Two years of Uttarakhand Flood Disaster of June 2013: Why is state & centre gambling with the Himalayas, the Ganga & lives of millions?

Its two years since Uttarakhand faced its worst ever flood disaster during June 15-17, 2013. We remember such tragedies to ensure that we learn the necessary lessons. So that in future such tragedies are not repeated or their dimensions are reduced. One of the enduring debates since that the Uttarakhand tragedy has been about the role of existing and under construction hydropower projects in increasing the proportions of the disaster.

A lot of water has flown down the Ganga in these two years, so let us revisit the important milestones of that debate. Within two months of the disaster, a bench led by Justice Radhakrishnan gave an order on Aug 13, 2013[1], asking the Union Ministry of Environment, Forests & Climate Change (MoEF&CC) to appoint an independent panel to assess the role played by existing and under construction hydropower projects in the disaster.

The Expert Body (EB) led by Ravi Chopra Committee so formed in Oct 2013 gave its report in April 2014. The EB report said[2], to recapture only briefly:

  • The existing and under construction hydropower projects had indeed increased the proportion of the disaster.
  • Out of the 24 HEPs in Upper Ganga basin, about which the 2012 Wildlife Institute of India (WII) report had recommended to be dropped, 23 projects should be dropped and even the 24th project should go ahead only after significant modifications.
  • “… the EB recommends that terrain above the MCT[3] in general and above the winter snow line in particular (~2200-2500 m) should be kept free from the hydropower intervention in Uttarakhand.” This zone is fragile in nature due to unpredictable glacial and paraglacial activities.
  • The EB recommended a large number of other actions and studies, but we are not going into the details here.

In May 2014, the MoEF asked the Supreme Court for another committee to look into the recommendations of the EB, which, the SC bench, still headed by Justice Radhakrishnan, rejected.

Justice Radhakrishnan retired from the Supreme Court on May 14, 2014 and Justice Dipak Misra have headed the bench in this matter thereafter.

In June 2014, while remembering the one year of tragedy, we published an article[4] showing pictures of numerous damaged hydropower projects, possibly for the first time.

As Business Standard reported[5], in August 2014 hearing, the court’s focus shifted. It asked the government to present a report on each specific project, “so that the report can be appreciated from proper perspective”. This was divorced from the cumulative impacts perspective that was necessary.

In Oct 2014[6], the Supreme Court asked MoEF to hold discussions with developers of three (three more projects were added latter on, making the total of six HEPs, a subset of the 24 HEPs that WII had recommended to be dropped in 2012) to assess what changes they are ready to bring in the projects in view of the disaster, need for longitudinal connectivity and in view of the earlier WII and EB recommendations. It turned out that the developers were not ready to bring any significant changes.

Damaged Vishnuprayag Dam filled with boulders after the June 2013 floods. Source: MATU Jansangathan

Damaged Vishnuprayag Dam filled with boulders after the June 2013 floods. Source: MATU Jansangathan

So on Dec 5, 2014, the MoEF filed a landmark affidavit in the Supreme Court. Some of the noteworthy things said this affidavit:

