Government officials in expert panel on Uttarakhand disaster irk activists
Two months ago, the Supreme Court had ordered the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests ((MoEF) to constitute an expert committee to determine if hydroelectric power projects contributed to the flood disaster that hit Uttarakhand in June. But it is only now that the ministry has paid heed to the order.
The ministry constituted a committee on October 15, and has asked it to submit its final report by January 14 next year. The 17-member committee, with Dehradun-based People's Science Institute’s Ravi Chopra as its chairperson, has also been asked to draft a Himalayan policy for the state. About a month ago, Ravi Chopra had resigned from the National Ganga River Basin Authority to protest against government apathy towards environmental engineer and octogenarian activist G D Agarwal, who has been on an indefinite hunger strike to demand scrapping of all hydropower projects on the Ganga and its tributaries.
A bench of justices K S Radhakrishnan and Dipak Misra had ordered MoEF on August 13 to set up the committee. The bench, on the same day, had also ordered Uttarakhand government not to clear any hydroelectric projects in the state until further orders. It, however, had okayed the controversial Srinagar Hydro Electric Project on the Alaknanda river.
Several environment activists have protested the constitution of this committee, alleging that a few members in the group represent government agencies are primarily responsible for boom of hydropower projects undertaken in the state. A few of these members named by activists include chief engineer of Uttarakhand Water Resources Department, experts from National Institute of Rock Mechanics (NIRM) and Indian Council of Forestry Research and Education (ICFRE). It has also been alleged that these organisations had not been envisaged as part of the expert committee by the Supreme Court when it gave the orders.
“These bodies (NIRM and ICFRE) are not directly involved in hydropower projects. If the committee needed their expertise, they could have been asked to depose before the team. It is difficult to manage a large team like this,” says Chopra, chairperson of the panel.
Another member of the committee who did not wish to be named said that the committee is not comfortable with the inclusion of so many officials from government or of those with conflict of interest. This raises doubts if the committee will be allowed to function in an independent way.
Environmentalists also feel that the Supreme Court order was not only limited to Alaknanda and Bhagirathi basins, but was also applicable to the entire state. It had ordered the proposed panel to find out 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”.
Manoj Mishra, convener of non-profit Yamuna Jiye Abhiyan, says that now it is up to the committee whether it wants to look at other basins like those of the Kali and Gori rivers, where the damage has been severe. Chopra also says that the MoEF order talks of formation of a drafting a Himalayan policy. “A few members might feel that in order to accomplish the same, they would have to look into the state as a whole and not just Alaknanda-Bhagirathi basin.”
When Down to Earth called V Rajagopal, secretary of MoEF, he refused to speak. His secretary said, “Sir doesn't speak to press correspondents.” Chandi Prasad Bhatt, enowned environmentalist, whom MoEF has made the co-chairperson of the panel, refused to accept the post and has informed the ministry in writing. B P Das, another member of this expert body has formerly been the vice chairperson of MoEF’s Expert Appraisal Committee (EAC) on River Valley Projects for many years. Besides this, he also headed a committee constituted by MoEF to look into environmental compliance of 330 MW Srinagar Hydro Electric Project of GVK company. GL Bansal, a former member with EAC, is also a part of this expert committee.
Mishra feels that the EAC member who cleared the projects during his tenure would not be impartial while reviewing the same projects. He had also presided over decisions to clear projects that Wildlife Institute of India had recommended be dropped. Environmentalists fear that by making him member of this committee, he will be now sitting on the judgment the way he did for other projects.