The National Green Tribunal, NGT marked its 4th Foundation Day on 18 October 2014, with an impressive fanfare. A full day function was organized at the Plenary hall of the capital’s iconic Vigyan Bhawan. NGT in this short span has acquired a formidable reputation as a unique, vibrant, active institute with independent & unbiased mind and forthright, quick redressal of petitions that come to it.
The function in two separate sessions, one in the forenoon and the other in the afternoon (a Seminar) was attended by large number of government officials, judicial officers, advocates, law school students, NGT petitioners and office bearers and members of the NGT Bar association.
Invited dignitaries included Mr Justice Ranjan Gogoi (Judge, Supreme Court), Prakash Javadekar (Union Minister of State for Environment, Forests and Climate Change) and Ashok Lavasa (Secretary, MoEF&CC) in the forenoon session and Mr Justice Sudhanshu Jyoti Mukhopadhaya (Judge, Supreme Court) and Piyush Goyal (Union Minister of state for Power, Coal and new and renewable energy). Mr Justice Swatanter Kumar, the Chairperson of the NGT, Mr Justice Dr. P. Jyothimani, Judicial Member, Principal Bench, NGT, Prof. R. Nagendra, and Dr. D.K. Agarwal, Expert Members at the NGT also spoke and graced the dais.
The function included, in addition to the addresses by the invited dignitaries, the release of 2nd issue of NGT International Journal; the launch of new NGT Website (in the first session) and address by invitee experts (in the second session).
In the first session Mr Javadekar informed the gathering about his political beginnings from a water pollution struggle activist against factory pollution and Mr Lavasa categorically stated that the NGT is playing an extremely crucial role and that there is no move to dilute its powers in any manner. It was in the second session that very controversially one Mr M.K. Pandit was invited to speak as an invited expert.
Mr Pandit began with highlighting how recent and how fragile the Himalayas were and that a 8+ richter scale earthquake in central Himalayas was round the corner that could flatten Dehradun. Very soon in his almost 25 minute speech changed track as if on a cue to how great the hydropower dam projects in the Himalayas were for the power security of the country. The Union Power Minister had by then just joined the function to nod in full agreement with all that the Mr Pandit was narrating. The audience on the other hand was left perplexed as to what was happening?
An invited speaker was eulogizing the great merits of high dams receiving approving glances from the power minister on an NGT seminar whose topic was “Natural Disasters, Environment & Role of NGT with special reference to Uttarakhand, J&K, Assam & Himachal Pradesh”. Clearly something was amiss, somewhere?
Secondly, Mr Pandit is not a neutral expert, but an interested party. As leader of scores of pro hydro Environmental Impact Assessments that he has led as part of the CISMHE team (Center for Inter-disciplinary studies of Mountain and Hill Environment) has earned them millions as they also continue to mint more money. Typical of Indian EIAs, no EIA done by CISMHE has ever raised any difficult questions for the developers. It has also never concluded that any of the projects is unviable. CISMHE EIAs are as shoddy, incomplete and inadequate as any other. For example on Luhri HEP, the CISMHE EIA was so problematic that even the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change’s Expert Appraisal Committee on River Valley Projects and the World Bank found it inadequate and unreliable.
Interestingly, CISMHE website says: “Ministry of Power, Government of India established CISMHE as an R&D Centre in power studies in environment in recognition of its excellent past performance”. This means that there is also conflict of interest here in CISMHE doing EIAs, since it has been set up as an R&D Centre by Ministry of Power, that is itself a promoter and developer of hydropower projects. No wonder, Mr Pandit said what the Power Minister wanted to hear and Power Minister made no efforts to hide his approval of what Mr Pandit was saying.
Very strangely, Mr Piyush Goyal claimed that Tehri dam was an example of good project in the Himalayas that saved Uttarakhand in the floods of June 2013. Mr Goyal should know that this claim had absolutely no basis and even an Expert Body appointed by the Supreme Court of India has shown, after listening to THDC, CWC and others that such a claim has no scientific foundation. Mr Pandit did try to support the unfounded contention of Mr Goyal, but the minister asked him to keep quite.