  • “…large & small hydro power projects on the Ganga & her tributaries all over the Himalayas are a threat to the aviral dhara of the Ganga. The absence of this is leading to a serious threat to the biodiversity of the Himalayan ecology.”
  • “The (IMD) analysis also mentioned that anthropogenic activities has also led to massive over-exploitation of the local environment, thereby loosening the top soil and making the region susceptible to landslides and flash floods.”
  • It quoted the Supreme Court order of Aug 13, 2013: “The cumulative impact of the various projects in place and which are under construction on the river basins have not been properly examined or assessed, which requires a detailed technical and scientific study.”
  • MoEF was very clear in rejecting the CEA (Central Electricity Authority) and CWC (Central Water Commission) report submitted. This minority report expressed dissent with the EB report. The MoEF affidavit stated that these institutes “promotes the hydro power projects as their adopted policy, it is found that this report mainly concerns the potential realization of hydro power generation and does not deal in the concerns of environmental degradation, as raised by Hon’ble Supreme Court and assigned by MoEF via its TORs. Prima-Facie, this 2 member report is basically technical and hydro projects centric and have not carried out any significant and specific study regarding environmental degradation post the disaster in the Ganga-Himalayan basin.”
  • MoEF’s endorsement of EB report was unambiguous: “MoEF&CC therefore, finds merit in main 11 members expert body (EB) report in context of the compliance of directions by Hon’ble court”.
  • Nailing the propaganda that Tehri saved downstream towns, the MoEF affidavit quoted EB report to show the disaster Tehri created in Sept 2010: “In September 2010, to retain flood inflows in the face of water levels rising beyond the permitted FRL the dam authorities had to seek the permission of the Supreme Court. It led to inundation of the upstream town of Chinyalisaur and later a draw down fresh landslide zones were created around the reservoir rim.”
  • “The findings of EB report reveal that the damages during the 2013 disaster were more concentrated/ aggravated in the immediate upstream or around or mainly on the downstream of existing and under construction barrages of hydro power projects.”
  • Phata Byung HEP “Thus it can be said that the Phata-Byung HEP aggravated the damage caused by the floods.”
  • Singoli Bhatwari HEP “Bank erosion downstream of the barrage could have been due to the project construction… Both these processes cause bank erosion and flooding. Geomorphic evidence of this process was visible in the relatively wider segment of the Mandakini valley below the Singoli-Bhatwari HEP and downstream of the power house area.”
  • Vishnuprayag HEP “The Vishnuprayag barrage obstructed a very high intensity debris flow brought by the Khiron Ganga, a tributary of the Alaknanda just upstream of the Vishnuprayag HEP. It caused extensive destruction of public and private property… According to EB, the Vishnuprayag HEP is a classic example of how human structures can alter river morphology during unusual weather events. It is constructed in a paraglacial zone.”
  • Srinagar HEP “EB reported that local eye witnesses and the project authorities seemed to agree that the flow downstream reduced till about 4 am on June 17th when the highest level of the reservoir was reached. But thereafter the gates were opened further and the water level was reduced on June 17th at 9 am. This led to a high flow and the flushing of downstream muck. The high flood caused morphological changes to the river, extending several kilometers downstream of the dam. The river carved out a new course to the right immediately below the dam and kept attacking the concave bank against the HNB University area scouring 100 m of the bank. Deposition of fine sediment upto 7 to 8 m height occurred in Srinagar urban area. The local ITI, the SSB training campus and housing colonies downstream – all along the left bank of the river — were submerged one to two stories deep in silt… Hence, a significant contribution from muck eroded from muck disposal sites of the Srinagar Hydro project was confirmed… Whereas the events of 1894 and 1970 impacted the entire Alaknanda valley, the damage due to the June 2013 flood in the Alaknanda valley was focused at two locations, i.e., around the Vishnuprpayag HEP at Lambagar and downstream of Srinagar barrage till Bagwan.”[7]
  • MOEF conclusion on role of HEPs in disaster: “It was commonly observed that all HEP (existing and under-construction) in the disaster affected areas have been significantly impacted and the maximum damage sites, in the disaster affected areas, were located either just upstream, or around or immediate downstream of these HEPs, it is pertinent to conclude that the there has been a direct and an indirect impact of the HEPs in the aggravation of the floods of 2013.”
  • MoEF conclusion about the 24 HEPs: “That as per the directions of Hon’ble court, MoEF&CC also heard the project authorities and representatives of civil society on the meetings held on 15th, 27th, 29th Oct and 20th Nov 2014 and found that the project wise approach is not feasible and that carrying capacity study, strategic environmental assessment (SEA) and cumulative impact assessment (CIA) must be carried out before any decision could be taken. In view of… the exercise done by MoEF&CC during the meetings on the directions of Hon’ble court, MoEF&CC has not found any reason to reconsider any of these projects individually.” Which basically means they recommend cancellation of these 24 HEPs.
  • “MoEF&CC feels that the following studies need to be carried out before proceeding with the under-construction and existing projects.”

MoEF affidavit of Dec 5, 2014 went on to submit that the Expert Body plus some four additional members need to be given fresh task of doing remaining studies for a year before any decisions can be taken about the HEPs across the Uttarakhand.

Muck Disposal directly into the Alaknanda river by Srinagar Project Photo: Matu janSangathan

Muck Disposal directly into the Alaknanda river by Srinagar Project Photo: Matu janSangathan

Uttarakhand govt writes to PM

This affidavit immediately made the hydropower lobby restive and they pressed Uttarakhand Chief Minister Harish Rawat to write a letter to the Prime Minister[8] “in protest against the alleged unreasonable stance of the Union Ministry of Environment and Forest regarding the hydroelectric projects of the state”, alleging “that unfortunately the state was being subjected to an unfair and unjust treatment by the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests without applying any scientific and rational approach to the issue of hydroelectric development.” The letter “requested the Prime Minister to intervene in the matter and direct the MoEF” appropriately. The letter was carried in media on Dec 16, 2014, the date of the next SC hearing.

At the hearing on December 16 2014, the apex court seemed to have completely disregarded this landmark affidavit of the MoEF and directed, “the cases of six projects[9] of NTPC, NHPC, THDC, GMR and two projects of Super Hydro shall be considered in a cluster…  The ministry of environment and forests shall see the date on which the licence have been granted, regard being had to the law prevalent at that time. If there be any deficiencies, that shall be pointed out to them and their responses called for.”

So on Dec 30, 2014, MoEF issued an order constituting a 4 member committee including Prof Vinod Tare (IIT Consortium), Dr V B Mathur (WII), Brajesh Sikka (scientist in the environment ministry) and Dalel Singh, a representative of Union Ministry of Water Resources, River Development and Ganga Rejuvenation (MoWR for short).

