It is well-known that India’s environment governance is very weak. The work of the Expert Appraisal Committees (EAC) in the clearance process is shoddy, unscientific and largely catering to vested interests. But with the recent recommendation of an environment clearance for the 775 MW Luhri hydropower project on the Sutlej river in Himachal Pradesh, the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests’ (MoEF) EAC on River Valley and Hydropower Projects seems to have touched a new low.
First, the Sutlej was known to be an already over developed basin when the Luhri project came up for first stage clearance before the EAC in April 2007. The EAC should have refused to consider the project without an independent credible cumulative basin level study looking into its carrying capacity with respect to various aspects. The fact that the EAC did not even discuss this then, even though the issue was brought before it, showed the EAC members’ complete lack of understanding of the importance of the basin level cumulative impact assessment study.
The minutes of the EAC meeting in April 2007, where the Terms of Reference (TOR) of the EIA came up for approval for the Luhri project, say that the project is going to have a 45 m high dam affecting a maximum of 45 project affected families and 13 villages. Now from the EIA it is clear that the dam height is not 45 m but 86 m, that the project will affect not 45 but 2,337 landowners and 9,674 persons and impact not 13 but over 100 villages. Any competent body would have questioned the very serious nature of changes in basic project parameters, but competence is clearly not the correct description of the EAC. The EAC did not even ask the project promoter for an explanation, leave aside penalise them for their misrepresentations.
Even legally, the TOR clearance is supposed to be valid only for two years. When the project came up for final environmental clearance before the EAC towards the end of March 2012, it was almost five years since the TOR was cleared. The TOR clearance was no longer valid but the EAC was completely blind to the illegalities.
The legally mandatory public hearings for the project were held in May and August 2011, but the EIA, made available a month before the public hearing as required under the EIA notification, did not have basic information about the names and impacts on the 78 villages along the path of the tunnel of the projects. The local groups had written to the ministry, the Pollution Control Board that is supposed to conduct the hearings and the EAC about these and other issues. But the EAC did not even take note of such serious legal lapses. On this count of violations alone, in the public hearing process, the EAC should have refused to consider the project. But the EAC did not even discuss this issue!
In repeated representations to the EAC, the Sutlej Bachao Sangharsh Samiti and Himdhara have been bringing to the EAC’s notice that there has been no compliance with the Forest Rights Act (FRA) for the forest land required for the project and that the local administration has been indulging in manipulations and pressure tactics to get the mandatory gram sabha resolutions for the FRA compliance.
In fact, these groups have been sending representations to the EAC on all these issues since October 2011. Already, five representations have been sent, but the EAC has never even acknowledged, leave aside discussed any of these representations in its meetings.
The EAC should have invited the people who sent such representations, heard them and allowed them to be present when the project was discussed in the EAC. The EAC did none of these things clearly showing their bias for the projects and not for the environment and people which are the basic mandates of the EAC. This behaviour of the EAC is also in violation of the Delhi High Court order in the Utkarsh Mandal case where the High Court has expressly asked the EAC to show that it has applied its mind to each representation it receives and the decision it takes in that regard.
The EIA itself has such serious inadequacies that even the EAC notes in the minutes of the March 2012 meeting that “the EIA/EMP report is inadequate,” and the consultant has presented “poor quality of material.” The EAC minutes record many of the serious deficiencies of the EIA in its March 2012 meeting. The EIA was so inadequate, so full of contradictions and misrepresentations that the EAC should have rejected it and asked for a fresh EIA while recommending blacklisting of the consultant. None of these issues were resolved in the November 2012 meeting when EAC next discussed the project. By then the EAC had also received representations from affected people, and the issues raised, which too remained unresolved. And yet, the EAC decided to quietly recommend environment clearance to the project without referring to its own observations or those of the representations. The most charitable explanation is that the EAC is inconsistent, incompetent and arbitrary. Reality is rarely that charitable.
The response of the developer and consultant to the issues raised by the EAC in the March 2012 meeting was supposed to be made available at least 10 days before the next EAC meeting in November 2012 when it met to consider the project, as per the orders of the Central Information Commission (CIC) in Febuary 2012 and the CIC notice to the MoEF following SANDRP’s appeal in May 2012. Violating the CIC orders, the responses were not in the public domain.
Even more shockingly, the project violated the EAC’s own norms, but amazingly, the EAC did not even discuss it. Let us see how. The Full Reservoir Level of the Luhri dam is 862.9 m and the tail water level of the immediate upstream Rampur project is also 862.9 m, which means there is zero distance of flowing river between the two projects. This is in complete violation of the recommendations of the Avay Shukla (former additional Chief Secretary of Himachal Pradesh) Committee appointed by the Himachal Pradesh High Court and the reported recommendation of the BK Chaturvedi Committee appointed by the National Ganga River Basin Authority, headed by the Prime Minister. Both the committees’ recommendations are for a minimum of five km distance of flowing river between any two projects. Even the EAC has been following the recommendation of at least a one km distance between the two projects. But the EAC did not even discuss this issue.
Even more disturbingly, the full reservoir level of the downstream Kol dam is 642 m, whereas the invert level of the Tail Race Channel of Luhri dam is one metre below this that is 641 m, which means again there is zero length of flowing river between the two projects. The EAC again violated the recommendations of the Avay Shukla Committee and its own norms. Why did the EAC not even discuss this issue? Why did the SJVN and the EIA consultants, who were familiar with the EAC norm did not raise these issues for both the upstream and downstream situation? Why did the MoEF officials who are part of the EAC and knew the importance of these issues did not raise them either? This collective silence, indicating collective collusion, raises too many questions for anyone’s comfort.
It should be noted that the Luhri project has a head race tunnel length of 38.14 km, which is the longest in the world. As the EAC itself noted, the tunnel will bypass over 50 km length of the river, in addition to the 6.8 km long reservoir. So the project will destroy close to a length of 60 km of the mighty, already over-dammed Sutlej river. To see the callous treatment the EAC has given to such an unprecedentedly impactful project is most reprehensible.
It’s clear that the whole episode of the EAC recommending environment clearance to the Luhri HEP is shameful. As if to keep that appalling decision away from the public gaze, the publication of the November 2012 meeting of the EAC was delayed beyond the next meeting, unlike the usual practice. The only possible option left for the EAC to clear the air and its own name from this disgraceful situation is an urgent, transparent review of this decision it has taken. Let us hope the EAC will use that opportunity soon.
Himanshu Thakkar (firstname.lastname@example.org)