New Delhi: The 7 February Uttarakhand flood left two hydropower projects severely damaged and put the spotlight on such projects in the fragile Himalayan terrain as deliberations started afresh on avoiding and mitigating flooding disasters in the state.
Hydropower projects in the state became a subject of discussion in light of the 2013 Kedarnath tragedy. In 2014, the Supreme Court put on hold 24 proposed plants in the Alaknanda and Bhagirath river basins of Uttarakhand and asked the government to outline a policy regarding hydropower projects. Seven years later, the projects are still hanging fire.
Despite 31 Supreme Court hearings and three government committee reports in this regard, a clear government policy on hydroelectricity projects (HEPs) in Uttarakhand remains elusive.
The 24 projects — many awaiting clearances from different authorities at the state and central levels at the time — were put on hold by a bench of Justice K.S. Radhakrishnan and Justice Dipak Misra (both retired).
This decision came as the Supreme Court — hearing a petition filed by Alaknanda Hydro Power Company Limited (AHPCL) in 2012, against an order of the Uttarakhand High Court about a proposed dam project — took suo motu cognisance of the 2013 floods and began an examination of the larger question surrounding HEPs in the state.
It asked the central government to set up a panel to study the role of HEPs in the floods.
The freeze on construction or grant of fresh clearance was meant to last till the central government finalised its policy on the basis of this panel’s report. The panel — chaired by environmentalist Ravi Chopra — furnished its report in 2014 advising against any new HEP in the area, which a consortium of IITs was later tasked with reviewing.
The last hearing in the case was effectively held on 10 May 2016, when the court heard applications for starting six of the HEPs, three of which are by public sector enterprises.
These HEPs — Bhyundar Ganga and Khiri Ganga projects by Super Hydro Electric Power Limited, Jhelum Tamak by Tehri Hydro Development Corporation (THDC), Lata Tapovan by NTPC, Alaknanda by GMR, and Kotlibel by NHPC — it was argued, had all statutory permissions to begin operations.
The Supreme Court then ordered the central government to spell out its stand on the plea about the six HEPs. However, divergent views between three union ministries — environment and power on the one side, and water resources on the other — appears to have delayed the response.
While the environment and power ministries said in their affidavits in 2016 that they supported construction of the HEPs, the water resources ministry opposed new power plants in the “ecologically-sensitive areas” of the Ganga basin.
Without protecting the natural, unhindered flow of water in the river and its tributaries, rejuvenation of Ganga is a futile exercise, the water resources ministry said.
However, the Uttarakhand government also supported the plea. In an affidavit filed before the Supreme Court in August 2020, the state said it was facing acute shortage of power and has been forced to purchase electricity amounting to Rs 1,000 crore annually.
The matter was heard briefly in January 2021 when a bench led by Chief Justice of India S.A. Bobde took up an early hearing application filed by private firm GMR Energy Limited. The case was then adjourned to July 2021.
Lawyers in the case — those representing plant owners, as well as NGOs — blame the central government and the apex court for the delay in framing guidelines for operation of power plants in Uttarakhand.
SC was deeply concerned over Kedarnath floods
The floods that struck Uttarakhand in June 2013 killed hundreds and wrought havoc across the state.
In August 2013, the Supreme Court directed the central government to form a committee to assess the cumulative and individual impact of hydropower projects on the biodiversity of the two river basins, and if the existing HEPs played a role in escalating the impact of the 2013 disaster. Besides this, the Uttarakhand government was told to submit its disaster management plan to the court.
“Deeply concerned” over the Kedarnath floods, the bench noted: “The adverse effect of the existing projects, projects under construction and proposed, on the environment and ecology calls for a detailed scientific study. A proper disaster management plan, it is seen, is also not in place, resulting in loss of lives and property.”
To carry out the court’s directive, the central government, in October 2013, constituted the Ravi Chopra committee. The committee submitted its report in April 2014, recommending no construction of new HEPs in altitudes over 2,000 metres above sea level.
A consortium of IITs was subsequently tasked with reviewing the panel report.
The government placed both the reports before the court on 7 May 2014 and claimed the two offered conflicting assessments. It then sought permission to reconstitute the committee set up in 2013 to examine the questions set out by the SC.
But the court did not accept the government’s submission and asked it to come out with “concrete reasons for constituting another committee”.
It then issued a stop order on 24 HEPs until the central government drew appropriate conclusions on the basis of the Chopra committee report, and asked the central government to file a policy on hydropower projects.
A week later, on 13 May 2014, three public sector enterprises NTPC, NHPC and THDC moved court to seek permission to start work on their plants, claiming the projects were approved much before the court’s 2013 judgment. Later, two private firms — Super Hydro Electric Power Limited and GMR Energy Limited — applied for similar relief.
Taking note of the Ravi Chopra report, the environment ministry filed an affidavit in the Supreme Court in December 2014, saying there was a direct as well as indirect impact of hydropower projects in aggravation of floods of 2013.
However, no clear policy on hydel projects in the region was tabled before the top court.
On the plea to start the six HEPs, the Supreme Court had told the government in August 2014 to submit a project-wise report, which is still awaited even after two committees were set up to look into it.
The first committee comprised four members. On 17 February 2015, the then Attorney General Mukul Rohatgi — representing the environment ministry — told the court that the committee had not found the “projects deficient on procedural and substantive requirements for the clearances issued to them”, according to a report in The Indian Express dated 12 March 2015.
However, another part of the report was withheld, in which the committee said the projects “have potential of causing significant impacts on the bio-diversity, riverine system, wildlife and other fragile eco-systems in the areas where these projects are located due to altered (by 2013 floods) hydrological parameters”, the news report added.
With the episode stoking outrage, the court asked the ministry for the entire report. Instead, the government set up another committee under B.P. Das, who used to be a member of the environment ministry’s Expert Appraisal Committee (EAC) — that clears such projects.
Ministries on different pages
The B.P. Das panel cleared all six HEPs. On 24 November 2015, the government sought time from the Supreme Court to hold inter-ministerial consultation as the subject matter involved business allocation of three ministries — Ministry of Environment & Forest (MoEF), Ministry of Water Resources (River Development and Ganga Rejuvenation), and Ministry of Power.
The matter was, therefore, adjourned for over four weeks.
The MoEF and the power ministry accepted the B.P. Das report and apprised the court about it through affidavits on 26 April 2016 and 10 May 2016, respectively.
In its affidavit, submitted that June, the water ministry insisted new HEPs will have a “substantial impact on the ecological footprint of the area, leading to severe damage to the freshwater source”.
Advocate M.L. Lahoty, who appears for AHPCL in the matter, said lack of a clear policy from the government side has had a financial impact on the projects that got stalled due to the court order.
“Even the Supreme Court has not given a thought to the urgency required in the matter. An early hearing application was taken up by the top court on 20 January 2021, only (for the matter) to be listed in July. If a request for early hearing gets fixed after six months, the purpose of the plea is defeated,” Lahoty told ThePrint.
Senior advocate Sanjay Parekh, who appears for an NGO in the case, said the 2013 directions have not been complied with either by the state or the central government.
“There has to be some finality to the issue that reached the court in 2012 and it is necessary to make sure the order is followed,” he told ThePrint.
ThePrint reached the water ministry spokesperson for comment by email but did not receive a response by the time of publishing this report.