The committee, after its last meeting on Feb 4, 2015 submitted a report on Feb 12, 2015 that concluded: “Considering the existing available reports on the subject and after interaction with the developers as well as interveners as per the order of MoEF, committee is of the view that the six projects may not be taken up as they have potential of causing significant impacts on the bio-diversity, riverine system, wildlife and other fragile eco-systems in the areas where these projects are located due to altered hydrological parameters. As such entire process of according clearances to these projects warrants review.”

Ganga_Basin

When Mr Bishwanath Sinha misled the Supreme Court in his affidavit

In an affidavit dated Feb 16, 2015, Bishwanath Sinha, Joint Secretary in MoEF, told the Supreme Court of India that the MoEF appointed a four member committee following SC orders of Dec 16, 2014, which submitted its report on Feb 12, 2015. However, very strangely, Mr Bishwanath Sinha did not submit the report of the committee. Nor did Mr. Bishwanath Sinha, Joint Secretary in MoEF, submit the conclusion of the 4 member committee that “committee is of the view that the six projects may not be taken up” and that “As such entire process of according clearances to these projects warrants review.”

In stead, misleading the highest judicial court of the country, Mr. Bishwanath Sinha told the apex court, “That it is submitted that the Committee has observed that whatever was mandated in the procedural and substantive requirement of the law for environmental clearance, forest clearance and consent to establish, these projects have not been found to be deficient in such respect except for wildlife clearances which have not been accorded so far.” This was clear attempt at misleading the highest judicial body in India by a Joint Secretary in MoEF. It is true that the affidavit filed by Mr Bishwanath Sinha may have been approved by his higher ups including the minister, but that does not take away the fact that Mr Sinha agreed to mislead the Supreme Court of India in a sworn affidavit.

However, even when it became clear that the MoEF official had knowingly misled the apex court, no action was taken against him either by the court or by the government. This possibly emboldened the officials and they continue to misled the court and violate their own affidavits as we will subsequently see.

As Business Standard reported[10], by Feb 17, 2015, at the Supreme Court hearing, the matter now focused on the suffering due to banned projects; the focus was shifted away from the Uttarakhand tragedy & its implications.

Floods in Uttarakhand Courtesy: Times of India

Floods in Uttarakhand Courtesy: Times of India

And the SC is indeed misled

Using the totally misleading affidavit of Feb 16, 2015, on Feb 17, 2015, the Union Govt advocate suggested that the six projects be allowed to start work!

As media reported[11], “Attorney General Mukul Rohatgi said the Ministry of Environment and Forest has given a clean chit to six projects – one each of NTPC, NHPC, THDC and GMR and two of Super Hydro. The Supreme Court on Tuesday sought the views of environmentalists on a plea by the Centre for partial lifting of the ban and allowing six projects to come up, given the acute power shortage in the state.”

The Attorney General told the Supreme court, and the court recorded, that the Union government believed the six projects “Mr. Mukul Rohatgi, learned Attorney General for the Union of India, has submitted that in pursuance of the aforesaid order, the affidavit is ready and he has instructions to state that the six projects mentioned in the afore quoted order, are worthy of clearance.”. A signed affidavit to this tune was shared with some litigants but not formally submitted to the court. That affidavit (different that the one quoted above) was read out and but never submitted in writing!

However, vigilant media[12] exposed the MoEF attempt to mislead the Supreme Court. Business Standard report showed:

“Government did not disclose warnings in the expert committee report against permitting the projects in their current shape; instead, gave opposite picture… the ministry did not tell the court the experts, in the report to the ministry, had also warned these dams could have a huge impact on the people, ecology and safety of the region, and should not be permitted at all on the basis of old clearances. They warned that even the Badrinath shrine could be at threat, added by the lack of safeguards in one of the six projects. The cherry-picked reading of the committee report to the Supreme Court comes out giving the impression the experts gave a clean chit to the six dams in question and the court can give the go-ahead. The truth is just the opposite. The experts, in reality, have warned the projects received their clearances long before the Uttarakhand tragedy of 2013, in which thousands were killed.”

Very strangely, on Feb 23, 2015, the Union Environment Minister even defended the MoEF stand in the Supreme Court[13]. This showed that the misleading affidavit of Bishwanath Sinha was filed with full knowledge of everyone in the ministry, including the minister. The minister’s defense that the MoEF had responded as per SC queries is not correct, as Business Standard reported since the court had also asked the government to carry out a cluster (or cumulative) impact of the six projects to assess their impact afresh. The MoEF had failed to provide the main conclusion of the report and instead cherry picked parts of the report to push hydropower projects. This is exactly how a hydropower lobby works, not how an environment ministry is supposed to work.

Voices from Uttarakhand

The Uttarakhand state government pleaded for the hydropower companies[14]. The Uttarakhand Power officials were very happy with the MoEF U-turn in SC[15]: “The Central government’s stand is welcome. The fears of locals here are baseless. We will be engaging international experts to monitor the projects and give regular feedback on impact assessment”.

