The February 7 2021 Chamoli deluge has completely destroyed Rishiganga Hydro Electric Project (HEP). The 13.2 MW run of the river project has also become graveyard for over 50 innocent workers and villagers. The damages to homes, bridges, forest and river eco-system is additional which cannot be restored easily.
In fact, the disaster is among the threats against which experts and locals had been warning the authorities time and again. Sadly, the past history of struggle and destruction shows that not only the state government but the judiciary also failed miserably to address the pleas of locals and assess the disaster risks in a timely manner.
Notably the project was being built on Rishiganga river about one km upstream of iconic Raini village in the Nanda Devi Biosphere Reserve. It was on March 26, 1974 when the native women spearheaded the Chipko Movement[i] to protect their native forests. The movement is still celebrated worldwide and continues to inspire people to stand firm against environmentally destructive projects.
However, about two and half decades later, the significance and success of Chipko were side-lined by the state government when it started planning, sanctioning and allowing implementation of the Rishiganga HEP in para-glacial zone. Fearing damages to their forests, river, common lands the villagers once again tried to resist but given adamant, insensitive governments at state and central level, developers and ineffective judiciary, they could not put off the disaster.
Images shared by Atul Sati and CWC shows scale of destruction to Rishiganga river, RGHEP, project site and infrastructures.
Project with ZERO environment scrutiny For being less than 25 MW installed capacity, the project escaped scrutiny under Environment Impact Assessment (EIA), though the project proponent & government were well aware[ii] that the area is vulnerable to disasters, hydrological & geological risks. The project thus had no environment impact assessment, environment management plan, environmental appraisal, environment clearance, public consultations, environmental monitoring or compliance requirements.
This is yet another wake up call for the Government of India and states that the current (Sept 2006) EIA notification is fundamentally flawed and all projects above 1 MW should be required to have environment clearance and all the relevant norms as listed above. In Uttarakhand in any case such projects would only bring more disasters.
A Wake up call for UN and CDM The disaster is also a wake up call for the United Nations and its fraudulent Clean Development Mechanism decision making process[iii] that end up certifying completely disastrous, unviable and unacceptable projects like the 13.2 MW Rishiganga project as clean development project. The project was certified to get CDM credits and this certification process needs to be probed by an independent credible process to ensure that no projects like this ever get CDM credits. The project may have lost the CDM credits since it could not be commissioned within the stipulated period as mentioned on CDM website, which says: “Renewal no longer possible”, but the fact is the project was certified to get 49585 Credits per annum for a period of seven years, which was totally wrong decision.
Project History: Three inexperienced companies, recurring financial losses
The planning of the project started in 1996 by Rishi Ganga Power Corporation Ltd. (RGPCL), a Kolkata based company owned by Surana while the Uttarakhand was part of Uttar Pradesh. Initially the project was of 8.25 MW capacity.
Till 2000 RGPCL could not take up the project. The owner had no experience in developing hydro projects. It had secured a loan for the project but suffered losses in other businesses. So in 2005 RGPCL was sold to Rajit Group of Companies owned by Rakesh Mehra of Ludhiana.
The agreement of implementation for the project was signed in April 2005 with completion deadline of 30 months since beginning of construction work. In July 2007, the RGPCL decided to increase the capacity to 13.2 Mw.
Following this, the detailed project report (DPR) was revised and approved by the Uttarakhand government in December 2008. By then the Rajit group has also got a loan of Rs. 39 crore from Punjab National Bank (PNB) for the project.
The project was located in geologically sensitive region making it financially unattractive for investors. So the developer was heavily dependent on carbon credits under clean development mechanism and bank loans.
Notably the Rajit group was also inexperienced in hydro project development. The landslide of 2009 and cloud burst of 2011 delayed the project. During a visit to project site on August 15, 2011 the owner Rakesh Mehra lost his life[iv] to a rock fall incident.
The company ran into financial trouble and other disputes. It took more loans from PNB, Oriental Bank of Commence and Kotak Mahindra yet could not complete the project. The project further suffered destruction[v] during flash floods of 2012 and 2013. By 2013 the total loan liability had increased to around Rs. 160 crore.
