On 15 October 2013, the Ministry of Environment and Forests, Government of India (MoEF) announced the constitution of an expert committee to "make a detailed study as to whether hydroelectric power projects existing and under construction in the river basins of Alaknanda, Bhagirathi and their tributaries have contributed to environmental degradation and, if so, to what extent and also whether they have contributed to the tragedy that occurred at Uttarakhand in the month of June, 2013."

The importance of the committee cannot be underestimated as both the issues it is mandated to look at have widespread and long-term implications for all the Himalayan states.

A crying need

As is known, the Government of India and the Himalayan states of the country are on a spree as far as building dams and hydropower projects is concerned. For states like Arunachal Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand and J&K, with their perennial snow-fed rivers, steep slopes and fast moving waters, hydropower appears to be a dream resource. Arunachal alone is estimated to have a potential for 50,000 MW of hydropower, if not more.

Visions of huge revenues are driving plans for construction of hundreds of dams and hydropower plants in these states, with cascades of multiple dams planned or already under construction on almost each and every river. Unfortunately, all this has a serious impact on the ecology, environment, livelihoods and social life of the people, which is largely being ignored.

Undoubtedly, there is a requisite process of Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) and Environmental Clearance for most of these projects. However, the processes are highly ineffective with shoddy EIAs, very limited involvement of local communities (including people directly affected), a clearance system that is deeply flawed and designed to clear every project after deliberately playing down and ignoring negative impacts, and a virtual absence of any compliance monitoring and follow-up. Moreover, while individual projects are at least expected to be examined for such impacts, there is no place for a study of the cumulative impacts of all proposed and existing dams taken together.

In this backdrop, the constitution of an expert committee that will examine whether such projects . existing and under construction . have degraded the environment, and to what extent, is sorely needed.

The second issue that the committee has to examine is also critical. The floods in the third week of June in Uttarakhand have been amongst the most devastating tragedies in the country. While there was an underlying natural calamity - the cloudburst and heavy rainfall - there is little doubt that the intensity of the impact was aggravated many fold due to human intervention in the basin, particularly, as noted by many observers, the flurry of dam and hydropower plant construction and related activities.

That the SC perceives the issue to be very serious is clear from the fact that it has directed both the MoEF and Uttarakhand not to grant any further clearances for any hydropower project in the state till further orders.

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 •  Tunnels in the hills It is not only that these dams and plants have blocked and impeded the river flow and distorted the flow channels. These have also called for large scale blasting and digging of tunnels in the fragile mountains. They have dumped massive quantities of muck and debris in the riverbed and surroundings and also aggravated the process of deforestation. Even the impact of road building . which can considerably disturb the delicate balance of the mountain terrain . have been intensified by dams and hydropower, as such projects inevitably require bigger and heavy-duty roads for carrying heavy machinery, as compared to roads necessary for the ordinary needs of local people.

Overall, the construction of dams has therefore undoubtedly exacerbated the impact of the natural disaster. As the preliminary report (Brief Report on Uttarakhand Disaster (16/17 June 2013)) by the National Institute of Disaster Management or NIDM, Delhi, prepared by Dr. Surya Parkash, Associate Professor states, "The area has been denuded to a great extent due to deforestation and tree cutting for road construction, building construction, mining, hydel projects etc. It has also resulted in increased surface flow and rise of river bed due to disposal of debris into the rivers ... Thus, the natural terrain conditions combined with climatic / weather conditions and haphazard human intervention made a conducive environment for such a hazardous process to take place in this valley."

Given the above, the importance of an independent and detailed study of how dam construction has made the area vulnerable cannot be overstated. The study by this expert committee could have far-reaching implications for Uttarakhand and also for other states that are witnessing a spurt in dam construction and hydropower projects.

Devastating floods in Uttarakhand wash away everything. Photo courtesy: Sharada Prasad/Citizen Matters

MoEF under pressure

The unfortunate part, however, is that the MoEF has not constituted the committee out of any internally perceived need to reflect and review the impact of its decisions (clearing so many projects in the region) or to assess the real impact of these dams in areas prone to natural disasters. Indeed, the MoEF has been mostly silent and unresponsive to the criticism that dam and hydropower building aggravated the disaster in the state and hence the programme needed a re-look. In reality, the MoEF was pushed to constitute the committee by an Order from the Supreme Court.

On 13 August 2013, the Supreme Court delivered its judgement on the case Alaknanda Hydro Power Co. Ltd Versus Anuj Joshi & Ors. The case dealt with the 330 MW Srinagar Hydroelectric Project which is under construction on the Alaknanda river in Uttarakhand. The project, which obtained various clearances in the mid-1980s, has had a chequered trajectory and the case essentially deals with that. That part of the judgement, which has for all purposes allowed the project to go ahead as it is, is beyond the scope of this discussion but in dispensing its judgment, the Court raises some broader and very relevant concerns.