The people of Uttarakhand, however, were very unhappy. In a noteworthy report[16] The Times of India quoted Sushila Bhandari from Mandakini River Valley in Uttarakhand where the Kedarnath shrine is located and which suffered the maximum damage and deaths: “They want to make the state urja pradesh (land of electricity) but we know it will make it a murda pradesh (land of death).”

For Rudraprayag resident, Savitri, it was like losing her “mother.” “The river and springs near it are like our mother. Because of the projects, the springs and streams in our villages have dried up. We can’t bathe, we can’t even cremate the dead by water bodies like we used to. I am sure if Ganga upstream is treated so badly, all of you downstream will face disasters too” she says. Both Sushila and Savitri were in Delhi in Mid Feb 2015 to attend the Supreme Court hearing.

Meeta Khilnani, an earth scientist at IIT Roorkee, who has been studying the area for years now observes[17], “The carrying capacity of Himalayan rivers is immensely reduced by extensive muck dumping and various anthropogenic activities. The HEPS in Uttarakhand have been given clearances without any study of the carrying capacity. We have already overburdened the vulnerable Ganga-Himalayan basin. It’s important that we acknowledge and act according to the various scientific reports that have already concluded how projects are impacting the region Hydropower projects have destroyed river and its ecological system in fragile Himalayas in Uttarakhand… the topography has changed so much after the disaster of 2013, that the previous clearances cannot apply. Such unresearched haphazard activities can become a stimulus for yet another disaster in the future”.

“The issue is not whether these six projects are valid or not. But it is about allowing hydropower projects altogether when committees and expert bodies have repeatedly pointed that these projects are causing extensive damage to the river ecosystem,” said Mallika Bhanot of Ganga Ahvaan, a non-profit organization, who is also intervener in the SC petition on behalf of Matri Sadan.

In February 2015, NDTV Khabar published an amazing video story[18] explaining how we have failed to understand the nature of Himalayan Rivers.

What explains the U-turn of MoEF?

So what had happened between the MoEF affidavit dated Dec 5, 2015 (filed by Director B B Barman) and Bishwanath Sinha affidavit for MoEF dated Feb 16, 2015, that the MoEF not only totally changed its position, took a U turn, but also was ready to mislead even the Supreme Court? That was possibly explained by a meeting taken by the Prime Minister’s office in Mid January.

Prime Minister’s office pushes for hydro projects

So in a strange twist of circumstances, the Prime Ministers’ office intervened on January 15, 2015 and as per media reports, literally asked the MoEF to rescind its stand. Business Standard[19] reported on March 12, 2015 that it reviewed the minutes of the meeting chaired by Principle Secretary in the PMO:

“The minutes read, “Though some hydro-electric projects were conceived and planned, they were facing several difficulties, leading to stalling of the development process of Uttarakhand.”
And, “Environment ministry may finalise the norms — e-flow, inter-dam distance, quality, etc — based on such (existing) scientific studies by February 15, 2015. Once finalised, no retrospective changes should be allowed at subsequent stages (of clearances).”
The minutes also talk of the 24 new projects (including the six specific ones the Supreme Court inquired) that the environment ministry’s earlier expert committee had already recommended to be scrapped. The minutes indicate a willingness to accommodate these as well.
They read, “The findings and recommendations of various studies conducted by the ministry of environment and ministry of water resources through reputed and capable institutions on aspects of carrying capacity, cumulative impact assessment, biodiversity impacts, water quality, etc, need to be examined. These studies and the clearances already granted to these hydroelectric power projects may be duly factored.”
The meeting was attended by senior officials from the cabinet secretariat, the PMO, the environment, water resources, transport and power ministries, member of the Central Electricity Authority and the chief secretary and officials of Uttarakhand, as well as the Uttarakhand Jal Vidyut Nigam.”

The BS report concluded that “the meeting in the PMO triggered the change in the government’s stance to favour the dams”.

The Economic Times reported[20]: “However, at a meeting called by the PMO in mid-January, it was agreed to tell the court about the “critical need” for the projects for green power and the livelihoods of local people. The meeting was attended by officials from the ministries of power, environment, water resources, defence, road transport and Uttarakhand government… The action points agreed to in the January meeting require the environment ministry to “factor in” the clearances that had been granted to 24 specific projects while taking a view on the future course of action.”

Before the SC hearing on March 12, 2015, The Economic Times[21] again highlighted how the MoEF affidavit of Feb 16, 2015 had misled the Supreme Court: “Experts points out that there is nothing stopping the government from submitting the Tare Committee’s recommendation to the apex court along with the submission answering the specific question put it by the courts.”

Indian Express reported[22] on March 12, 2015: “Not satisfied with the oral submission, the (Supreme) court asked the ministry (MoEF) to submit the “ready” affidavit in four days. Until Wednesday (March 11, 2015), the ministry had not submitted any.

