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Ban on new hydel projects in Uttarakhand: 2 years ago, PMO set tough green rules but Rawat saw red

Uttarakhand CM sent letter to PM on jobs, energy security; SC awaits Govt unified stand.

Written by Jay Mazoomdaar | New Delhi |
Updated: February 14, 2021 8:56:38 pm
Uttarakahand Tapovan hydel projectSite of the Tapovan hydel project as rescue works are underway, two days after a glacier broke off in Joshimath causing massive flood in Dhauli Ganga River, in Chamoli district of Uttarakhand, Monday, Feb 8, 2021. (Express photo by Gajendra Yadav)

At least two power projects hit by the glacial flood burst in Uttarakhand last Sunday — in which over 150 workers are still feared missing or trapped — were in a list of 13 flagged at a meeting in the Prime Minister’s Office exactly two years ago.

That meeting, records show, ordered a permanent ban on any new hydro-electric project on the Ganga or its tributaries in Uttarakhand; froze those where construction had not reached the halfway mark and came up with strong recommendations against sand mining and boulder crushing.

However, these decisions have been in cold storage as the Uttarakhand government, led by CM Trivendra Singh Rawat, in an affidavit to the Supreme Court in August 2020, sought “re-commencement of hydro power development.”

The apex court had imposed a ban soon after the 2013 floods that ravaged the state. That case is pending as the three stakeholder ministries — Environment, Water Resources, and Power — are yet to place their unified stand on the matter before the apex court.

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The state’s opposition shouldn’t have come as a surprise.

Less than three weeks after the PMO meeting on February 25, 2019, records show, CM Rawat wrote to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, underlining the importance of hydroelectricity for the state’s energy security and for providing jobs in its remote hilly areas.

In the letter, Rawat pointed out that 34 hydel projects, with a cumulative capacity of 4084 MW, are stuck in Uttarakhand due to the declaration of Bhagirathi eco-sensitive zone between Gomukh and Uttarkashi in 2012, and the ban imposed by the SC in 2013.

“The main reasons for under-exploitation of the country’s hydel potential are high tariff due to heavy capital investment, long construction period, delay in getting clearances from different ministries and the judicial system etc… In this context, the state desperately needs your deft guidance,” Rawat wrote.

The PMO’s meeting was meant to formulate a unified position of the government before the Supreme Court after the Water Resources Ministry, then under Uma Bharti, opposed the Environment Ministry’s “self-contradictory” affidavit filed in January 2016 allowing hydel projects in the Upper Ganga stretch.

Besides the question of policy for new hydel projects, on the table were 13 specific projects, including the NTPC’s 520-MW Tapovan-Vishnugad on Dhauliganga where over 150 workers are feared missing or trapped in a tunnel, and THDC’s 444-MW Pipalkot on Alaknanda, both damaged by the glacier burst last Sunday.

The meeting was chaired by Nripendra Misra, then Principal Secretary to the Prime Minister, and was attended by top officials of the Ministries of Power, Environment and Water Resources and from the Uttarakhand government.

The decisions at the PMO meeting are yet to be placed before the SC by the Centre. When contacted, Misra declined to comment.

When asked if there was a policy rethink after he wrote to the PM, Chief Minister Rawat’s office directed all queries to the state power department.

“We have not taken up any new projects as per the decision taken at the PMO meeting. The Chief Minister wrote to the Honourable PM in the context of grid stability and the state’s hydel potential. Our submission before the SC is that we accepted the Environment Ministry’s draft expert report and its recommendations in 2017,” said Sandeep Singhal, managing director, Uttarakhand Jal Vidyut Nigam Ltd.

When asked if the PMO meeting and the CM’s letter superseded the 2017 report, Singhal declined to comment.

Among the decisions taken at the February 2019 PMO meeting:

* Complete seven projects: These include the two damaged in last Sunday’s flood where more than 50% work was already over.

* Check and allow three projects: 195 MW Kotli Bhel 1A; 320 MW Kotli Bhel-1B; and 171 MW Lata Tapovan — of the Power Ministry if more than 50% work was already complete.

* Uttarakhand to approach Finance Commission to seek compensation for revenue loss and opportunity cost.

Meanwhile, in its affidavit to the SC in August 2020, Uttarakhand went back to the 2017 Environment Ministry draft to seek resumption in hydro power development, citing “acute power shortage” which has been forcing the state “to purchase electricity amounting to Rs 1000 crore” per year.

Between disasters, the hydel timeline

· Soon after 2013 floods, SC barred new hydel projects in Uttarakhand and set up an Expert Body (EB) to assess the role of “mushrooming of hydropower projects” in escalating the impact of the flash floods.

· In April 2014, the EB, led by Ravi Chopra of People’s Science Institute, submitted its report on the impact of 24 proposed projects.

· In its affidavit in December 2014, the Environment Ministry accepted that hydel projects had exacerbated the disaster both directly (by blockage) and indirectly (by ecological damage).

· The SC lifted the statewide ban and only the 24 projects in question were put on hold until policies were finalised.

· Six aggrieved developers joined the case with the plea that their projects be allowed since they had MoEF clearances.

· The apex court directed the MoEF to set up yet another committee — now to consider these six projects as a cluster.

· This four-member committee, under Vinod Tare of IIT-Kanpur, in its report submitted in February 2015, warned that allowing these projects could have a serious impact on the region’s ecology.

· In May 2015, the MoEF formed 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 6 projects: NTPC’s 171-MW Lata Tapovan; Super Hydro’s 4-MW Khironi Ganga; 24-MW Bhyunder Ganga, NHPC’s 195-MW Kotli Bhel-IA, GMR’s 300-MW Alaknanda and Tehri Hydro Power’s 108-MW Jhelum Tamak.

· In October 2015, the MoEF told the SC that the BP Das committee cleared five of the six projects, but it would consult the other stakeholder ministries — Power and Ganga Rejuvenation — before finalising the policy.

· In January 2016, the MoEF said in an affidavit that the government had reached a policy decision to allow any hydel project that releases at least 1,000 cusecs (cubic feet per second) of water into the Ganga or its tributaries.

· The Water Resources ministry maintained that no policy consensus had been reached and subsequently filed its own affidavit. The impasse continues.

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