The recently concluded Pancheshwar dam Environment Public Hearing (EPH) is classic example of how undemocratically EPH are conducted against the letter and spirit of EIA notification of Sept 2006. Umpteen violations were committed wilfully during three EPH on Pancheshwar Dam on 09, 11 and 17 August 2017 in Champawat, Pithoragarh and Almora district of Uttarakhand.
WHY EPHs IN MONSOON? In July 2017, the proposed Pancheshwar Dam Project planned on Kali river along the India-Nepal border invited sharp criticisms from local groups. Given the ongoing monsoon rain across the disaster prone hills, the people asked the concerned District Magistrates and Uttarakhand Environment Protection and Pollution Control Board (UEPPCB) for the rescheduling[I] the EPH. But overlooking genuine public concerns and incidents of cloud bursts and landslides causing flash floods and road blocks in the project affected districts the authorities went ahead with the EPH plans.
I, on behalf of SANDRP visited dam site, affected villages, talked to the people in affected area, attended two EPHs (Pithoragrah 11 August and Almora 17 August) and observed so many violations in the EPHs process.
EPH on 11 August 2017 at Pithoragarh On the preceding evening of EPH, the State Disaster Management Authority had warned of heavy rainfall in the district. Following which administration directed closure[II] of all the schools and colleges for 11 August 2017. HARELA, an environmental volunteers group and SANDRP, requested the DM Pithoragarh for postponing of EPH but in vain.
The warning came true and on the day of EPH there were incidents couple of cloud bursts[III] in the region causing landslides, damage[IV] to access roads and bridges thus disabling[V] scores of affected villagers reach Vikas Bhawan in district headquarter, the EPH venue. The district headquarter was located as far as 60 kms away from villages facing submergence rendering participation of hundreds of villagers unviable due to transportation and affordability issues.
The EPH began at 11:00 am. Police personnel in large number were deployed in and around EPH venue that it seemed like a curfew zone.
The EPA hall at Vikas Bhawan had inadequate space for the people wanting to participate in the EPH. So, people assembled at venue were made to sit in three different parts. On each side of Vikas Bhwan building and inside a hall from where the EPH was conducted. Two digital screens were arranged to live stream the EPH process for villagers sitting outside. Selected groups of people including local politicians and dam supporters with the help of police managed to enter and grab front seats in the EPH hall.
As soon as EPH proceeding began, a big crowd of people stormed[VI] outside the venue. They had black flags and banners in hands objecting to EPH. Soon the atmosphere was filled with slogans echoing the demands of cancellation of EPH on several accounts. The protest was being led by Mahakali Ki Awaz, a local group raising concerns over environmental impact of dam and violations in EPH process. Pancheshwar Bandh Virodhi Sangthan and many women from affected areas were also part of the agitation. Regional political parties Uttarakhand Parivartan Party (UPP) and Uttarakhand Karntikari Dal (UKD) lent their support to the protest.
Meanwhile, inside the Vikas Bhawan premises, Dr. Aman Sharma, Executive Director, Water and Power Consultancy Company (India) Limited (WAPCOS) started Power Point Presentation (PPT) highlighting the benefits of dams and compensatory package for affected villages.
This was a deliberate attempt to divert the focus of the EPH from environmental and social issues towards compensation and rehabilitation issues as if the construction of dam was pre-decided. Some villagers, misguided by this, started expressing their concerns mainly over monetary compensation.
After speeches of politically motivated speakers, few concerned started raising their voices against public hearing, EIA and the project.
UEPPCB and WAPCOS became the subject of people’s wrath and anguish for providing none of the important documents including accurate Executive summary of Detailed Project Report (DPR) in local language and English, Summary of Environment Impact Assessment (EIA), Summary of Social Impact Assessment (SIA), and Summary of Environment Management Plan (EMP) and also full EIA-SIA-EMP, as prerequisite for an EPH.
These relevant documents written in English were out of common villagers’ access and understanding which should have been made available in Hindi language one month in advance before EPH.
In clear violation of norms, political leaders including Bishan Singh Chufal current Member of Legislative Assembly (MLA) Didihat, Pithoragarh from Bhartiya Janta Party (BJP) party, Harish Dhami Ex-MLA Dharchula, Pithoragarh from Congress party, Kedar Joshi Uttarakhand BJP Vice President, Mehandra Luthi Ex-Cabinet Minister Uttarakhand, Kripal Valdiya, MLA representative, Gopu Mahar, BJP District President, Girish Joshi, BJP District Vice-President were presided on seats along with Mhomad Nasir, Additional District Magistrate (ADM), Sompal Singh, Regional Officer, UEPPCB, Mahendra Bahadur Gurang CEO, PDA, District Panchayat President. Their supporters were also sitting behind them.
This was in complete violation of the EIA notification of Sept 2006, as was conveyed to the public hearing panel by SANDRP through a letter sent to them the previous day.