There was no affidavit even till April 13, 2015. As Business Standard reported[23] the government came with a novel alibi before the SC: “the Attorney General told the Supreme Court on April 13 that there is an inter-ministerial conflict on the issue, and the highest authority – the prime minister – is out of office. He asked the court for two weeks’ time for him to come back with the Union government’s position after the PM returns from foreign visit.”

MoEF affidavit of May 11, 2015

In an affidavit dated May 11, 2015, S K Srivastava, a director in MoEF submitted to the Supreme Court: “That it is submitted that this Ministry vide its affidavit dated 5.12.2014 outlining the future approach has prayed before this Hon’ble Court which inter alia includes: (i) Cumulative impact assessment and carrying capacity study of these rivers to suggest the optimal number of HEPs indicating locations, designs and capacity to be allowed in a sustainable manner. The study would consider the 2013 tragedy, geological and tectonic stability, river fragmentation, possible damage caused by the existing HEPs, effect of tunneling and blasting vis a vis srinking of water springs, frequent cloudburst in the upper reaches of Ganga. (ii) The proposed study as suggested above would be carried out by already constituted Expert Body (EB) with wider representation with a seismologist, a social scientist, a climatologist and a glaciologist.”

About the six projects and Tare Committee report, the MoEF affidavit of May 11, 2015 continues to mislead the apex court, not saying that the Tare Committee has said these projects should not go ahead, except when it says: “The committee has further observed that the clearances have to be viewed for any deficiency as per the latest knowledge of environmental and ecological protection methods, and the process of according environmental clearance, warrants review. However, MoEF&CC submits that while the process of grant of environmental clearance has to be in accordance with the law, regulations and procedures prevailing at the time of consideration of application for clearances, sometimes additional measures other than those considered and stipulated at the time of giving environmental clearances may be required to be taken in some cases in larger public interest, considering the impact on the biodiversity, riverine system, wildlife  and other fragile eco systems in the area where such projects are located due to altered hydrological parameters and the need for Ganga Rejuvenation as warranted. A decision has been taken that the report dated 12.2.2015 will also be examined by an expert body in detail in order that the government takes a final view.”

This request for a new Expert Body should have been struck down since so far four separate reports[24], all initiated on orders of the Supreme Court, have already said that the 24 projects or the subset thereof should not go ahead and the MoEF should have been asked to follow the recommendations of these four reports. Even in the affidavit of May 11, 2015, no reason is given why the 4 member report dated 12.2.2015 on 6 HEPs is not to be followed and another EB is asked for. In fact in case of none of the four reports has the MoEF at any stage said why those reports should not be followed.

Secondly it is noteworthy that the affidavit mentions the existing EB plus four experts for future work & has no reference to any other EB, clearly indicating that the work will be given to the existing EB with some 4 additional specialist members. It is also noteworthy that the affidavit does not refer to the MoEF affidavit of Feb 16, 2015, though it refers to the earlier MoEF affidavit and orders of SC since Dec 2014.

Just before the Supreme Court hearing in the afternoon of May 12, 2015, Delhi, as most of North India and Nepal had experienced shaking earth due to the second massive earthquake, this time of magnitude 7.3 on Richter scale. It came close on heels of the April 25 earthquake of magnitude 7.8 on Richter scale[25]. The quake and the Himalayan vulnerability to seismic activity were mentioned in the Supreme Court hearing[26] and it is hoped the Court would have taken note of the same.

At the May 12, 2015 hearing, Sanjay Parikh, who was representing the people of the Kedarnath Valley, stressed on the need to treat the recurring high-intensity earthquakes in Nepal seriously. Highlighting that the hydropower projects were being planned in a fragile zone, Parikh urged it was the responsibility of all concerned to consider the threat posed by ramping up the number of hydropower projects in the region in light of the recent earthquakes in Nepal. “Each of us should be concerned with the Himalayan ecology. Today also there was an earthquake,” he said. Parikh has questioned the efficacy of a fresh review, especially as the environment ministry’s four-member committee headed by Vinod Tare of IIT Kanpur had recommended against allowing the six projects.

The 4 member Vinod Tare Committee report, ordered by the Supreme Court, was coming before the Supreme Court for the first time on May 12, 2015. The MoEF had already misguided the Supreme Court about this report through affidavit of Feb 16, 2015. And yet apparently, there was no discussion of the report or the misleading MoEF affidavit in the Supreme Court on May 12, 2015 and the MoEF’s unjustified and baseless demand for yet another committee was agreed to by the apex Court on that date, without any discussion on merits or demerits of the MoEF demand.

Ravi Chopra said[27], “Our committee made it clear in its report that all 24 hydro-power projects are harmful for the environment. It said 23 projects should never be permitted to operate. After that, developers of six of the 24 projects, who had sought some clearances for their power projects before the June floods, moved the SC and the Vinod Tare committee was formed. Now, it seems both MoEF and judiciary are subverting the 24 projects by focusing only on six, in an attempt to permit all the remaining 18, with the one verdict that relates to these six.”

