When I talk with Manshi, a friend and co-traveler from Himdhara Collective about Bhagirathh Prayas Samman that the collective received during the India Rivers Week 2016, she is modest, even slightly hesitant. She simply says, “We love the mountains, we want to protect them and help mountain communities fight the unequal battle against unplanned hydropower. That is one motivation of our work. But the other is recognition of the fact that we are privileged… privileged to be able to speak English, to work on a computer, to understand the bureaucratic procedures that alienate a tribal or forest dweller from her land. That understanding also drives us.”
Citation of Bhagirath Prayas Samman given to Himdhara Collective states: “Himdhara’s strength is its engagement with communities, movements and organisations. It has created an effective discourse around issues of resource distribution and their ownership and the resultant impacts on ecological spaces of mountain communities, especially vulnerable groups like indigenous people, dalits and women. It is an honor to recognize and celebrate Himdhara Environment Research and Action Collective’s extraordinary Bhagirath efforts in maintaining the integrity of rivers in Himachal Pradesh.”
In their own words, “Himdhara is an autnomous and informal non registered environment research and action collective, extending solidarity and support, in research and action, to people and organisations asserting their rights over their natural resources and agitating against corporatisation of these resources for destructive development in the state.”
Expert Appraisal Committee on River Valley Projects,
Ministry of Environment and Forests,
Respected Chairman and Members,
We have just seen the minutes of the 86th meeting (uploaded on Sept 14, 2015, but clearance letters in some cases have already been issued even before the EAC minutes are made public or the minutes are finalised at the next EAC meeting) of the Expert Appraisal Committee on River Valley Committee, held on Aug 24-25, 2015.
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.
The World Bank has decided not to lend financial assistance to the massive Luhri Hydropower project on Sutlej River in Himachal Pradesh. The World Bank, which was to provide a huge USD 650 million to the $ 1150 million project, on its website now indicates[i] the status of the project as DROPPED. Environmental groups and local affected people under the banner of Sutlej Bachao Jan Sangharsh Samiti consider this is a major victory for the campaign to save the last remaining stretch of “free”[ii] flowing Sutlej River.
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) http://civilsocietyonline.com/pages/Details.aspx?263