On Independence Day in 2011, Rakesh Mehra, the owner of Ludhiana-based Rajit Paints Group, drove up to Chamoli in Uttarakhand to inaugurate the trial run of a unit of his mini-hydel project on Rishi Ganga river adjacent to the Nandadevi biosphere reserve. At the project site, a boulder slid overhead and fell on him.
“Imagine the odds of a single, dislodged boulder killing him while nobody standing around received a scratch. In hindsight, was it just a freak incident or an early warning? Today, so many are feared dead and everything has been washed away,” says Kolkata-based realtor Kamal Surana who had sold the power project to Mehra in 2006.
Between the 2011 boulder slide that killed Mehra and the 2021 glacier burst that buried the entire project along with several workers, the Rishi Ganga mini-hydel plant suffered severe damage in the floods of June 2013 and a cloud burst at the site in August 2016.
In 2019, the local community sought judicial remedy to stop “rampant blasting, reckless dumping of muck next to the riverbed, and tree felling” that allegedly continued till mid-2020, destabilising the slopes and blocking the river channel.
The flash flood Sunday was the latest scar in the project’s back story that began in 1996 when Rishi Ganga Power Corporation Ltd was set up by Surana in Kolkata. The project — it was cleared in 2000 — has changed hands twice since then. “I purchased the land and got all clearances from the Mayawati government in UP and the Centre. It was before the state of Uttarakhand came to be,” recalls Surana.
Surana had no history or experience of developing power plants, and the project site was precariously close to one of India’s most pristine high-altitude landscapes and a UNESCO world heritage site. And yet, since it was a mini-hydel project, it was exempt from environmental impact assessment.
But the project did not take off for years. “I had the loan sanctioned for the project. But setbacks happen in businesses, and in life. So I passed it on to the Mehras of Ludhiana,” says Surana. He wouldn’t specify how Mehra came into the picture, except to say that it happened in a “world much smaller than we think”.
Like Surana, Mehra of Rajit Paints had no background in power plant development. But he secured loans totalling Rs 39 crore from Punjab National Bank by 2008 and embarked on the project.
“Initially, it was meant to be a 8.25 MW project but Mehra enhanced the capacity to 13.2 MW for 21 years. The plant was almost ready when Mehra died at the site in 2011. Then the company apparently ran into trouble,” says Jitendra Singh, who surveyed the plant for certified emission reduction credits under the clean development mechanism of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC) in 2010.
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Mehra’s death reportedly triggered a dispute in his extended family over the control of his businesses. By 2013, the dues to PNB had swelled to Rs 66 crore. The bank classified it as NPA in February 2016. Months later, a severe cloud burst hit the plant, further reducing chances of recovery. The matter moved to the National Company Law Tribunal (NCLT), and Delhi-based Kundan Group took over the project in December 2018.
As work resumed, residents of Raini village, the closest settlement and site of the Chipko movement in the 1970s, complained of reckless construction practices. Hearing a PIL, the Uttarakhand High Court issued notices to the Central and state governments in May 2019.
“We also went to the National Green Tribunal but did not get any relief. They formed committees with the same local officials who were indifferent to our plight. When these committees came for inspection, they did not even call us. The company continued with regular blasting till mid-2020,” says Sangram Singh Rawat, a former sarpanch of Raini.
The company, however, denies the charges. “There are vested interests behind the litigation. We were not involved in blasting, muck dumping, etc., as we only did major repairs of damage caused by floods, besides certain modifications, upgradation and innovations,” says a Kundan Group spokesperson.
According to the spokesperson, the project has now suffered damages worth Rs 125-150 crore and the company will provide education to the children of the dead or missing plant workers.
There is no word on rebuilding yet. “The entire plant is destroyed. The rebuilding of the plant shall be ascertained based out of various factors,” says the spokesperson.
Rawat, the former sarpanch, wants companies and investors, if not the government, to “learn their lessons” at least now. “How many more landslides, floods and deaths will it take? How much more destruction?” he says.
Says Surana: “Policies are decided by governments. But certainly there are heavy risks in putting money and projects in such fragile, unpredictable areas.”
Does he feel relieved that circumstances made him pull out? “As they say, whatever the almighty does, is for good. But I had plans to settle there after retiring from business. Such a beautiful place. I remember those villagers. Those lovely people trusted me. It’s so tragic what all has happened.”