However, the apex Court order of May 12, 2015 suggested that MoEF can go ahead with the steps suggested in its affidavit: “Regard being had to the totality and the facts and circumstances of the case, as advised at present, we are inclined to adjourn the matter to 29th July, 2015, to enable the Union of India to file an affidavit with regard to the progress made, so that the proponents of the six projects and other persons who are waiting, that is, twenty-four in number, be aware of the situation… We are sure that the Union of India will be able to proceed with the matter, as undertaken in the affidavit filed today.”

So on May 12, 2015, everyone left the Court, assuming that MoEF is going to ask a new committee comprising members of the original EB plus four specialists to look into the entire Ganga basin in Uttarakhand (in essence entire Uttarakhand since all of Uttarakhand is in Ganga Basin) in the context of the disaster, WII report, EB report, MoEF affidavit of 05.12.14 and Tare Committee report. But there was surprise in store for everyone!

MoEF order of June 3, 2015, violating Supreme Court affidavit

The MoEF surreptitiously, without any consultations and in violation of its own affidavit in the Supreme Court of India, set up an entirely new Expert Body through an order dated June 3, 2015[28]. The order itself, apparently became public only around June 13, 2015. The constitution of this committee is serious flawed[29]:

  • It is in violation of the MoEF affidavit of May 11, 2015, which said that it intends to give this task to the existing EB when it said in para 2: “The proposed study as suggested above would be carried out by already constituted Expert Body (EB) with wider representation with a seismologist, a social scientist, a climatologist and a glaciologist.”
BP Das is inappropriate to head the committee

The new 12 member committee is chaired by Dr B P Das, who has neither the required expertise nor the required independent track record. The MoEF order of June 3 2015 says by way of his credentials: “Civil Engineering and Hydrology Expert”. But we need for this committee head to be an environmental expert, not a civil engineering and hydrology expert. He as a member and vice chair of the Expert Appraisal Committee (EAC) on river valley projects since April 2007 to at least June 2013. During this committee had zero rejection rate[30]. He even served under chairmanship of Mr P Abraham during this period who was ultimately removed for this conflict of interest when we wrote to Jairam Ramesh as the new Environment Minister in mid 2009. Many of the projects that this new committee will now review has been cleared when he was a member of the EAC, so there is a conflict of interest involved here, since he would clearly not like to go against the projects that he has cleared as EAC member. His pro hydro and pro dam is bias is also apparent in his article in The Hindu dated Aug 31, 2013[31], where he said: “The devastating landslips were caused by the undercutting of fragile hillsides for highways rather than by dams, which actually helped mitigate the floods.” It is clear that Dr B P Das has neither the credentials nor required track record to be chairing this committee.

Ravi Chopra was quoted by The Times of India  saying [32], “The environment ministry has handpicked technocrats and administrators for the new EB. It seems clear the objective is to get the nod for the HEPs. BP Dass, vice-chairman from my committee, who has been appointed in this EB, has been consultant with hydro-power companies. He has served state government committees that have approved such projects in the past. Prem Barakoti, another member, is a politician.”

Mallika Bhanot said, “The already constituted EB led by Ravi Chopra studied the impact of the HEPs after the June (2013) flash flood disaster. They witnessed the disastrous effects of these HEPs from close quarters. After two years of the disaster, how can the new committee hope to do that? (understand the 2013 flood disaster). This new committee has also not been mandated to consult the Chopra committee. No expert from the Wildlife Institute of India (WII) or any other independent expert, scientist or environmentalist from a non-government body has been taken into this EB. And a causal draft without any clear terms of reference has been woven in this new affidavit. All this indicates a conspiracy by the Centre to build HEPs on the Ganga.”

Other members

The committee has at least four central government and one state government official. The four central government officials include one each from CEA, CWC, both are known to be lobbying for hydro projects and their earlier report has been rejected by the MoEF affidavit of 05.12.14. The two MoEF officials, include Mr Bishwanath Sinha who filed misleading affidavit in Supreme Court and Mr Barman who till recently has been member secretary of the EAC and again has poor track record in terms of taking any independent position. In addition, the NGO representative listed on the committee, Mr Prem Barakoti is a known RSS person[33], he is not from any NGO that has been working on issues related to hydropower projects and their impacts. RSS is known to be part of the parivar of ruling coalition at centre and with the PMO having clearly shown their lobbying efforts for hydropower projects, this RSS member is not likely to take any independent stand. Of the rest, the expert member on biodiversity should have been from WII since they have the necessary expertise and independent track record. ICFRE, whose representative has been included as biodiversity expert, on the contrary has poor track record. For example, their EIA of Renuka Dam has been so poor that the NGT has stayed the project considering the incompleteness, inconsistencies in the EIA, among other reasons.

This kind of committee full of members who are either biased or have poor track record is clearly unacceptable and hopefully will also not pass the legal test.

Terms of Reference

The committee has been given two sets of TORs: one for all the projects across the Uttarakhand (since whole of Uttarakhand is in Ganga Basin) and another specific to six projects which were rejected by Tare Committee, in addition to earlier three reports. The first TOR is not complete in many respects, for example the MoEF affidavits in SC has repeated said that ecological integrity of the Ganga basin has to be sustained in the context of government priority of rejuvenation of Ganga, but there is nothing about that in the TOR.