"Court's Concern"

This section of the Judgement is titled "Court's Concern" and starts with the Court saying: "We are, however, very much concerned with the mushrooming of large number of hydroelectric projects in the State of Uttarakhand and its impact on Alaknanda and Bhagirathi river basins ... The cumulative impact of those project components like dams, tunnels, blasting, power-house, muck disposal, mining, deforestation etc. on eco-system, is yet to be scientifically examined."

It then takes a detailed look at various studies done on these dams, including a study by the AHEC, IIT Roorkee on the cumulative impact assessment of hydropower projects in the Alaknanda and Bhagirathi basin, a study by the Wildlife Institute of India (WII) of the cumulative impacts on aquatic and terrestrial biodiversity and the report of an Inter-Ministerial Group (IMG). This IMG had been set up to look at several issues and suggest environmental flow requirements for the Alaknanda and Bhagirathi and other tributaries, and to review the two cumulative impact studies referred to above.

Lest this plethora of committees and studies should lead one to think that cumulative impact issues are being looked into in the case of the Alaknanda and Bhagirathi basin, it should be clarified that these studies were initiated following continuous pressure from activists and local communities involving protests, long fasts, mass action, and continuous monitoring of the MoEF and other decision-making bodies. Because these studies were not proactive initiatives resulting from genuine concern or intent of the MoEF, they often proved to be substandard. Indeed, the IIT Roorkee and IMG studies have come under sharp criticism from a host of independent experts.

Significantly, the Supreme Court, in its judgement, has also noted that: "... prima facie, we are of the view that the AHEC Report has not made any in-depth study on the cumulative impact of all project components like construction of dams, tunnels, blasting, power-house, muck disposal, mining, deforestation etc. by the various projects in question and its consequences on Alaknanda as well as Bhagirathi river basins so also on Ganga which is a pristine river".

This problem with the quality of the AHEC study and the serious impact noted by the WII and other studies led the Supreme Court to direct the MoEF to constitute the expert committee to re-examine these issues. While this direction is welcome and very important, it would have been useful if the Supreme Court had issued orders for a fresh cumulative impact assessment to be carried out, given that it itself found the AHEC study lacking in depth.

That the Supreme Court perceives the issue to be very serious is also clear from the fact that it has directed both the MoEF and the state of Uttarakhand not to grant any further clearances for any hydropower project in the state till further orders. Whether the MoEF attaches the same kind of importance to the issue is of course a different question. While the Court had ordered that the report be submitted in three months, the MoEF has in fact taken two months just to set up the committee.

How effective will the report be?

One notable feature of the committee is that it is chaired not by a government official but by a civil society representative, namely Prof. Ravi Chopra. Well known social worker and leader Chandi Prasad Bhatt is the Co-Chair of the committee. It also has several other civil society representatives. Despite their involvement, however, there are serious concerns about the committee.

As Himanshu Thakkar of the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People, who has been closely monitoring the developments in the Ganga basin, says even as he welcomes the formation of the committee: "The committee is unwieldy with excessive inclusion of government members and members with conflict of interest. This raises doubts if the committee will be allowed to function in an independent way."

The conflict of interest refers to the presence of B.P. Das in the expert committee. Das has been the vice-chair of the MoEF's Expert Appraisal Committee (EAC) on hydropower projects. The EAC appraises and recommends river valley and hydropower projects for clearances. Thus, in this committee, Das will be sitting to review the environmental impacts of many of the projects that he himself has cleared. It is thus clearly a situation that reflects a conflict of interest.

Apart from overcoming all these issues, the biggest challenge for the committee will be to meet the expectations that people are likely to have. Government committees often end up obfuscating or brushing under the carpet serious issues and presenting ambivalent positions. As this committee is headed by non-official, civil society representatives, people will expect it to go beyond what a government committee normally does and come out with clear and unambiguous stands warranted by the situation. They will rely on it to recommend, without hesitation, any stringent actions that may be necessary.

Lastly, a real concern is whether the MoEF will have the political will to implement these recommendations even if the committee does its part of the job. The track record of the MoEF so far does not inspire much hope.

A recent example is eloquent enough: The MoEF set up a committee to recommend ways to conserve the Western Ghats, in particular by designating sections of it as eco-sensitive zones. The committee was headed by eminent ecologist Madhav Gadgil, and he presented a report that laid out a framework that was an important break from the past, helping conserve the environment but also taking care of concerns of local development. The MoEF found it difficult to implement this framework, and so set up another committee to suggest ways to implement the Gadgil Committee report; this new committee ended up presenting its own framework that significantly diluted what the Gadgil Committee said. (Read more at this link).

However, given that the case under discussion is being monitored by the Supreme Court, one hopes for a better chance for the report of the expert committee on Alaknanda and Bhagirathi basins to be implemented.