It became clearer, when a pointed question asked by Shri Manoj Misra of Yamuna Jiye Abhiyaan about what would have been the Tehri dam scenario if the Uttarakhand high rainfall event had occurred in the peak monsoon months of July, August or September and not on 16 June 2013 (as in fact happened in Sept 2010, when Tehri created a havoc in the downstream, damaging its own Koteshwar project), when the dam was almost empty and only beginning to get filled, elicited an evasive response first by the Union Minister (we cannot have structures planned for every 365 days in a year). And later when Pandit ji tried to answer, he was asked to shut without him being able to even respond to the other two questions relating to how does he reconcile to the fact of a high intensity earthquake visiting a region where he had been advocating the dams; why was USA (as also some other countries), the mecca of large Dams bringing many of its dams down?
In any case, Mr Maharaj Pandit was contradicting himself, because he said something totally different in his article in The Hindu soon after the Uttarakhand disaster of June 2013: “Most downstream damage in otherwise flood-free areas is caused by dams and barrages, which release large volumes of water to safeguard engineering structures. Dam operators often release more water during rains than the carrying capacity of downstream areas, causing floods… Hydropower policy must consider building fewer dams and prioritise those that have the least environmental and social costs. Independent and serious monitoring of the catchment area treatment plans proposed by Forest Departments with funds from hydropower companies needs to be carried out and reported to the Green Tribunal.” In fact then in June 2013, he was on TV channels almost every night, talking about how Himalayas have the highest dam density in the world and that is such a big invitation to disaster! But he seems ready to change his stand to please the minister or the hydro project developers.
It seems as if Mr Pandit had been invited to justify the building of dams in the Himalayas in front of a large gathering of impressionable judicial officials and young student minds. It is possible that it was also intended to influence the minds of NGT members (judicial and experts) and other persons from judiciary in the face of a number of proposed dams being challenged before the various NGT benches and courts.
If a proper seminar was indeed planned on such an important matter, then there should have been several speakers on wide range of perspectives and topics and not just one speaker with conflict of interest and a clear agenda? The only other technical speaker, Dr R. Nagendran, an expert member with NGT southern bench spoke sensibly on how unscientific management of sanitary projects in hilly regions lead to parallel “Faeco-microbial disaster” which is difficult to tackle.
Mr Ritwick Dutta, secretary of NGT bar association said that the information about Mr Pandit speaking from NGT platform was not available in public domain and it is not clear how he was selected as a speaker.
Such blatant pro hydro bias in an NGT foundation day meeting is certainly unwarranted and out of place for an NGT function. An NGT platform should not have been allowed to be used for such biased presentation. We hope the bias apparent in this aberration is just that, an aberration and does not run deeper, considering that some hydropower professionals have been appointed on NGT benches.
We hope that at least in future the NGT, a statutory judicial body, otherwise doing a great job for the protection of environment, would be more careful in not letting its platform get used by the vested interests. The formidable reputation that NGT has acquired with a lot of remarkable orders should not be allowed to be affected by this one incident. NGT indeed needs to be strengthened in every way and not weakened in any manner.
It would also help if the NGT were to distance itself from this biased episode.
 For example, see: https://sandrp.wordpress.com/2014/04/11/the-world-bank-drops-funding-usd-650-m-for-the-luhri-hydro-project-victory-for-the-sutlej-bachao-jan-sangharsh-samiti/, https://sandrp.wordpress.com/2014/07/09/pauk-heo-tato-i-hydropower-projects-cismes-shoddy-eias-seven-big-hydro-on-third-order-tributary-of-brahmaputra/, https://sandrp.wordpress.com/2014/10/06/manipulating-environment-forest-clearances-for-dibang-project-deja-vu-lshp-history-repeated-will-it-be-tragedy-or-comedy/
 For details, see: https://sandrp.wordpress.com/2013/06/28/uttarakhand-floods-truth-about-thdc-and-central-water-commissions-claims-about-tehri/ and https://sandrp.wordpress.com/2013/08/07/is-thdc-preparing-to-repeat-the-disaster-tehri-created-in-sept-2010/