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16 hours ago - Modi's Development B Damned Opinion » Comment December 16, 2014 Updated: December 16, 2014 01:56 IST Damned by development Kavita Upadhyay in ...

Opinion » Comment

Updated: December 16, 2014 01:56 IST

Damned by development

Kavita Upadhyay

“Residents blamed muck deposition from the Srinagar hydroelectric project for raising the Alaknanda river bed, which flooded the downstream areas of the town.” Picture shows soldiers repairing a footbridge during the 2013 floods.
“Residents blamed muck deposition from the Srinagar hydroelectric project for raising the Alaknanda river bed, which flooded the downstream areas of the town.” Picture shows soldiers repairing a footbridge during the 2013 floods.

Though the Union Environment Ministry acknowledges its damage, Uttarakhand’s hydroelectric project-driven development agenda remains unchanged

Chaaen, a village atop a hill in the picturesque Alaknanda Valley, is infamous for getting a hydroelectric project into trouble. I first visited the village last year while covering the worst flood disaster Uttarakhand had witnessed.
On June 26, 2013, as I stood at Narendra Singh’s verandah in Chaaen, I noticed how the walls had developed cracks and the verandah itself stood at a minor angle.
“The reason,” Narendra explained, “is that the land beneath is sinking. In 2007, the tunnel of the Vishnuprayag hydroelectric project (400 MW) that passes under the hill, on which Chaaen stands, had started leaking.”
Project authorities, however, denied any leakage.
The evidence of disaster was visible across the village — there were dried springs, perished agriculture and sinking land. And this was not the only village in the State where all this could be seen.
I learnt about the problems created by dams in Srinagar town, a part of which got buried as the Alaknanda River gushed past the area. The residents blamed muck deposition from the Srinagar hydroelectric project (330 MW) for raising the river bed, which eventually flooded the downstream areas of the town.
Local residents in every village I visited pointed an accusing finger at the dams being constructed as responsible for the massive floods. At Govindghat, residents complained about the damage to the Vishnuprayag hydroelectric project’s barrage. Kushal Singh Rawat, who lived a kilometre downstream of the barrage, recalled: “In Lambagar, the entire market... around 40 stores, agricultural land, vehicles, houses, a primary school, the Panchayat Bhawan... all got swept away.”
The State seems keen on building large hydroelectric projects to fulfil its lopsided development agenda
A year later, an ongoing case in the Supreme Court has brought back attention to questions of the viability of hydroelectric projects in Uttarakhand. In the most recent development, the Union Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEFCC) submitted an affidavit in the Supreme Court on December 5 accepting that the hydroelectric projects “aggravated the impact of floods.”
While the MoEFCC’s stance has been welcomed by environmentalists, it has delivered a blow to the Uttarakhand government and the companies building these projects as the State’s development agenda is linked to its capacity to generate hydroelectric power.
In the backdrop of the 2013 Uttarakhand flood, the Supreme Court had directed the Union Environment Ministry to constitute an expert body to assess whether hydroelectric projects, both those existing and those under construction, have contributed to the environmental degradation in the State and, if so, to what extent, and also whether it has contributed to the disaster.
In the same order, the Supreme Court also ordered the Ministry to examine whether the 24 projects mentioned by the Wildlife Institute of India in its report are causing significant impact on the biodiversity of Alaknanda and Bhagirathi river basins.
The expert body submitted its report — the Chopra Committee Report — to the MoEF in April this year. A member of the Central Electricity Authority (CEA) and another of the Central Water Commission (CWC), who disagreed with the expert body, submitted a separate report to the MoEF.
While the Chopra Committee report elucidated the catastrophic role played by the hydroelectric projects during the deluge, the CEA-CWC report mentioned there was “no link, direct or indirect, between the developments of hydroelectric projects with the Uttarakhand tragedy.”
In the December 5 affidavit, the MoEFCC dismissed the CEA-CWC report. The proceedings in the Supreme Court therefore are now based on the findings, observations, and recommendations of the Chopra Committee report.
What the report says

