On October 16, the National Green Tribunal asked the Union Environment Ministry to set up a “neutral” panel to objectively consider conflicting recommendations that have stalled the 2,000-MW Subansiri Lower Hydroelectric Project on the Arunachal Pradesh-Assam border and come up with an “independent opinion” in three months. The NGT said this was the only way to break the six-year logjam that has stalled a project vital to the “national interest.” Conceived as the country’s largest hydel project, Subansiri lower dam construction began in 2005 and over Rs 6,000 crore was already spent by NHPC Ltd before work was suspended due to local opposition in 2011.
On November 27, the Environment Ministry set up a three-member panel with experts who — or their organisations — have all backed NHPC’s positions on the project in the past: Prabhas Pande, I D Gupta and P M Scott.
As per the NGT order, this panel had to meet members of earlier committees, NHPC officials and applicants in the case before the Tribunal. However, applicant Tularam Gogoi, a Guwahati-based lawyer and former vice-president of All Assam Students Union (AASU), refused to meet the panel at its first meeting in Delhi on December 21-22 and served the ministry with a legal notice alleging “bias and conflict of interest which will prejudice the decision-making.”
Gogoi alleged that all three experts were from organisations that had green-flagged the project design in the past over-ruling objections raised by the Assam Expert Group, a committee set up by the state government to examine the project in 2007.
Pande retired as Additional Director General of the Geological Survey of India (GSI) in 2011. The GSI researched the Subansiri project and was part of the National Committee on Seismic Design Parameters (NCSDP) which cleared the project based on seismic design parameters which are currently under dispute. Scott is chief engineer, Brahmaputra and Barak Basin, Central Water Commission (CWC), which has been involved in conceiving and reviewing the Subansiri project. Both the Dam Design Review Panel (DDRP) and the NCSDP had members from the CWC.
Between 2009 and 2013, Gupta was director of Pune-based Central Water and Power Research Station (CWPRS) which was involved in the designing process of the Subansiri project. As director, CWPRS, Gupta was also part of the NCSDP which re-examined the seismic design parameters of the project and held, in March 2013, that further revisions were not required.
After completing his tenure as director, CWPRS, Gupta attended at least two meetings — in December 2013 at Guwahati and in December 2014 at Delhi — as an “Expert from the Government of India” and contradicted views of the Assam Expert Group on quake-related dam safety issues.
While a senior Environment ministry official declined to comment, Gupta and Scott denied any conflict of interest. “Unlike the CWC or the GSI, the CWPRS never had to do much with the project. We are now looking into all reports and I can comment only when we have completed that process,” said Gupta.
“It’s not fair to assume that one cannot have an opinion as an individual expert. The scope of the CWC’s work is huge but I was never involved with the Subansiri project in the past. In any case, the mandate of the NGT is very clear and we will follow that,” Scott told The Indian Express.