To decide the fate of the 2000 MW Subansiri Lower hydroelectric project, the Environment Ministry has turned to a report of a committee it set up, the constitution of which has already been challenged in the Supreme Court on grounds of conflict of interest.
The constitution of the three-member committee was first challenged in the National Green Tribunal, which dismissed the plea without citing reasons. The petitioners in the case then moved the Supreme Court, which sent back the matter and instructed the NGT to give a reasoned order.
In the two hearings at the NGT since, the Environment Ministry has sought time to file its reply. With the matter still sub judice, the ministry on April 12 decided to consider the committee’s report at the next meeting of its Expert Appraisal Committee that decides on environmental clearances to hydel projects.
Conceived as the country’s largest hydel project, Subansiri lower dam construction began in 2005 on the Arunachal Pradesh-Assam border and over Rs 6,000 crore was already spent by NHPC Ltd before work was suspended due to local opposition in 2011. To break the six-year logjam, the NGT had in October 2017 asked the Environment Ministry to set up a “neutral” panel to objectively consider conflicting recommendations of the earlier committees and come up with an “independent opinion”.
A month after the NGT order, the Environment Ministry, in November 2017, set up a three-member panel with experts who – or their organisations – have all backed the NHPC’s positions on the project in the past: ex-additional director general of Geological Survey of India Prabhas Pande, former director of the Pune-based Central Water and Power Research Station (CWPRS) I D Gupta and Chief Engineer (Brahmaputra) of the Central Water Commission, P M Scott.
When the constitution of the three-member committee was challenged on the ground of conflict of interest, the NGT dismissed the applications in December 2018 without giving any reasons. The applicants moved the Supreme Court which on March 11 asked the NGT to give a reasoned order on the matter.
“Subsequently, we filed restoration applications in the NGT. At the first hearing on March 26, the Environment Ministry sought one week to file an affidavit in the matter. At the next hearing on April 9, the ministry sought more time,” said Ritwik Dutta, lawyer of the applicant Tularam Gogoi, a Guwahati-based activist and former vice-president of All Assam Students Union (AASU).
On April 10, the NGT uploaded a notification dated April 9 which said the next hearing in the case would be on July 25. On April 12, the Environment Ministry made public the agenda for a meeting of the EAC scheduled on April 23. The first item on the agenda is the discussion of the report filed by the ‘conflicted’ three-member committee.
The Environment Ministry official dealing with the EAC concerned said he was “not competent” to comment on the legality of considering the report of a expert panel under judicial scrutiny. Director General (forests) Siddhanta Das said he was “not aware of the case” and declined comment.