Alaknanda-Badrinath hydroelectric project challenged in green tribunal

Any development in the region will have irreversible negative impacts on ecology and wildlife, say activists demanding scrapping of project

By Jyotika Sood
Published: Thursday 02 February 2012

Activists have challenged the Union environment ministry’s in-principle clearance to the proposed 300 MW hydroelectric project on the Alaknanda river before the National Green Tribunal. The project in Chamoli district of Uttarakhand is proposed three km downstream of the Hindu pilgrimage centre Badrinath. The project site is in the buffer zone of the Nanda Devi Biosphere Reserve (NDBR), which has two World Heritage Sites—Nanda Devi National Park and Valley of flowers—and is home to endangered plant and animal species, including the snow leopard and Himalayan brown bear.

A petition, seeking quashing of the project, has been filed by Vimal Bhai of Matu Jansangthan, a social organisation and Bharat Jhunjhunwala, economist and former professor of IIM, Bengaluru in Delhi on January 31. The petitioners challenged the forest clearance accorded  to the project, saying it is a threat to biodiversity in the region and has been rejected twice by the Forest Advisory Committee (FAC), the statutory body of the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) that recommends forest clearances.

Expert panel stipulations
  Union environment ministry's Expert Appraisal Committee (EAC) for River Valley and Hydro-power projects, which met on December 26 and 27, 2011, made the following recommendations for the project:
  • Environmental flow of 1 cubic metre per second (cumec) shall be maintained during lean season—October 15 to May 10—and that from May 11 to October 14, the environmental flow shall be 5 cumec. This will be over and above the spillage that takes place during monsoon.
  • Two openings in the dam shall be kept to ensure environmental flows. One opening shall be for maintaining minimum environmental flow of 1 cumec which will be ungated and unhindered. The other will be gated which will be operated when higher environmental flows of 5 cumec are to be released.
  • A continuous system for monitoring environmental flow shall be provided.
The 300 MW project on Alaknanda river is being undertaken by GMR Group and involves construction of a 18 m high diversion barrage across the river, a 2.87 km long horseshoe head race tunnel and an underground power house near Khirao Ganga. The project requires diversion of 60.513 hectares of forestland, which was approved by the forest department in November 2011.

The petition states that the ministry's Forest Advisory Committee (FAC) had rejected the project, saying “any form of development in these areas will have irreversible negative impacts on significant ecological/wildlife values.” The FAC’s decision was based on an interim report of the Wildlife Institute of India (WII) at Dehradun.
The WII report says construction of the proposed Alaknanda hydro-electric project is likely to cause severe fragmentation and degradation of wildlife habitats.

Cumulative impacts of the developmental activities will affect outstanding universal values of the two World Heritage Sites in the area; the conservation status of the core zones of NDBR has been evaluated as excellent, the report adds.

Vimal Bhai says there were five projects proposed in the region and WII was asked by MoEF to study their cumulative impact. “But MoEF without waiting for the final report of WII, accorded nod to three dams and stopped two.”

He questioned the ministry’s eagerness to award clearance to the Alaknanda-Badrinath project and alleges such a decision could have been made only at the behest of the environment minister. “When FAC had rejected a proposal twice, nobody can approve it till they have order from the minister,” he says. It is unfortunate that MoEF, which is responsible for saving biodiversity and forests, has forgotten its mandate and is giving clearance to the project at the cost of the environment; “this is unacceptable and that is the reason why we have knocked on the doors of the tribunal,” adds Vimal Bhai.

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