Secondly the MoEF has repeatedly talked about the socio-cultural issues, but the TOR does not mention them, only socio-economic issues are mentioned.

Thirdly, longitudinal connectivity issue is not mentioned for the whole of Ganga basin.

Fourthly, why should the committee not follow the recommendations of the MoWR-MoEF report[34] on E-flows assessment? Why do the TOR not include that the committee work in the context of earlier reports? Why is the TOR referring to the 1000 cusecs flow that is basically for the Har ki Paudi at Haridwar and not for the river? Why the committee is also not asked to look at the existing and under construction projects, as the MoEF affidavit of 05.12.14 had suggested?

As far as the TORs for the six projects are concerned, the MoEF affidavit had clearly stated that the EB+4 will look at it in the context of the Tare committee report, but the TOR not only does not mention that, but assumes that these projects can go ahead the committee is only to submit recommendations for mitigation, safety and so on? This is clearly doctored, manipulated TORs that is also in violation of the MoEF affidavit in the Supreme Court.

In Conclusion

The MoEF officials seem to have been emboldened by lack of consequences of misleading Supreme Court and others earlier and have again constituted a new committee and given them TORs in violation of its own affidavits.  We hope the apex court will take due note of this. In any case such a committee will have no credibility.

The whole series of episodes with the various twists and turns show the most unfortunate consequence of total failure of our environmental governance. The situation that was clear after the Ravi Chopra Committee report has been allowed to deteriorate into murky affairs with all the somersaults, misleading affidavits and violation of what is said on oath. It shows complete lack of any concern for the future of the Himalayas, the Ganga and the people of Uttarakhand and beyond. What happened in Uttarakhand two years back in June 2013 was certainly an unprecedented disaster.

However, the Aug 13, 2013 order of Supreme Court created a possibility that we could learn much from this disaster and such lessons could help, in addition to Uttarakhand, also the rest of the Himalayas that are also facing similar vulnerabilities & challenges and similar mindless onslaught of hydropower projects and other infrastructure. But recent events described above seem to have completely destroyed any such hopes.

The theme song of the government and others seems to be (with apologies to lyricist Indeevar who wrote the famous song for 1970 film SAFAR):

Jo hydro ko ho pasand wohi baat karenge,

Tum din ko agar raat kaho raat kahenge…

The only hope is that the judiciary will see through the machinations of the MoEF and reject this new committee and in stead ask the MoEF to follow the recommendations of the earlier reports.

Himanshu Thakkar (ht.sandrp@gmail.com), SANDRP

HEPs on Ganga- Bhagirathi and Alaknanda  (SANDRP map)

HEPs on Ganga- Bhagirathi and Alaknanda (SANDRP map)

END NOTES:

[1] For details, see: https://sandrp.wordpress.com/2013/08/14/uttarakhand-flood-disaster-supreme-courts-directions-on-uttarakhand-hydropower-projects/ SANDRP had sent a letter to MoEF about a month before this order, see: https://sandrp.wordpress.com/2013/07/20/uttarakhand-disaster-moef-should-suspect-clearances-to-hydropower-projects-and-institute-enquiry-in-the-role-of-heps/

[2] For details see: https://sandrp.wordpress.com/2014/04/29/report-of-expert-committee-on-uttarakhand-flood-disaster-role-of-heps-welcome-recommendations/

[3] Main Central Thurst

[4] https://sandrp.wordpress.com/2014/06/16/uttarakhand-flood-disaster-of-june-2013-lest-we-forget-the-experience-and-its-lessons/

[5] http://www.business-standard.com/article/economy-policy/uttarakhand-dams-six-new-projects-await-apex-court-review-115021700055_1.html

[6] During this period IIT Consortium submitted a problematic report, for details see: https://sandrp.wordpress.com/2014/11/01/why-is-the-iit-consortium-acting-like-a-hydropower-lobby/

[7] For the latest on Srinagar project, see: https://sandrp.wordpress.com/2015/05/25/why-the-srinagar-hydro-electric-project-continues-to-remain-a-threat-2/ and https://sandrp.wordpress.com/2015/06/12/श्रीनगर-जलविद्युत-परियोज/

[8] http://www.tribuneindia.com/news/uttarakhand/harish-rawat-complains-to-modi-on-hydroelectric-projects/18489.html

[9] These six projects are: 171 MW Lata Tapovan project of NTPC, 195 MW Kotlibel – IA of NHPC, 108 MW Jhelum Tamak of THDC, 300 MW of Alaknanda of GMR, 4 MW Khirao Ganga and 24.3 MW Bhyundar Ganga of Super Hydro Electric Power.

