The August 13, 2013, order of the Supreme Court on Uttarakhand hydropower projects is possibly yet another wake-up call for the Ministry of Environment and Forests and the Uttarakhand government — the first, of course, being the disastrous floods of June 2013.
While disposing of a bunch of petitions regarding the controversial 330 MW Srinagar hydropower project on the Alaknanda river in Uttarakhand, the Supreme Court bench of Justices K. S. Radhakrishnan and Dipak Misra have given some welcome directions.
The most pertinent and interesting part of the order is under “Court’s concerns”, in the last section of the 72-page order.
In these pages, the order notes that AHEC (Alternate Hydro Energy Centre at IIT, Roorkee) has not done the cumulative impact assessment it was asked to do. This is very important to note (para 46): “We have gone through the Reports and, prima facie , we are of the view that the AHEC Report has not made any in-depth study on the cumulative impact of all project components, like construction of dam, tunnels, blasting, power-house, Muck disposal, mining, deforestation etc. by the various projects in question and its consequences on Alaknanda as well as Bhagirathi river basins so also on Ganga which is a pristine river.”
After this clear statement from the apex court, no one should rely on this report now on. It also exposes the poor work of this institute.
The operative part of the order has four parts:
“(1) We direct the MoEF as well as State of Uttarakhand not to grant any further environmental clearance or forest clearance for any hydroelectric power project in the State of Uttarakhand, until further orders.”
This means that environment or forest clearance to any hydropower projects of any size in entire Uttarakhand cannot be given either by MoEF or by the Government of Uttarakhand till further orders.
“(2) MoEF is directed to constitute an Expert Body consisting of representatives of the State Government, WII (Wildlife Institute of India), 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 the month of June 2013.”
This direction has two parts: one, an assessment of the cumulative impact of existing and under-construction hydropower projects on environment degradation in Uttarakhand; and two, an assessment of the extent of the impact of the projects on the Uttarakhand flood disaster.
Only an independent panel with a sufficient number of independent, non-government members can provide a credible report in this regard. The committee should be chaired by a non-government person of the stature of Madhav Gadgil. MoEF should soon constitute such an expert body and also ask the expert body to hold public hearings at various relevant places and seek wider public consultation. The mandate of the committee should be all of Uttarakhand, and not just the Bhagirathi and Alaknanda sub-basins. The committee should have credible and independent geologists, sociologists, environmentalists, river experts and disaster management experts.
“(3) MoEF is directed to examine, as noticed by WII in its report, as to whether the proposed 24 projects are causing significant impact on the biodiversity of Alaknanda and Bhagirathi River basins.”
It was the MoEF that had asked WII to submit a report on the cumulative impact of hydropower projects in the Upper Ganga basin in Uttarakhand on aquatic and terrestrial biodiversity. There is no reason for the MoEF to reject the clear recommendation of the WII report that the 24 projects listed by it should be dropped. The clearances given to projects such as the 300 MW Alaknanda Badrinath HEP of GMR should be suspended immediately, keeping this direction in mind.
“(4) The Disaster Management Authority, Uttarakhand would submit a Report to this Court as to whether they had any Disaster Management Plan in place in the State of Uttarakhand and how effective that plan was for combating the present unprecedented tragedy at Uttarakhand.”
This direction should have also been for the National Disaster Management Authority, since the preparation of a proper State disaster management plan and the setting up of the machinery for its implementation is also a mandate of the NDMA. This is particularly important in view of the failure of the NDMA as well, noted in the CAG report of March 2013. In view of para 52 of the order, — “Reports would be submitted within a period of three months. Communicate the order to the Central and State Disaster Management Authority, Uttarakhand” — it is implied that the NDMA is also to submit a report.
These orders are welcome in view of the fact that hydropower projects in Uttarakhand have certainly played a big role in increasing the likelihood and magnitude of disasters such as the recent floods.
More than twenty groups and individuals of Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh and other States wrote to the MoEF in July 2013 asking for suspension of hydropower projects that have prime facie played such a role, and set up an independent enquiry. The MoEF has not yet responded to this letter. The Supreme Court has done well to ask for an inquiry. This order also signifies the failure of the MoEF and the Uttarakhand government, since each of the orders shows these agencies have not performed their tasks, and not been accountable to their mandate.
( The author is with South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People_.