Updated: August 27, 2021 7:26:07 am
Eight years after the Supreme Court imposed a moratorium on clearing hydro-electric projects in Uttarakhand following a flash flood that killed over 5,000 people in June 2013, the Union ministries of Environment, Power and Jal Shakti have reached a consensus on allowing construction of seven hydel projects on the Ganga and its tributaries in the state.
The consensus was conveyed in a consolidated affidavit placed in the Supreme Court on August 17 by the Environment Ministry.
On the list is NTPC’s 4×130 MW Tapovan Vishnugad project which was ravaged by a flash flood in the Dhauli Ganga river in Chamoli district in February this year. The others are the 1000 MW Tehri Stage II, 444 MW Vishnugad Pipalkote, 99 MW Singoli Bhatwari, 76 MW Phata Buyong, 15 MW Madmaheshwar and 4.5 MW Kaliganga-II.
If accepted by the Supreme Court, this may pave the way for several other hydel projects in the state because these seven projects “form part of 26 projects recommended… for implementation, duly incorporating certain improvements/suggestions ” by the latest expert committee constituted in the case by the Environment ministry.
Ever since the Supreme Court moratorium in August 2013, the Environment ministry has formed several experts panels and switched its position from accepting the first expert committee’s report that blamed dams for exacerbating the 2013 disaster to backing the latest expert committee’s conclusion that 26 hydel projects could go ahead with certain design modifications.
This is the chequered timeline:
- 2009: Uttarakhand drafted its Vision 2020 statement on the theme of ‘Pahad Ka Pani, Pahad Ki Jawani’.
- 2012: A report by Wildlife Institute of India (WII) opposed 24 proposed dams to safeguard the Alaknanda and Bhagirathi basins. Another by IIT-Roorkee said a string of measures could reduce the impact.
- 2013: Taking suo motu cognizance of the Kedarnath disaster and its impact downstream, the SC stopped clearance of hydel projects, and asked the Environment ministry to form an Expert Body (EB) to assess the role of “mushrooming of hydropower projects” in escalating the impact of the flash floods.
- 2014: In April, the EB, led by environmentalist Ravi Chopra, submitted its report, which agreed with the WII’s recommendation.
In December, the Environment ministry’s affidavit accepted EB’s findings that hydel projects exacerbated the disaster both directly (by blockage) and indirectly (by ecological damage).
The SC lifted the statewide ban, putting on hold only the 24 projects in question until policies finalised.
Six hydel developers joined the case, pleading that their proposed projects be allowed to go ahead since they already had clearances. The SC directed the ministry to set up another committee to consider these six projects.
- 2015: In February, a four-member committee, under Vinod Tare of IIT-Kanpur, acknowledged that the six projects had necessary clearances, but warned that the proposed dams could have a serious impact on the region’s ecology. The Environment ministry, however, presented before the court only the fact that the six projects had all clearances.
Following media reports, the SC asked for the entire report. Unfazed, the ministry decided, in May 2015, to form yet another committee, under the chairmanship of B P Das, who, as vice-chairman of the ministry’s expert appraisal committee, had earlier cleared three of these six projects.
In October 2015, the ministry told the SC that the Das committee recommended all six projects, but it would still consult the other stakeholder ministries. The fate of these six projects remain undecided.
- 2016: In January, the Environment proposed a policy decision — based on a 1916 agreement between Madan Mohan Malviya and the colonial government — to allow any hydel project that releases at least 1,000 cusecs of water into the Ganga.
Uma Bharti, then minister for Ganga Rejuvenation, objected to this submission made without reaching a policy consensus. The SC asked the ministries to file their own affidavits. In May 2016, the Power ministry backed the Environment but the Jal Shakti ministry opposed it.
- 2017: In November, Uttarakhand underlined the criticality of hydropower for its socio-economic development.
- 2018: In January, the Power ministry supported Uttarakhand’s stand.
- 2019: In January, Jal Shakti ministry agreed to back seven projects “which already made substantial progress and sizable investment” with the caveat that no more hydel projects should be allowed in the Ganga basin in Uttarakhand.
In February, a meeting in PMO recommended a permanent ban on new hydro-electric projects in the Ganga basin in Uttarakhand, seeking to stop work on projects where construction had not reached the halfway mark, and compensate the state.
- 2020: In March, Das committee filed the final report. In August, Uttarakhand sought “re-commencement of hydro power development”.
- 2021: In February, a flash flood hit two hydel projects in Chamoli. In August, the government backed seven projects, including the one damaged in February.
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