environment and Forest (MoEF) conceded that “the maximum damage sites in the disaster affected areas (were) located either upstream or immediately downstream” from these projects.
This is the first such admission by the Centre in the court, which had stalled 24 of the 39 proposed projects in Uttarakhand after noting that they significantly impacted biodiversity in two sub-basins of the Alaknanda and Bhagirathi rivers.
The Centre had earlier denied that the projects had played a role in escalating the 2013 disaster in the state. The government had even said that it wanted to link the projects with its ambitious Ganga rejuvenation plan.
In its latest affidavit, the MoEF said that construction of the projects overburdened the local ecology, and that there was proof of irreversible damage to to the environment in terms of loss of forests, degraded water quality, and an enhanced impact of landslides and other disasters.
“The essential parameters of river connectivity have been compromised on many river stretches… construction has significantly degraded the environment while many other sites have been impacted as a result of the cumulative effect of the already existing and under-construction projects, while some others have escalated the degradation by non compliance and violation,” it said.
Expressing concerns over shrinking deltas due to change in river courses and change of river bed profile because of heavy deposition of debris, the MoEF said that it would require at least 12 more months to conduct a thorough and comprehensive study as well as critical examination of the projects.
It claimed that the thee-month time provided by the Supreme Court to the Expert Body last year was not adequate. The MoEF added that the body, with some additional members, could eventually suggest how many hydropower projects could be allowed in a sustainable manner, as well as locations, design and capacity.
This reflects a major change in the stand of the NDA government from the last affidavit, wherein it sought to go ahead with the projects if they met certain criteria. The court will examine the government’s new affidavit on Tuesday.