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Explained: Dammed if you do

The back story of the ongoing row over 24 hydropower projects that could generate over 3,000 MW.

Written by Sanjay Singh |
Updated: December 18, 2014 1:01:23 am
all 24 hydroelectric power projects identified by WII would have significant impact on biodiversity. all 24 hydroelectric power projects identified by WII would have significant impact on biodiversity.

The government has told the Supreme Court that hydropower projects in Uttarakhand affected the environment adversely, and contributed to the June 2013 disaster — provoking the court to ask why it had then allowed the projects to come up in the first place. 

How did the Supreme Court start examining the link between hydropower projects and the 2013 natural disaster in Uttarakhand?

In August 2013, two months after the devastating floods and mudslides, a Supreme Court bench of Justices K S Radhakrishnan and Dipak Misra, in the case of Alaknanda Hydro Power Co. Ltd vs Anuj Joshi, directed the union Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) and the government of Uttarakhand not to grant any environmental or forest clearances for hydropower projects in the state until further orders. The court directed MoEF to set up a body of experts to determine the extent to which the projects had contributed to environmental degradation and the calamity of June 2013, and to examine a report by the Wildlife Institute of India, which, asked for a cumulative assessment of hydropower projects in Uttarakhand, had recommended cancellation of 24 projects for impacting biodiversity in their areas.

What and where are these 24 projects mentioned in the WII report?

In the Alaknanda and Bhagirathi sub-basins, mainly in the districts of Chamoli, Uttarkashi, Pauri and Tehri Garhwal. The total installed capacity of these projects is 3,065 MW. Some major projects in the list are: Kotli Bhel II (530 MW, on Ganga river, district Pauri); Bhairon Ghati (381 MW, on Bhagirathi river, district Uttarkashi); Kotli Bhel IB (320 MW, on Alaknanda river, district Pauri); Alaknanda (300 MW, on Alaknanda river, district Chamoli); Tamak Lata (280 MW, on Dhauli Ganga river, district Chamoli); Kotli Bhel IA (195 MW, on Bhagirathi river, district Pauri); Lata Tapovan (171 MW, on Dhauli Ganga river, district Chamoli); Karmali (140 MW, on Jadh Ganga river, district Uttarkashi); Jelam Tamak (128 MW, on Dhauli Ganga river, district Chamoli); and Maleri Jelam (114 MW, on Dhauli Ganga river, district Chamoli).


What happened after the Supreme Court order?

On October 15, 2013, MoEF constituted an expert body headed by Prof Ravi Chopra, director, People’s Science Institute, Dehradun. The Chopra committee said the construction of multiple dams affected riverine biodiversity, and small but significant rivers should be protected by law (as in Himachal Pradesh) as pristine rivers. The committee recommended that all rivers in Uttarakhand should have designated Eco-Sensitive Zones. It concluded that all 24 hydroelectric power projects identified by WII would have significant impact on biodiversity.

Was the report unanimous?

Two members, A B Pandya, chairman of the Central Water Commission, and S D Dubey, chief engineer, Central Electricity Authority, submitted a separate report to MoEF, disagreeing with the majority view that linked hydropower projects with the Uttarakhand tragedy. They said the disaster was due to inherent geological and geomorphological character of the area, and had nothing to do with hydropower structures. Ajay Verma, chief engineer of the state irrigation department, too gave a note of dissent, virtually agreeing with Pandya and Dubey.

What line has the Centre taken?

The union Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change filed an affidavit in the apex court earlier this month, conceding that hydropower projects did have “direct and indirect impact in the aggravation of (the) floods” of 2013, caused “irreversible damage” to the environment, and increased the possibility of landslides.

What is the Uttarakhand government’s position?

It rejects the report of the expert body, saying it is not above statutory provisions, its composition was not proper, and that it ignores many significant aspects of the impact of hydroelectric projects, which are non-polluting and renewable sources of energy, and essential to meet shortages. Besides, studies by the Geological Survey of India, Ministry of Water Resources, Central Electricity Authority and Central Water Commission have said that the disaster was not because of the projects. Uttarakhand also points out that a consortium of seven IITs, when asked to reconcile the reports of the WII, the Chopra committee and the dissenters, said that while none of the power projects in Uttarakhand were designed to withstand major floods, there was no evidence to suggest that these projects had contributed to the 2013 flooding.

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