The Chopra Committee Report presents a strong case against projects between 2,200 and 2,500 metres above the sea level — paraglacial regions — which have loose glacial debris (moraines) which when carried downstream can be disastrous, as was witnessed in the Vishnuprayag project, during the 2013 deluge. Some of the projects among the 24 lie in the paraglacial regions.
The report states that intensive debris was brought to the hydropower projects along with the river water due to flash floods. The report quotes data from a geochemical analysis which shows significant presence of muck from the Srinagar project. According to the analysis, the muck from the dam site was present in a quantity that varied between 47 per cent near the dam site to 23 per cent in the downstream areas.
Though the CWC, the State, and the THDC (Tehri Hydro Development Corporation) officials claimed that the Tehri dam saved places such as Rishikesh and Hardwar from getting flooded during the deluge, the expert body states in its report that the Tehri dam has not been designed for the purpose of flood control and can retain water only up to their Full Reservoir Level (FRL). The report states that during the pre-monsoon time the reservoir has the capacity to retain the waters and save the downstream areas from getting flooded, but in the year 2010, the water levels had risen beyond the permitted FRL and the upstream areas like Chinyalisaur were inundated.
Skewed development agenda

Though the Union Environment Ministry acknowledges the damage caused by hydroelectric projects in its submission to the Supreme Court, the State’s hydroelectric project-driven development agenda has remained unchanged. “The State has planned an ambitious programme to develop 450 hydropower projects to harness its potential of 27,039 MW,” the Chopra Committee report states. So, the State seems keen on building large hydroelectric projects to fulfil its lopsided development agenda.
From the list of 24 projects, the discussion in the Supreme Court has now come down to six projects: Lata Tapovan (171 MW), Alaknanda Badrinath (300 MW), Kotlibhel 1A (195 MW), Jhelum Tamak (128 MW), Bhyundar Ganga (24.8 MW), and Khirao Ganga (4.5 MW) — and amidst all the development plans the issue of disaster mitigation has taken a back seat.
The hazards of the current project of dam building in Uttarakhand have already been laid out in several reports. It is unfortunate that the risks are known, but ignored by governments and companies building dams. It is hoped that the court will deliver justice now.

SC tells Centre, Uttarakhand not to grant clearance for hydroelectric power projects

J. Venkatesan

Ministry of Environment and Forests directed to constitute an expert body to make detailed study