Through their speeches, many of the politicians specially from ruling party deliberately misled the audience as if the project has been given final approval and appealed to the public to support it in national interest, whereas even the DPR of the project is on preliminary stage and it has to go through series of constitutional clearances. As is clear from the Joint statement following Indo Nepal PM’s meeting on Aug 24, the DPR is not even finalised, and many key issues remain unresolved.
The political leaders also interfered and tried to influence the EPH process by labelling the project as dream of Prime Minister and essential for the growth of nation. The public hearing panel indulged in violations by allowing them to manipulate the EPH processes by allowing project supporters speak up freely while interrupting and objecting to environmental concerns raised by local groups and individuals. It also appeared that through their private speeches in the area before the EPH, they had termed the critics as anti-nationalist. The EPH panel allowed all these rampant violations of the EPH process.
In this hostile scenario environmental issues raised by Manoj Matwal of HARELA, Anil Karki, a learnt academic, Shankar Kathyat of Mahakali Ki Awaz, Rohit Joshi, independent reporter, Vimal Bhai of Matu Jansangthan, Prakash Bhandari of HIMDHARA were not heard properly. Kashi Singh Airy of UKD was not even allowed to speak.
Issues of downstream impact of the project highlighted by Anil Singh of Lakhimpur were not heard and addressed. In fact, as SANDRP letter to the EPH panel previous day said, the EPH also needs to be conducted in the downstream district.
Given the lack of information with the villagers and visible political pressure, the Pithoragarh EPH seemed to be a negotiating meeting where many were bargaining for maximum monetary compensation and rehabilitation package.
Due to police presence, several villagers could not stand to speak and many other could not express their concerns fearlessly. However majority of villagers bitterly contested[VII] and challenged the credibility of WAPCOS survey, questioned the authenticity of EIA and DPR. Similarly, there were multiple complains of no timely information of EPH and non-availability of essential documents in public domain.
The most common issue raised, all through the EPH proceedings was absence of basic information regarding the project with concerned villagers, village Pradhans and Block Development Council (BDC) members.
Occasional confrontation[VIII] between BJP and Concern leaders also affected the people oriented process of EPH. The EPH panel unfortunately did nothing to stop this.
By the end of the day, it became clear that villagers at large were neither informed nor given basic information or the relevant documents prerequisite for the public hearing. The little unofficial information doing round amid public was ambiguous causing unfounded rumours among concerned.
It was also established that UEPPCB and WAPCOS failed to provide relevant documents to concerned public.
Another TRAGEDY OF THE EPH WAS THAT BEING UNFAMILIAR WITH EPH PROCEEDINGS, MOST OF THE VILLAGERS COULD NOT GIVE WRITTEN SUBMISSIONS. ONLY TWO WOMEN COULD MANAGE TO REACH AND SPEAK IN THE EPH.
Nevertheless the genuine concerns raised by educated youth of Pithoragarh and Prakash Bhandari of HIMDHARA that not only saved the day but also made the politicians and relevant authorities speechless and answerless.
I also highlighted the reasons how the EPH process had violated the letter and spirit of EIA notification, how the EIA-SIA-EMP was totally flawed, inadequate and dishonest, how WAPCOS has conflict of interest issues, and poor track record and how the project it self is not acceptable.
Pancheshwar Dam EPH 17 August 2017 Almora
Stung by the indisputable reality emerged after the Pithoragarh EPH, the District Administration, UEPPCB and WAPCOS tried to do some homework.
Pamphlets carrying the details of public hearing at Dhaula Devi block of Almora district were circulated through market place at Danya. Hindi version of Executive Summary of project was distributed among selected public representatives and BDC members.
But it was too little and too late as majority of villagers were still clueless of EPH[IX] and the EIA-SIA-EMP, the documents were still out of their access. Many representatives even found the language of Hindi summary too difficult to understand. The Summary also did not accurately reflect what was said in the EIA-SIA-EMP. The EIA-SIA-EMP themselves were seriously flawed as pointed out by SANDRP letter to the Public hearing panel at Pithoragarh and now at Almora.
On the day of EPH, the entire Dhaula Devi Block was converted into a high security zone. There were policemen placed at every nook and corner outside and around EPH venue.
Like in case of Pithoragarh, public hearing hall at Dhaula Devi block (Almora) was also too small to accommodate the participants. Hence sitting arrangement was done in two parts, inside the hole and outside the block building. One single digital screen was placed for hundreds of villagers sitting outside the hall.
Inside the hall, there were about two dozen policemen standing in right, left and centre. Many of them were even carrying guns. As expected, local politicians and project supporters managed enter and take over the seats in first three front rows.
The presence of only two panellists Ila Ashish Srivastav, DM Almora and UEPPCB official on the stage gave the impression of respect for rule of law, but the EPH process by the end of the day turned out to be a farce.
The proceedings began with WAPCOS PPT, totally diverting the focus of EPH on relief and compensation package rather than discussion, sharing of information about environmental and social impacts of the project and what did WAPCOS do about it.
But soon some village headmen plainly started objecting[X] to WAPCOS survey, EIA and DPR and compensation claims. Fearing impact of project on their livelihoods, few even rejected the rehabilitation package being offered by EIA-EMP.
