Environmental Devastation in Uttaranchal

For the past several months, Utaranchal has been witnessing a movement against the Hydro Electric Power Project at Joshimath – one of the 93 projects planned by the State Government to tap the State’s rivers for power. We carry an interview with Atul Sati, Convenor of the Citizens’ Struggle Committee of Joshimath town, on the implications of the Uttaranchal Government’s policies on the State’s environment and people.

Lib: What sparked off the agitation against the NTPC’s Tapovan Vishnugad Hydro-electric Power Project at Joshimath?

AS: Two years back, in 2003 when the survey was on for the Project, we raised the question – why did Joshimath town or Uttaranchal need such a large project? NTPC usually generates power from coal (thermal power); now, it was called by the Uttaranchal Govt to use river water to generate power, with grand plans of turning Uttaranchal into ‘Urja Pradesh’ ( Power State ). In 1979, the water authorities surveyed the trans-Himalayan river Dhauli Ganga at Joshimath, a confluence river which joins the Alaknanda at Vishnuprayag and assessed that it could generate 300 megawatts of electricity. Today, 25 years later, we are told it will generate 520 watts. All studies point to the fact that in this period, the Himalayan glaciers have receded – how, then, is it possible to expect the river water to generate more electricity?

When we raised our apprehensions about displacement and land-loss, we were told that this was a ‘run-of-the-river’ project – designed as an alternative to big dams, which would generate maximum power with minimum impact on the environment and people. The truth is: when the world discarded the idea of big dams, India started building them; now, when developed countries like New Zealand and USA have discarded the run-of-the-river dams, we’ve started building them here!

Lib: What is the likely impact of this project on the people of Joshimath?

AS: This NTPC Project plans to dig a 12 km tunnel in the area. What impact will this have? Recall that another hydroelectric project is underway just below Joshimath. This 400 megawatt Vishnuprayag Project was contracted out by the Uttaranchal Govt to the dubious JP Company (which also has the contract for the Tehri project). Under this project, the mountain face was blasted to construct a big tunnel. This shook Joshimath town to its foundations.

Way back in 1976, the Uttar Pradesh Govt had set up a Committee headed by the then Commissioner of Garhwal Region, Mahesh Chand Mishra. That Committee had observed, “Joshimath rests on an old landslide…it is a heap of sand and stones” and had expressed amazement as to how a township came to be on such a fragile foundation. That Committee had recommended that in order to protect the town, heavy vehicles, blasts and anything else that might disturb this seismic zone must be strictly avoided. 30 years later, the Centre for Environment, Water and Power Consultancy Services (I) Ltd (WAPCOS) conducted the Environment Impact Assessment (mandatory under law) has recommended finalisation of the Tapovan Vishnugadh Project – but has furnished no findings that challenge those of the 1976 report.

Lib: Have you asked the NTPC to make public the findings of the survey?

AS: On 22December 2003 , we sent a memo to the President of India, with signatures of 50-60 prominent citizens of Joshimath. In that memo, we expressed some apprehensions about how people would eke out a living if their farmland was annexed, and how Joshimath’s inhabitants would meet their daily water needs, if the town was sandwiched between two tunnels which would drain the region dry. Within 15 days, we got a letter from the President’s office that the ‘concerned department’ had been directed to give us a reply. A couple of weeks later, the NTPC got some Gram Pradhans (elected from Congress and BJP) to sign a letter saying they had received a satisfactory reply. The Pradhan of Laata village, Dharm Singh Rana from the CPI, refused to sign the letter despite pressure. There are a series of Projects planned at Laata too, where it is likely that the rivers will drain into tunnels.

Citizens formed a ‘Joshimath Sangharsh Samiti’, of which I was made the Convenor. Due to our protests, the inauguration of this Project was postponed once and rescheduled for February 7. Apprehending more protest, a week before the date, the inaugural was cancelled again. Finally, a lavish inaugural of the Tapovan-Vishnugad project was held – but far from Joshimath, safely at Dehradun! The papers reported that the CM, in his speech, declared that the inaugural was being held at Dehradun because Tapovan was covered with 6-7 feet of snow; when the snow melted, the foundation stones would be shifted to Tapovan. This explanation might satisfy people from outside the state; the people of Uttarakhand know very well that it never snows at Tapovan!

Lib: Isn’t a public hearing supposed to precede clearance for such a Project?

AS: The Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) report was not made public well before the Public Hearing was held (as is mandatory), thus making it difficult for local people to ask informed questions about the Project. Still, at the Public Hearing, we raised several questions. We asked for proof that the flow of the river had been calculated. We asked whether the facts about rainfall, glacier size as well as the likely impact of the Project itself had been taken into account in calculating the future flow of the river. We got no answers. The Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) granted both these projects clearance on 8th February 2005 . It is mandatory to show that even in the lean season, certain minimum cusecs of water must remain, to support the flora, fauna, fish etc…The NTPC has claimed that there is ‘no flora and fauna or sites of archaeological value’ here, and have in their report assured that they will leave ‘enough water to carry away the sewage created by the labourers’! This, about an area that has the Nanda Devi Sanctuary, full of rich wildlife and flora! Also, the proposed site for the barrage falls in what is now a group of ancient temples, which is recognised by the UN as a World Heritage Site.

Along with other activists, we challenged the clearance, and filed appeals (on 1 April 2005 ) to the National Environment Appellate Authority (NEAA). But our appeals have not been entertained, despite the glaring violations in procedure.

Lib: What kind of development do you think Uttarakhand needs?

AS: During the agitation for a separate state, I recall that we raised the slogan: “Pahad ki jawani, pahad ka pani, pahad ke kaam nahin aa raha” (pointing out that the hills’ resources – its water, its youth – were being exploited and the hill people themselves were deprived of these resources). One of the primary reasons for demanding a separate state was that earlier, all the planning was done at Lucknow , by bureaucrats and politicos who knew nothing about the environment or way of life of the hills. When the new State came into being, we had hoped for a more participatory model of development, in which the unique experience and knowledge of the hill people, as well as their needs, would be at the centre of development initiatives. Now we find, once again, that the needs of the hill people are not at the centre of ‘development’ planning; in fact, Uttarakhand’s precious rivers are being handed on a platter on contract to private companies whose only priority is graft, quick loot and quick profit.

Uttarakhand’s electricity needs can be met with small projects (of one or two megawatts) on the ghats, which would not endanger the hill ecosystems and inhabitations, and by which, more power could be generated with less cost. In Uttarakhand, simple panchakki generators were commonly used to generate 1 to 3 megawatts of power, for a very low cost. Today, it is clear that Uttarakhand simply doesn’t need huge amounts of power to be generated from the 93 proposed projects. The purpose of these projects is to generate power for the rest of the country (Tehri water, for instance, is to go to Sonia Vihar in Delhi ) – a totally unsustainable proposition because they can rapidly destroy the very rivers that are Uttarakhand’s precious resources!

Lib: Whathas been the experience of other similar projects after completion?

AS: At Dharchula, after completion of a run-of-the-river Project, the tunnel developed a rift when water was released and a village of 300 families was destroyed. At Maneri Bhali, part of the Tehri Project, 14 villages have been affected by drought, since the river has drained off into the tunnel. Another point is that since 1980, 90% of people of this state are dependent on agriculture (mostly cash crops like apples, cabbage, rajma, etc…), with the remaining 10% in services or in the army. Annually, people earn approximately Rs. 6000-Rs. 15, 000 per nali of land. The rate of compensation offered by the Government is Rs. 6000-Rs. 12, 000 per nali – less than one year’s income.

Lib: Is it true that the technology used for such projects is minimally damaging to the environment?

AS: It is not enough for technology to be the ‘latest’; the real test: does it suit the specific needs of this region? The people at Dharchula asked the authorities, how come a rift developed in the tunnel? The NHPC Director admitted on record that though the technology used is the most modern available, it didn’t work because the region is landslide prone! Remember that the entire Chamoli region (where these projects are located) is a seismic zone, prone to landslides.

We contacted one of the geologists on the WAPCOS EIA panel and asked him what was the likely fallout of blasts. He replied that Tunnel Boring Technology would be used to avoid blasts. But, off the record, he admitted that in case of very hard cliffs, blasts would inevitably be needed. The 1976 Mishra Report clearly warned against any blasts, pointing out that the land here shifts daily by 0.002 millimetres. Also note that the cliffs are part of the Himalayas – the youngest mountain range – full of layers of sedimentary rocks. If you dig one layer, another replaces it. Blasting and digging tunnels here will endanger the very existence of these mountains, and with them, the people who inhabit them.

Lib: What is the alternative to such Projects? What is your demand?

AS: The CPI(ML) and the Joshimath Bachao Sangharsh Samiti are not against tapping water resources – as I’ve said, we’re in favour of ways of generating small amounts of power. In addition, we must explore the possibilities of generating power for local consumption from wind. We are not opposed to the Project at Joshimath alone – we are resisting the entire package of 93 Projects, the very vision of turning our state into an ‘Urja Pradesh’ by privatising our water resources.