The Supreme Court has directed the Ministry of Environment and Forests as well as the State of Uttarakhand not to grant any further environmental clearance or forest clearance for any hydroelectric power projects in Uttarakhand until further orders.
A Bench of Justices K.S. Radhakrishnan and Dipak Misra gave this direction while expressing serious concern over the mushrooming of large number of hydroelectric projects in Uttarakhand and its impact on Alaknanda and Bhagirathi river basins.
Writing the judgment Mr. Justice Radhakrishnan said “We are also deeply concerned with the recent tragedy, which has affected the Char Dham area of Uttarakhand. Wadia Institute of Himalayan Geology (WIG) recorded 350 mm of rain on June 15-16, 2013. Snowfall ahead of the cloudburst also has contributed to the floods resulting in the burst on the banks of Chorabari Lake near Kedarnath, leading to large scale calamity leading to loss of human lives and property. The adverse effect of the existing projects, projects under construction and proposed, on the environment and ecology calls for a detailed scientific study. Proper Disaster Management Plan, it is seen, is also not in place, resulting in loss of lives and property.”
The Bench quoting a study said “69 hydropower projects with a capacity of 9,020.30 MW are proposed in Bhagirathi and Alaknanda basins. This includes 17 projects which are operational with a capacity of 2,295.2 MW. In addition, 26 projects with a capacity of 3,261.3 MW (including 600 MW Lohari Nagpala hydropower project, work on which has been suspended by the Government decision) which were under construction, 11 projects with a capacity of 2,350 MW CEA/TEC clearances and 16 projects with a capacity of 1,673.8 MW under development. The implementation of the above 69 hydropower projects has extensive implications for other needs of this society and the river itself. It is noticed that the implementation of all the above projects will lead to 81 per cent of Bhagirathi and 65 per cent of Alaknanda getting affected.”
The Bench said “The cumulative impact of those project components like dams, tunnels, blasting, powerhouse, muck disposal, mining, deforestation etc. on eco-system, is yet to be scientifically examined.” Hence the Court issued a series of directions, viz. direction to the MoEF and to the State of Uttarakhand not to grant any further environmental clearance or forest clearance for any hydroelectric power project in the State until further orders; “MoEF is directed to constitute an expert body consisting of representatives of the State Government, WII, Central Electricity Authority, Central Water Commission and other expert bodies to make a detailed study as to whether Hydroelectric Power Projects existing and under construction have contributed to the environmental degradation, if so, to what extent and also whether it has contributed to the present tragedy occurred at Uttarakhand in June 2013; MoEF is directed to examine as to whether the proposed 24 projects are causing significant impact on the biodiversity of Alaknanda and Bhagirath river basins.
The Bench asked the Disaster Management Authority, Uttarakhand to submit a report to this Court as to whether they had any Disaster Management Plan in place and how effective that plan was for combating the present unprecedented tragedy in Uttarakhand.

Opinion » Lead

Updated: July 16, 2014 13:14 IST

Dams without responsibility

Meena Menon
Comment (19)    

Uttarakhand has to ensure that the quest for hydropower cannot come without a responsibility to preserve a region that is limping back to life.

The devastation in Uttarakhand had already happened much before the cataclysmic events of June 2013. The unprecedented rainfall and floods and loss of life drew attention to the alarming situation in a State known for its pristine forests and rivers. It also drew attention belatedly to the “bumper to bumper” dams in the mountains.
Construction on all dams in Uttarakhand was halted by the Supreme Court in August 2013 and on its instructions, the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) appointed an expert body which said that 23 hydropower projects out of the 24 it was asked to examine would have an irreversible impact on the biodiversity of the Alaknanda and Bhagirathi basins and should not be constructed.
In May, the Supreme Court reiterated its orders stopping work on the 24 hydropower projects examined by the body. While all this amounts to shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted, it is a measure of recognition of the man-made destruction wrought by unplanned hydel power projects in a sensitive and fragile ecosystem.
Endangering the Ganga

The body’s report said, “The problem with the dams is their location in a high or very high biodiversity value area, some of them at elevations above 2,200-2,500 metres. These altitudes come in the paraglacial and glacial zones and in these zones, the rivers are capable of mobilizing tremendous amounts of sediments, under intense rainfall conditions, from the moraine left behind in the past by receding glaciers. In such situations, they cause havoc in the vicinity of dams as witnessed at the Vishnuprayag barrage site and below during the June 2013 disaster.”
The State of Uttarakhand is a part of the Ganga basin and rivers suffer from several depradations apart from dams in high places, including extensive pollution from untreated sewage. Despite huge amounts of money being spent, plans to clean up the river have failed miserably. An IIT-led consortium has been set up to prepare a master plan for the National Ganga River Basin Authority (NGRBA), to restore its “wholesomeness,” as the extended summary of a draft Ganga River Basin Management plan says. Citing anthropogenic activities, it says dams and barrages have snapped her “longitudinal connectivity.”
While the recent Ganga Manthan event in Delhi attracted more than its fair share of sadhus, there were a few who spoke against dams and said that they were a threat to the river’s existence. But the focus was on keeping the river Ganga “aviral and nirmal” (continuous and unpolluted flow). Activists said only cleaning up the river will not restore it. Some pointed to the lack of studies of the entire river system and hydrological data which was a secret. Since the Ganga is glacier fed, the climate change impact in the Himalayan ecosystem and on the receding Gangotri and other glaciers are also of paramount importance.
In its report of March 2013, the Inter-Ministerial Group (IMG) on Issues Relating to River Ganga says that the development of new hydro power projects has an impact on the environment, the ecology, the biodiversity, both terrestrial and aquatic, and economic and social life. Crucially, it says that in the upper reaches of the river — where the oxygenating abilities of the river are the highest — there are growing signs of contamination. This suggests that even here, water withdrawal for hydroelectricity is endangering the health of the Ganga. Implementation of the 69 hydro power projects will lead to 81 per cent of the Bhagirathi and 65 per cent of the Alaknanda getting affected. The IMG had considered the need to have portions of the river free of hydro projects and recommended that six rivers should be kept in pristine form.
Cumulative impact