Then more critical voices started pouring in. Among them was the P.C. Tiwari of UPP who while opposing the project pointed out legal loopholes committed in the EPH process.
The process took a ugly turn when renowned journalist Rajiv Lochan Shah of Nainital Samachar stood up to speak. He was labelled as outsider and manhandled[XI] by supporter of ruling party. Shocked at the anarchy, aged Shamser Singh Bisht, the famous social reformer and among prominent figures of separate Uttarakhand Movement left the EPH venue without speaking. In her attempt to control the situation the DM as EPH chairperson directed the policepersons to let in people only belonging to affected areas.
She even announced that the EPH would last until concerns of all the present are heard, even if the interested persons belong to America. Believing her words, many individuals and environmental groups decided to wait patiently for their turn.
But soon, fearing devastation of enormous scale, few public representative started questioning the anti people and illegal process of EPH while condemning the project. Many to be affected people also expressed their mounting concerns about the project.
Unfortunately, the designated EPH panellists appeared more interested in tea, snacks and phone calls rather than ensuring fair and free hearing.
Manipulating the EPH process further the DM then appealed to let elected representative and politicians express their concerns. Every single politician supporting the dam, was allowed to speak to his heart’s content.
They, one by one, totally violated the purpose of the EPH and almost green signalling the project, painted it pro-development, essential in national interest with economical benefits for the State. They seemed least bothered about the severe environmental and social impacts of the project. The uninterrupted rhetoric of half a dozen politicians including Govind Singh Kunjwal, the MLA of Jageshwar, Raghunath Singh Chauhan, MLA Almora, Manoj Tiwari, Ex-MLA, Almora and others lasted for more than one hour.
Then it was the turn of independent people and civil societies to elaborate on relevant environmental issues and flaws in EIA, SIA and EMP etc. Amid deliberate interruption[XII] from politicians and their supporters Vimal Bhai of MATU stood and started asking fundamental questions on the procedure of EPH, on which panellist did not paid any heed.
Suddenly within five seconds of MATU submission, DM stood up and the EPH was stopped abruptly. There was no formal announcement regarding this. Many people in the hall, including myself wanted to speak and officials involved in EPH told us that it was lunch break. I walked upto stage and reminded DM of her statement in the morning that ‘EPH WOULD CONTINUE UNTIL EVERYONE PRESENT IS HEARD’, and asked reason behind why sudden ending. She spoke nothing but secretly signalled to unsure officials that it was a closure. Similarly no response came from UEPPCB official. The official of WAPCOS also left the hall.
Soon the hall was empty but mind of many unheard people filled with question like why EPH of such an important issue was conducted in so autocratic manner while only two days back we had celebrated 70th anniversary of India’s Independence day.
It is worth mentioning that during the EPH, continuous uproar[XIII] inside the hall sunk the voices of people who opposed the project, EIA and suggested alternatives to massive proposal of Pancheshwar project. Suggestions of Ram Singh, director, Saryu Hydroelectric Power Producer Company Limited (SHPPCL) were not heard properly. SHPPL company a villager-owned enterprise has been successfully running 1 mega watt hydro power project in Rasyuna[XIV] village located on the bank of Saryu on Pithoragarh Almora border.
Only two people in a limited manner raised the issue of climate change and its impact on project. Similarly the suggestion of laying focus on solar and wind energy instead of giant, costly, unviable and high impact massive dam project in highly vulnerable areas without even democratic process was lost in the deliberate noise from the dam supporters, allowed by the EPH panel.
It was strange to see four to five policemen encircling the speakers tightly while they were expressing themselves in EPH. It is a fact that the simple villagers find it difficult to speak out freely in the presence of police force. Why then, so many policemen were posted inside, outside and around the venue. It was deliberately done to create a fearful atmosphere to frighten anyone from speaking up against the project. This was a major reason why many villagers avoided the EPH and many of those present decided to remain silent.
The mammoth dam, biggest in South Asia and second highest in the world is going to impact more than thirty thousand families in India alone despite that ONLY TWO WOMEN COULD REACH AND SPOKE IN THE EPH IN ALMORA.
There were reports hinting that EPH in Champawat district on 09 August 2017 was conducted in similar high handed and undemocratic manner[XV].
IN CONCLUSION It is clear that the EPH for Pancheshwar Dam held at Champawat, Pithoragarh and Almora in Aug 2017 violated almost every norm of public hearing process. The EIA-SIA-EMP from WAPCOS was totally inadequate, flawed and unacceptable. This process will not even pass legal scrutiny. Earlier the government accept this reality and conduct fresh EPH after getting a credible EIA done by an independent agency, the better it will be. Else this kind of box ticking EPH will not be acceptable in any court of law.
Bhim Singh Rawat, (firstname.lastname@example.org) SANDRP
PS: Also see, SANDRP detailed submissions (English[XVI] and Hindi[XVII]) to the DMs and UEPPCB officials highlighting violations before the EPH conduction and also presenting few facts questioning the construction of Pancheshwardam Dam.