The rejuvenation and cleaning of the Ganga is one of the big items on the agenda of the new government at the centre. It’s one of the projects with high visibility. While the comprehensive plans to achieve this clean up and rejuvenation are still to be released, we have seen various pronouncements on what this will involve.

One hears the words “aviral dhara” and “nirmal dhara”. There is talk of resolving the issue of pollution due to industries and sewage. The government has also announced plans to make the stretch from Allahabad to Haldia a commercial navigation waterway. In this plethora of plans and schemes, however, one important part of the Ganga seems to be conspicuous by its absence.

This is the upper Ganga basin, with its many important tributaries like Bhagirathi and Alaknanda, the many places of religious and cultural import, and of course, the part of the basin that has several hundred dams and hydropower in operation, under construction or in the pipeline.

Impacts of Hydropower Projects and Dams

The state of Uttarakhand alone has planned to develop close to 450 dams and hydropower projects with a potential of around 27,000 MW. These dams, hydropower projects, and long diversion tunnels would have serious impact on the ecology and social structure of the area. Flows of the rivers are being radically altered by those projects that are already in operation or under construction, large stretches of rivers have become dry, muck has been deposited in river beds, and biodiversity has been affected.

 A video shot of the devastating Uttarakhand floods in June 2013

Given this, the part of the basin referred to becomes particularly critical for the larger plan to rejuvenate and clean Ganga. Moreover, this large-scale construction activity has to be seen in the context of the devastating floods and tragedy that struck Uttarakhand in June 2013.

In the aftermath of the floods of June 2013, serious questions were raised about whether and the extent to which the construction of these projects had contributed to and aggravated the impacts of the natural calamity. The Government refused to accord this issue the seriousness it deserved, till the Supreme Court, in August 2013, in a case related to one of the hydropower projects, ordered the Government to set up an expert body (EB) to look into these issues. The Government set up the body, headed by Ravi Chopra, only on 15 October 2013. (See here for a detailed article on this)

The report of the EB – dealing mainly with the Bhagirathi and Alaknanda basins - has been submitted in April 2014, but there has been relatively little discussion on this, although the Supreme Court is seized of the matter with the next hearing coming up in October 2014. Given that, and the fact that it deals with an issue that is so serious and one that forms part of a high-visibility agenda of the new government, it is important to look at this report in detail.

The Report of the EB

The EB was given several issues to study and provide recommendations. Some of the critical ones are as follows:

Assess whether the existing and ongoing/under construction hydropower projects have contributed to environmental degradation … whether they have contributed to the tragedy that occurred at Uttarakhand in the month of June, 2013…evaluate how far HEPs have contributed to the aggravation of damage caused by downstream floods.

Examine… Wildlife Institute of India (WII) … report, as to whether the proposed 24 projects in Uttarakhand are causing significant impact on the Biodiversity of Alaknanda & Bhagirathi river basins.

Study the cumulative effects of proposed and existing bumper to bumper & run of river schemes and on this basis review existing Cumulative Impact Assessment Reports.

In respect of these Terms of Reference, the EB has broadly found that the hydropower projects have indeed contributed to environmental degradation, and have aggravated the damage caused by the tragedy of June 2013. Moreover, the EB also found that the 24 projects looked at by the WII would have serious impacts on the bio-diversity and have recommended that many of these be dropped.

Stating that “sustaining the integrity of Uttarakhand’s rivers and their eco-systems is not negotiable,” the EB recommends that environmental flows of 50 per cent during the lean season and 30 per cent during the remaining non-monsoon months should be maintained in the rivers. It also recommends that some of the small but significant rivers be designated as pristine rivers, and eco-sensitive zones be designated in respect of all rivers of Uttarakhand.

Another important recommendation is to set up “a formal institution or mechanism for investigating and redressing complaints about damages to social infrastructure” with “investigations …carried out by joint committees of subject experts and the community”. This is significant because there have been many complaints of construction activity, including blasting, resulting in damage to houses, and triggering landslides.  

The EB found that most of these complaints were brushed aside by the project proponents and their “experts”. Even within the EB, some members disagreed that construction activity, including tunneling, could have such impacts, but the EB overall found enough grounds to think that this is a significant issue.