[10] http://www.business-standard.com/article/economy-policy/uttarakhand-dams-six-new-projects-await-apex-court-review-115021700055_1.html

[11] http://www.dailymail.co.uk/indiahome/indianews/article-2957666/Government-urges-Supreme-Court-lift-ban-Uttarakhand-hydro-plants.html

[12] http://www.business-standard.com/article/current-affairs/sc-kept-in-dark-about-threat-from-six-uttarakhand-dams-115022100042_1.html, this was possibly the most significant news report that exposed how the MoEF tried to mislead the apex Court.

[13] http://www.business-standard.com/article/economy-policy/javadekar-defends-giving-partial-report-on-uttarakhand-dams-to-sc-115022300875_1.html

[14] http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/Hydro-projects-no-reason-for-2013-deluge-Uttarakhand-govt/articleshow/46269709.cms

[15] http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/dehradun/Ukhand-looks-to-expand-hydropower-generation/articleshow/46291452.cms

[16] http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/Keep-tunnelling-expect-deluge-Uttarakhand-flood-survivors/articleshow/46268575.cms

[17] See also: http://www.livemint.com/Politics/hl5Fo2IlFnPuV4nlB3B0eP/SC-to-start-hearing-case-against-hydropower-projects.html

[18] http://khabar.ndtv.com/video/show/documentary-ndtv-india/what-is-the-mood-of-himalayan-river-357478, this was published as blog by SANDRP: https://sandrp.wordpress.com/2015/02/25/हिमालयी-नदियों–से-खिलवाड/

[19] http://wap.business-standard.com/article/current-affairs/pmo-meeting-changed-nda-s-stance-to-favour-more-dams-in-uttarakhand-115031100923_1.html

[20] http://economictimes.indiatimes.com/industry/energy/power/uttarakhand-hydel-plants-unlikely-to-be-stalled-by-moef/articleshow/46281237.cms

[21] http://articles.economictimes.indiatimes.com/2015-03-12/news/60047875_1_hydropower-projects-hydro-projects-environment-ministry

[22] http://indianexpress.com/article/india/india-others/its-experts-red-flag-six-hydel-projects-govt-says-critical-need/

[23] http://www.business-standard.com/article/economy-policy/govt-in-knots-over-dams-in-uttarakhand-115041600024_1.html

[24] These include: A. WII report of 2012; B. EB report chaired by Ravi Chopra; C. the report of MoEF submitted to SC through affidavit dated Dec 5, 2014, following examination of the 6 projects through a meeting chaired by additional secretary, MoEF and D. 4 member Tare Committee report.

[25] For details regarding impacts of Nepal earthquake and its implications for India, see: https://sandrp.wordpress.com/2015/05/05/nepals-everest-sinking-7-9-earthquake-april-25-2015-himalayan-warning/

[26] http://economictimes.indiatimes.com/industry/energy/power/recent-tremors-raise-concerns-on-feasibility-of-6-hydropower-projects-in-uttarakhand/articleshow/47257823.cms

[27] http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/dehradun/Not-just-6-all-24-hydro-projects-would-be-detrimental/articleshow/47271874.cms

[28] http://www.moef.nic.in/sites/default/files/Order%20of%203rd%20June.pdf

[29] http://www.business-standard.com/article/current-affairs/govt-forms-new-expert-panel-to-review-projects-on-ganga-basin-115060401277_1.html, http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/dehradun/Scientists-see-red-over-new-body-to-study-HEPs/articleshow/47668141.cms

[30] http://sandrp.in/env_governance/TOR_and_EC_Clearance_status_all_India_Overview_Feb2013.pdf

[31] http://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/down-a-slippery-slope-in-uttarakhand/article5076238.ece

[32] http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/dehradun/Scientists-see-red-over-new-body-to-study-HEPs/articleshow/47668141.cms

[33] See for example: http://www.organiser.org/Encyc/2013/10/14/Samskars,-not-the-training,-help-fighting-calamities-%E2%80%94Mohan-Bhagwat.aspx, http://ndtfdu.blogspot.in/2013/07/rss-in-uttarakhand-helping-army-and.html

[34] https://sandrp.wordpress.com/2015/04/15/mowr-report-on-assessment-of-e-flows-is-welcome-needs-urgent-implementation/

5 Comments on “Two years of Uttarakhand Flood Disaster of June 2013: Why is state & centre gambling with the Himalayas, the Ganga & lives of millions?

  1. This article is really thought provoking. The situation is alarming and becoming dangerous.

    A really excellent article, clearly exposing government’s real intentions and the degree of corruption. Your question is right- Why is state & centre gambling with the Himalayas, the Ganga & lives of millions?

    Like

  2. An excellent article. Surprsingly in case of Hydropower Projects state (Congrss)and central governments (BJP) have simlar views. Is HEP lobby so strong and all pervasive ?

    Like

  3. Excellent and well analysed expose of the ill designs of all the concerned.

    Like

  4. शासन को आईना दिखाते इस लेख की इस वक़्त बहुत आवश्यकता थी. लेखक व् सैंड्रप का आभार. अरुण तिवारी

    Like

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