In August 2013, the Supreme Court (SC) asked the government to find out if existing and under-construction hydroelectric projects had contributed to the June 2013 disaster in Uttarakhand, where thousands had perished. It banned the Centre and the state government from clearing any new projects till this assessment was done.
In contrast, on Tuesday, in the same case, the apex court will, instead be reviewing how six proposed projects can be built on the Alaknanda and Bhagirathi tributaries of the Ganga in Uttarakhand.
How did the case, which was about the impact of existing and under-construction hydro projects on the upper Ganga basin in the aftermath of the Uttarakhand tragedy and the future impacts of proposed projects, come to this turn?
In August 2013, the SC ordered that no comprehensive study had been carried out to assess the cumulative impact of all the dams in Uttarakhand in the Ganga basin. It noted the existing studies looked at some bits of the big picture. "Deeply concerned", it ordered the "environment ministry as well as the state of Uttarakhand not to grant any further environmental clearance or forest clearance for any hydroelectric power project in the state of Uttarakhand, until further orders."
Additionally, it tasked the Union environment ministry to constitute an experts body to assess if and to what extent "hydroelectric power projects existing and under-construction have contributed to the environmental degradation" and to "the present tragedy that occurred at Uttarakhand in the month of June 2013."
It asked the government to examine a Wildlife Institute of India report, which had said 24 proposed projects should be banned because these would significantly impact the biodiversity of the Alaknanda and Bhagirathi basins.
The government formed a 13-member panel headed by environmentalist Ravi Chopra, with government and non-government experts on board. Eleven members, including some government officials, took a strong stand against the 24 projects. But two government members, one from the Central Water Commission and another from the Central Electricity Authority, differed.
In May 2014, the Supreme Court recorded that the environment ministry wanted to set up another committee to review existing reports — four by now. The court asked the ministry to justify their move and ordered the stay on the 24 proposed projects to continue.
But in a August 2014 hearing, the court's focus shifted. It asked the government to present a report on each specific project, "so that the report can be appreciated from proper perspective".
In October 2013, the environment ministry had done a u-turn. It said it had never wanted to set up a fifth committee and was reviewing the matter on its own with the help of a consortium of Indian Institutes of Technology, engaged to prepare the Ganga River Basin Environment Management Plan. It summed up the recommendations of this consortium to suggest the 24 banned projects could be revised to reduce their impact on biodiversity and river continuity.
Three interveners in the case with projects in the upper Ganga basin — NTPC, NHDC and Tehri Hydro Development Corporation — said the Union government should provide details of specific changes in their projects. They said they were willing to meet the government across the table on these changes.
The court agreed. It also asked the central government to file "a detailed report in respect of other projects which are suffering due to order of stay passed by this court".
The matter now focused on the suffering due to banned projects; the focus was shifted away from the Uttarakhand tragedy.
Before the next hearing, two private project developers, whose three projects were among the 24 that were held up, intervened too. One was GMR, with its 300-Mw Alaknanda Project, and the other was Super Hydro with two small power projects. The court asked the government to review the three state units' projects and these three private ones as well.
December 2014 came with another twist by the government. It now cited the plethora of committees that had warned against the damage caused by existing and under-construction dams and potential damage that could be caused by future projects. It said it wanted to provide the existing Ravi Chopra committee, along with five more experts, another 12 months for a comprehensive and critical examination of all the projects.
The project proponents argued the environment ministry violated court orders, which had asked for project-specific reports. But the Union government said the projects had to be assessed cumulatively. The court ordered, "Be that as it may, we would like to hear learned counsel for the parties further."
At the next hearing in December, the apex court ordered, "It is directed that the cases of six projects of NTPC, NHPC, THDC, GMR and two projects of Super Hydro shall be considered in a cluster." The court had asked for a cluster review of projects falling on the tributaries. The court said, "The ministry of environment and forests shall see the date on which the licence have been granted, regard being had to the law prevalent at that time. If there be any deficiencies, that shall be pointed out to them and their responses called for."
The SC will next hear the case on Tuesday. The order for cumulative impacts of hydropower projects in the wake of the Uttarakhand tragedy is history, for now.
Source- Business standard