In February 2016, the company was declared bankrupt. Same year, the project suffered more damages in a cloud burst event. The PNB moved to the National Company Law Tribunal (NCLT) for loan recovery and in November 2018, the Kundan Group bought[vi] RGPCL by paying Rs. 45.62 crore.
|1||July 2006||Rs. 25 cr.|
|2||June 2008||Rs. 14.30 cr.|
|3||July 2009||Rs. 7.86 cr.|
|4||March 2012||Rs. 6.23 cr.|
|5||June 2013||Rs. 12.89 cr.|
|Total||Rs. 66.28 cr.|
The loan was repayable in 84 monthly instalments of ₹27.09 lacs after the starting of commercial production by the project. Since the project could not be commissioned, the outstanding loan amount to PNB stood around Rs. 75.04 crore including interest by March 2016.
Ever since, the Kundan group resumed work on the project, the local people have been protesting against the environmental destructive practices by the company. The project has been delayed by almost a decade. The financial losses have only mounted up. As per the project officials, the February 7 2021, deluge has cost it losses to the tune of Rs. 150 cr and the future of project is uncertain[viii].
The project has been damaging the pristine environment since the beginning. In August 2008, the local villagers demonstrated against the project, blaming[ix] the developer for carrying out blasting work which was affecting the wild animals and causing cracks in their homes apart from leading to erosion of riverbanks.
In December 2018, Raini villagers accused[x] Kundan group of grabbing village land. While celebrating the Chipko Anniversary the local villagers in March 2019, staged protest against Rishiganga HEP for blocking[xi] their ancestral path to Gaura Devi Smirti Van.
In May 2019, Kundan Singh of Raini village filed a petition in the Nainital High Court (HC), stating that the company had taken away their land for the project, villagers were also promised jobs but they have been given none. On the contrary the company was conducting blasting, illegal[xii] mining, and unsafe muck dumping, created[xiii] stone crusher units in riverbed thus impacting their homes, common lands, wild animals and river adversely.
Hearing the plea, the HC, issued notice to central and state governments and asked them to submit replies in three weeks. The court also directed the district administration to prohibit[xiv] use of explosives and mining in the river without prior official permission and supervision. The matter is sub-judice since then. In between the project developer continued the illegal and damaging practices.
The villagers had also reached National Green Tribunal (NGT) but got no relief[xv]. They blamed that the tribunal formed committees of same indifferent officials and they were not heard when the it visited the project site.
Responding to a query a spokesperson of the Kundan Group reportedly claimed[xvi]: “The allegations are wrong. This project started in 2011. A committee verified and found no alleged various environmental violations by the organization.” This shows how the Judiciary failed to hold the project accountable.
Tribal suffering for RGPCL blunders, violations
The tribals depend on forests, river to survive and livelihoods. They have already lost land rights to formation of biosphere reserve. Further, there are more hydro projects[xvii] planned on Rishiganga and Dhualiganga. Diversion of river flows for Rishganga HEP has been impacting[xviii] the riverine vegetation, soil moisture and the local people.
The Rishigang HEP developers have turned the villagers’ lives miserable[xix] for over a decade. The warnings and pleas have remained unheard[xx]. The deluge has further devastated the resources essential for local people. The villagers have been living in fear[xxi] as their homes have developed cracks, river has eroded[xxii] fertile lands and made the area prone to landslides.
It has also emerged that the developer has not installed[xxiii] any early warning system despite facing destruction repeatedly. It has even failed[xxiv] to respond efficiently to post disaster management work.
Indeed, the Raini and other local villagers have gained nothing[xxv] from the Rishigang HEP but the repeated destructions caused by it and the February 7 deluge has made them pay immensely for no fault of theirs.
There is little hope that the project would become functional ever. But the worrying thing is that despite heavy toll on human and environment, there is no decision to scrap the disastrous project.
One only wish that the Chamoli calamity would make the governments and judiciary wake up to the ground realties and scrap the economically unviable, environmentally destructive and socially unacceptable hydro projects in paraglacial, paraglacial influence zone (e.g. Tapovan Vishnugad HEP) and other disastrous zones of Uttarakhand.
Compiled by Bhim Singh Rawat (firstname.lastname@example.org)