×
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT

Environment Impact Assessment and the Chamoli disaster

Last Updated : 16 February 2021, 23:30 IST
Last Updated : 16 February 2021, 23:30 IST
Last Updated : 16 February 2021, 23:30 IST
Last Updated : 16 February 2021, 23:30 IST

Follow Us :

Comments

Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) is a tool that helps disclose the environmental impacts of a development project through a systematically prepared EIA Report. The Environment Ministry uses the findings of the report to decide whether a project should be granted Environmental Clearance (EC) or not. The 2019-20 Annual

Report of the Ministry of Environment, Forest & Climate Change (MoEFCC) indicates that 322 projects were granted EC between April and December 2019. The report is silent on the number of projects that were not granted EC in this period. It also does not say how many projects were considered in total. Reporting only EC approvals may seem appropriate in an economic growth report but seems hardly a benchmark of annual performance for an Environment Ministry.

Last year, the MoEFCC issued draft guidelines for making changes in the EIA notification. The draft guidelines were vehemently opposed by many environmental groups who wanted the ministry to strengthen, and not weaken, the EIA and EC process. A key change proposed is the dilution of public consultation. This means that the views and opinions of the project-affected persons will matter less than it did earlier. But the views and opinions of project-affected persons were not given due consideration even earlier. If they had been, locals in Chamoli district would not have needed to approach the Uttarakhand High Court in 2019 with a PIL against the Rishi Ganga Power Project (RGPP). At least, the MoEFCC would have suspended the work at this project site, pending investigation. The RGPP was the most severely hit hydropower project in the February 7 disaster that probably began with a landslide.

The PIL highlighted the alleged unfair and hazardous practices adopted by the proponents of the RGPP. These included stone-crushing on the riverbed and use of loud explosives. The use of the explosives was causing wild animals from the Nanda Devi Biosphere Reserve to flee and enter villages. The Nanda Devi Biosphere Reserve (NDBR) is a UNESCO World Heritage Site known for its Outstanding Universal Values. The RGPP and other under-construction projects located close to NDBR pose great risk to the wildlife species, habitat and pristine ecology that has been maintained for decades. The 2019 PIL offered a focused account of how the risks associated with the construction of these “development” projects were translating into actual harm for the biodiversity and wildlife.

Elsewhere in this Himalayan state, similar concerns have been expressed by locals with regards to ongoing construction work for an all-weather road that will connect several villages. While some locals are protesting against unattended debris -- a potential landslide hazard which can also cause flash floods -- others have expressed concern about declining stability of the Himalayas due to clear-cutting of forests to build roads. This poses serious and long-term threats to the Himalayas, local people, pilgrims and to the forest and wildlife of this global biodiversity hotspot.

The debris also can change the course of rivers and greatly alter water quality and aquatic biodiversity. There have been protests and PILs against this project as well. The locals, who understand the Himalayan ecosystem well, know that this all-weather road project is nothing less than a major environmental setback.

The 2019 PIL was filed by Kundan Singh, who belongs to Raini village. Raini is the historical village of Chipko Andolan fame. Despite its international recognition, Raini village has yet to witness the arrival of basic facilities such as schools and health centres. But the residents of Raini village are hill people, well-versed in the traditional knowledge of surviving in the Himalayas. The 2019 PIL did not mention the issue of lack of access to healthcare, despite an upcoming “development” project nearby. Instead, Kundan Singh’s petition indicated that the villagers’ access to the historic Chipko forest had been blocked because of these projects.

Downstream of RGPP is the construction site of the NTPC’s Tapovan-Vishnugad Power Project. Tapovan-Vishnugad was hit by the debris of the RGPP. An EIA Report of Tapovan-Vishnugad prepared by NTPC for the Asian Development Bank states that the project area is prone to landslides.

It also highlights how the site of the project is very susceptible to earthquakes since the earthquake hazard for a large area of Uttarakhand is regarded as likely. Further, the project is located only 5 km downstream from the Nanda Devi Biosphere Reserve.

Weak explanations are given in the Environmental Assessment and Summary EIA Reports for minimising damage to environment and wildlife. For instance, the project impact on fish migration is said to lessen in the long run because several other hydroelectric projects are planned which will anyway reduce, if not eliminate, fish population in the river.

No aspect of the project makes it viable and it should have been dismissed as soon as it was proposed. Yet, somehow, the authorities allowed digging of tunnels in the fragile Himalayas and were preparing to divert river water into them. In doing so, the huge risk factor was completely ignored and men were sent in harm’s way.

The approved project cost of the Tapovan-Vishnugad Power Project was close to Rs 3,000 crore. The project has now incurred a loss of at least Rs 1,500 crore due to the February 7 disaster. An amount of Rs 20 crore also had to be released from Uttarakhand State Disaster Response Fund to carry out rescue and relief operations. But the greatest loss is that of human beings who would still be alive if the findings of the EIA were considered during decision-making. Let us hope better sense prevails and our bureaucracy and politicians stop viewing the Himalayas simply as a source of hydroelectric power.

(Govind Singh and Armin Rosencranz are Associate Professor and Dean, respectively, at Jindal School of Environment & Sustainability, O P Jindal Global University, Haryana)

ADVERTISEMENT
Published 16 February 2021, 21:04 IST

Follow us on :

Follow Us

ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT