To dam or not to dam? That was the question asked by the Supreme Court soon after floods and landslides devastated Uttarakhand in 2013. The Environment Ministry set up an expert committee, and subsequently told the court in December 2014 that dams had exacerbated the 2013 disaster.
A year and a half later, the Ministry of Water Resources in an affidavit last month also opposed construction of any more dams on the Ganga and its tributaries in Uttarakhand. This consensus should have settled the issue. But the Environment Ministry had, meanwhile, changed its 2014 position.
So, two days ahead of the crucial hearing scheduled in the Supreme Court on July 13, counsel for the Union of India wrote to the Court Registrar and sought “an adjournment by 12 weeks to enable the Government of India to carry out inter-ministerial consultations for arriving at a common policy framework as the matter involves three ministries”. The third Ministry being Power.
Consequently, the case was not listed for hearing on July 13.
By all indications, “arriving at a common policy framework” seems like a laboured euphemism for what is likely to be a three-month effort at justifying a foregone conclusion in favour of more hydel projects in Uttarakhand.
Soon after it criticised dams in December 2014, the Environment Ministry was told at a meeting held at the Prime Minister’s Office in January 2015 that it was “necessary to place the correct picture regarding the critical need of the projects in Uttarakhand for green power and for livelihoods before the court”.
The PMO also set a one-month deadline for the Environment Ministry to finalise the clearance norms for the dams in coordination with the Power Ministry and the Uttarakhand government.
So, in February 2015, the Environment Ministry contradicted its second expert panel’s recommendations by telling the Supreme Court that the six hydel projects — which were earlier struck down by the apex court in the aftermath of the 2013 disaster — were “worthy of clearance”. To justify the volte face, the Ministry set up yet another expert panel in June.
Around this time, Minister for Water Resources Uma Bharti joined the fray and asked the Central Water Commission to oppose the construction of new dams, as the existing ones were already a challenge to the ongoing river cleaning mission.
To bridge differences, an inter-ministerial group (IMG) was formed in November 2015 with the Ministers of Environment, Water Resources and Power as its members. If the brief was to build a consensus in favour of the “correct picture” suggested by the PMO, Bharti didn’t oblige.
In an email to then Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar on January 5, 2016 — the day the Environment Ministry shared its draft affidavit with other IMG members — Bharti pointed out that she was “unable to understand how the policy decision of the government as stated in the draft affidavit was arrived (at)” because an inter-ministerial committee under the Secretary, Water Resources, was yet to file its report.
Disregarding Bharti’s objections, the Environment Ministry, however, went ahead and submitted its affidavit before the Supreme Court, recommending five of the six stalled projects. Further, referring to a consensus on the Ganga’s water requirement arrived at a conference held in Haridwar in 1916, the affidavit proposed to clear any hydel project that did not take the natural flow of the river below 1,000 cusecs.
However, based on media reports of Bharti’s objections that were brought to its notice, the apex court asked both Power and Water Resources to file their own affidavits. In May, the Power Ministry obliged, backing the Environment Ministry’s January 2016 affidavit in favour of hydel projects.
In its affidavit submitted last month, the Water Resources Ministry, however, referred to the recommendations of various expert committees set up by the Environment Ministry in the past to conclude that “any further projects will have a substantial impact… leading to severe damage for the fresh water resources base” and “if the origin of the Ganga is compromised, then the rejuvenation of the river will be impossible”.
Underlining the need to review clearances accorded to various hydel projects, the affidavit asked for a cumulative study “of all the projects for assessing the cascade formation as well as the natural flow of the river”. It also cautioned that the “region around these projects is located in the geologically unstable and seismically active area” and any mishap “will have a devastating effect on the people, flora and fauna and on the entire eco-system”.
These concerns echo the conclusions drawn by the Environment Ministry in its affidavit filed on December 5, 2014: “…Large & small hydro power projects on the Ganga & her tributaries all over the Himalayas are a threat to the aviral dhara of the Ganga. The absence of this is leading to a serious threat to the biodiversity of the Himalayan ecology… anthropogenic activities (have) also led to massive over-exploitation of the local environment, thereby loosening the top soil and making the region susceptible to landslides and flash floods.”
It seems odd that the government should be caught trying to bypass the collective wisdom and scientific insights of its own expert committees that formed the basis of two affidavits, filed 17 months apart by two different Ministries, but were united in their recommendations. Minister Bharti would be counting on the new incumbent in the Environment Ministry, Anil Madhav Dave, her former aide from Madhya Pradesh and fellow river conservationist, to back her through the “inter-ministerial consultation”.