Judges express concern over large number of power projects and dams on the Ganga and its tributaries without scientifically assessing their cumulative impact
The Supreme Court has ordered the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) to appoint an expert committee to ascertain whether existing and under-construction hydropower plants and projects in Uttarakhand contributed to the flood disaster that hit the state in June.
At the same time the apex court ordered a fresh scrutiny of the proposed 24 hydropower projects on the Alaknanda and Bhagirathi rivers, which environmental activists and expert bodies have been opposing. The Supreme Court also ordered MoEF and the Uttarakhand government not to give any more environment clearances for hydroelectric projects in Uttarakhand.
The expert body for ascertaining the role dams played in the disaster should constitute representatives of the state government, Wildlife Institute of India (WII), Central Electricity Authority, Central Water Commission and other expert bodies, the court said.
Dhari Devi reappears
The bench of justices K S Radhakrishnan and Dipak Misra gave the order while hearing a special leave petition of Alaknanda Hydro Power Company Limited, a subsidiary of infrastructure major GVK. The appeal challenged the Uttarakhand High Court direction to hold public hearing for increasing height of dam of the controversial Srinagar Hydro Electric Project on the Alaknanda river. Residents of Srinagar, the Bharatiya Janata Party, activists and spiritual leaders have been opposing the project as it would submerge the Dhari Devi temple (the temple deity was removed from the original rock outcrop during the Uttarakhand floods).
The Supreme Court in its order expressed concern over the large number of hydro-electric projects mushrooming in Uttarakhand and their impact on the Alaknanda and the Bhagirathi river basins. “The cumulative impact of those project components like dams, tunnels, blasting, power-house, muck disposal, mining, deforestation etc. on eco-system, is yet to be scientifically examined,” the bench observed.
The court directed MoEF to examine the proposed 24 projects likely to cause significant impact on the biodiversity of the Alaknanda and the Bhagirathi river basins. The impact of these projects was brought to public notice by Dehradun-based WII. The institute made an impact assessment of hydro power projects on aquatic and terrestrial biodiversity in Alaknanda and Bhagirathi basins.
Bharat Jhunjhunwala, retired IIM professor, who is one of the petitioners to challenge the Srinagar hydro project, said the apex court order has cleared the air about proposed and ongoing projects. "The Supreme Court has given clear-cut orders to re-examine 24 out of total 39 proposed projects and said no further environment and forest clearance to any hydel project, until further order," said Jhunjhunwala.
According to the website of Uttarakhand Jal Vidyut Nigam Limited, 45 hydropower projects with a total capacity of 3,164 MW are operational in Uttarakhand, and around 199 big and small projects are proposed or under way in the state. In the Alaknanda-Bhagirathi (tributaries of the Ganga) basin alone, which is said to be most impacted, 69 hydropower projects with a total capacity of 9,000 MW are under way, according to the high level Inter-Ministerial Group (IMG) formed by the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests to consider matters relating to environmental flows and hydropower projects on the Ganga and its tributaries. As per the report, implementation of all 69 projects would affect 81 per cent of the Bhagirathi and 65 per cent of the Alaknanda.
AHEC study lacked depth
The apex court in its 72-page order (pdf) says the the study conducted by Alternate Hydro Energy Centre (AHEC) to asses cumulative impact of hydro-power projects on the Alaknanda and the Bhagirathi lacked depth. The National River Conservation Directorate (NRCD) of MoEF had asked AHEC and IIT Roorkee to carry out the study, which finalized in December, 2012.
The order has also indicted the disaster management authority of Uttarakhand for its inability to manage the flood-induced disaster in the state. The court has asked the authority to submit a report in three months as to whether it had any disaster management plan in place and how effective that plan proved when the tragedy of unprecedented scale struck Uttarakhand.