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Published on: Feb. 23, 2021, 12:33 p.m.
Development vs ecology
  • Disturbed ecosystem wreaks havoc; Pix courtesy: PIB

By Rakesh Joshi. Executive Editor, Business India

The devastating flash flood, which hit the Chamoli district in Uttarakhand, has once again underlined the dangers of building infrastructure projects in the highly seismic and geologically unstable mountainous region. While the jury is out on what caused the flash flood, the accident has revived the debate on the need to reassess the sustainability of high-altitude development projects. 

Following the devastating flash floods in Kedarnath in 2013, the Supreme Court had appointed an Expert Appraisal Committee, led by environmentalist Ravi Chopra, to look into the viability of 24 hydro-electric projects as having significant impacts on the ecosystems of the Alaknanda and Bhagirathi river basins. The committee looked into the 24 projects planned at elevations of more than 2,500 metres and recommended an immediate stoppage to 23 of the projects. It also recommended a review of all the under-construction and proposed hydro power projects, which entail tunnelling, formation of a barrage or a reservoir.

The report was submitted to the ministry of environment & forests on April 2014, a month before the Congress-led UPA demitted power. The BJP, which assumed office shortly thereafter, has yet to take a decision on the report, owing to sharp inter-ministerial differences and the Uttarakhand government’s stand against the cessation of these projects.

This is despite the conclusions reached by top officials at the Prime Minister’s Office, where a meeting reportedly mooted 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 sought ‘re-commencement of hydro power development’.

Chief Minister Trivendra Singh Rawat wrote to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, underlining the importance of hydro-electric projects for the state’s energy security and for providing jobs in its remote hilly areas. The state government also submitted in an affidavit to the Supreme Court in August 2020 in this connection. 

Futile exercise

With elections in Uttarakhand due next year, it is unlikely that a ban would be opposed now. The Uttarakhand government also claims it is facing an acute shortage of power and has been forced to purchase electricity amounting to Rs1,000 crore annually.  

Indeed, a clear government policy on hydro-electric projects remains elusive. There are divergent views between three Union ministries – environment and power ministries, on one side, and water resources on the other.  While the environment and power ministries had said in their affidavits in 2016 that they supported construction of the hydro-electric projects, the water resources ministry opposed new power plants in the ‘ecologically-sensitive areas’ of the Ganga basin. The water resources ministry, which has also been tasked with cleaning up of the Ganga river, holds the view that, without protecting the natural, unhindered flow of water in the river and its tributaries, rejuvenation of Ganga is a futile exercise.

On the other hand, lawyers in the case – those representing plant owners, as well as NGOs – blame the Central government and the apex court for the delay in framing guidelines for operation of power plants in Uttarakhand.

The Himalayan glacier network is responsible for feeding massive perennial river-systems like Ganga, Brahmaputra and Indus. Apart from the water flowing through these systems, the glaciers represent huge energy generation potential. According to official assessments published by the ministry of power, the Himalayan states carry over 104 Gigawatt (1 GW = 1,000 megawatts) of hydro power potential, of which only about 20 GW have been currently tapped.

Successive governments have continued with the policy of high altitude hydropower projects as a ‘sustainable source of energy’ through a series of small projects situated higher up in the mountains. Several hydro projects, fed through tunnels bored into mountain ranges, have cropped up across all of the Himalayan states. Such a policy, however, does not factor in the imprints of climate change. Most of the projects are not planned to handle sudden surges in river flow, or equipped with any early warning systems.

In the focus now is the Char Dham Road Project, which seeks to widen the road linking four religious destinations – Yamunotri, Gangotri, Kedarnath and Badrinath. Experts like Ravi Chopra have sought to link the construction of the project in the eco-fragile zone to the flash floods. The government has debunked the claim.

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