The Government has claimed that the Tehri dam actually saved the downstream areas including Haridwar as it held back large floods; the EB report too acknowledges that the dam did attenuate some of the floods, but describes this only as fortuitous as the floods occurred before the monsoons, when the Tehri dam was not filled up. At other times, it could not have performed this role as it is not designed for it. More importantly, the report notes that:

“A ground survey of the inundation analysis carried out by THDC [Tehri  Hydropower Development Corporation] on the basis of which it claimed to have saved Haridwar from drowning raised doubts about the accuracy of the computer generated inundation maps. It is therefore not clear how much of Haridwar would have been affected if the Tehri dam had not been there.”

The EB was divided in its opinion on the role of the existing hydropower projects in aggravating the impacts. Most of the members including the Chair felt that these projects had aggravated the impacts of the natural calamity, and posed the question that if there was heavy to very heavy rainfall in many parts of the basin, “Why was massive damage observed only downstream of the Vishnuprayag and Srinagar HEPs [Hydro Electric Projects]?”   

In fact, the opinion of the Vice Chair of the EB and two other members, while appearing as dissent, actually supports this observation. They state that “the significant damage due to HEPs in Uttarakhand was localised, e.g., heavy lateral scour below the Vishnuprayag barrage and heavy silting in the urban stretch downstream of Srinagar project.” Thus, even if HEPs cause only “localised” impacts, it is serious enough in itself, as was seen below Vishnuprayag and Srinagar projects.

The EB makes several other important recommendations. As can be seen from some of these elaborated above, the overall thrust of the recommendations is to sharply cut down on large human interventions in the basins and promote more ecologically friendly and benign activities.

A dissenting report

The Central Water Commission (CWC) and Central Electricity Authority (CEA) – the country’s premier technical bodies in the respective sectors – were also members of the Expert Body. However, they have presented a separate report, dissociating themselves from the main report.

In many ways, this report is indeed far more interesting than the main report. It highlights a complete lack of understanding on the part of the CWC/CEA of the impacts that large engineering interventions have on the ecology, environment and society. For example, the CWC/CEA report states that:

“Development of hydroelectric projects have no environmental degradation effects if EIA studies and mitigation measures brought out in the EMP are carried out…”

This betrays a certain naiveté about the quality of Environment Impact Assessments (EIAs), which is shoddy to say the least, and also a failure to understand that cumulative impacts of the projects can be much greater than the sum of individual impacts. In fact, one of the reasons that the Supreme Court ordered the establishment of this Expert Body was that it found the official cumulative impact assessment study to be inadequate.

The Court’s order of 13 August 2013 clearly states that “…prima facie, we are of the view that the AHEC Report [AHEC, IIT Roorkee report on cumulative impact assessment of hydropower projects in Bhagirathi and Alaknanda] has not made any in-depth study on the cumulative impact of all project components…”

Continuing with its mind-set, the CWC/CEA report also lists several technical and engineering measures which they say exist, and which can take care of many of the impacts. However, they have not bothered to study whether these solutions were actually implemented in the existing projects and the efficacy of these solutions.

Given that CWC and CEA have access to all the data about all water and electricity projects, this lapse only indicates that the two bodies have not examined these so-called solutions with any degree of seriousness.

One point that the CWC/CEA report makes is important. It states that the biodiversity baseline used by the Wildlife Institute of India is mostly based on secondary data and that it needs “to be critically verified through exhaustive field surveys”.

Indeed, it is true that for most river basins in the country, baseline field data is scanty and inadequate. There is a strong case for carrying out such surveys and creating such baselines for all basins, and an even stronger case for waiting for the results of these surveys before we initiate large scale engineering interventions in sensitive basins.

In other words, it makes sense to first get such baseline data, use it for proper impact assessment and only then, initiate construction of large dams and hydropower projects. The CWC/CEA report does not, however, take its argument to this logical conclusion.

Response of the Government

Interestingly, the Government has yet to formulate or make public its response to this report. As the EB report has made several far-reaching recommendations, the official response would be indicative of whether this Government is willing to take decisions that may change the fundamentals of interventions in river basins, or whether it would be business as usual. It may also be the first sign of whether the plans to rejuvenate the Ganga are likely to break new ground.