In the Alaknanda and Bhagirathi basins, the report said that 17 dams have been commissioned with a total installed capacity of 1,851 MW. Fourteen projects of 2,538 MW capacity are in different stages of construction and 39 projects with an installed capacity of 4,644 MW are in different stages of planning. The expert body report said that if all the 450 dams in the State are completed, about 252 projects will each have an installed capacity of 5MW or more. The vast majority of them will divert rivers through tunnels to power houses downstream. Their combined impact will affect the landscape of Uttarakhand. The environment management plans of individual projects do not address the cumulative impacts of multiple projects in a river valley.
With dams proposed on major rivers for every 20 to 25 kilometre stretch, large fragments of these rivers could be left with minimal flow as almost all the river water is extracted for producing hydroelectricity, the body’s report has said. Prof. Ravi Chopra, chairperson of the body said that tunnelling is also controversial and leads to damage with natural springs being diverted and homes developing cracks. The government has only looked at the need to generate power and not the impact on the environment. On field visits, the body noticed scarred landscapes, dry river beds and a complete disappearance of riverine ecosystems due to submergence at existing and under construction large hydropower projects such as Tehri Stage I and Koteshwar on the Bhagirathi basin and the Srinagar dam in the Alaknanda basin.

If all the dams are built, studies indicate a loss of biodiversity. A National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI) report, quoted by the body, has highlighted the effect of the Tehri dam on the unique self-purifying ability of Gangajal. It attributed this property to river sediments; data indicated that the blocking of sediments behind the Tehri dam diminished this property.
Extensive deforestation and diversion of forest land too has posed problems. The body found that 80,826.91 hectares of forests have been diverted for non-forest use in Uttarakhand since 1980. The diversion for hydropower production is 5,312.11 ha. Most of the diversion for roads and hydropower has been in Uttarkashi, Rudraprayag, Chamoli and Pithoragarh districts, the areas most affected in the June 2013 disaster.

People have been agitating against dams for years in the region, notably Tehri. In 2010-11, and for the first time for any project, there were three public hearings on the Devsari hydel project on the Pinder. After two hearings, the third one was accepted by the government, according to Vimalbhai of the Matu Jansangthan which led protests along with the Bhu-Swami Sangharsh Samiti. He says this was the first major protest after the ones against Tehri. A public hearing was also organised where many voiced their opposition to the dams and on the need to keep the undammed tributary of the Ganga that way. He referred to the pathetic status of the catchment area, and the lack of studies on water flows and climate change impacts. The people displaced by the Tehri dam are still to get land rights or basic amenities in their relocated homes, he added.
Local people who have borne the brunt of the devastation due to dams and floods and environmental groups have questioned the feasibility of dams. By all accounts there is cause for concern as reflected in many reports. Even as the Uttarakhand government proposes to approach the Supreme Court in a bid to get a green signal for dam construction, it must remember this. It has to ensure that the quest for hydropower cannot come without a responsibility to preserve a region that is limping back to life after a calamity aggravated by unplanned human interventions neither scientifically assessed nor endorsed by the people of the region.

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