Pure Politics

Uttarakhand’s Devbhumi in Danger

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The union environment ministry that is seeking the apex court’s nod for the permission it has granted to seven hydroelectric power projects in the state of Uttarakhand needs remedial support in wake of environmental disaster causing extreme damage to the plants, including the one at Joshimath region early this February. The problem is rooted in the 2013 mishap that caused the death of 5,000 people in the Kedarnath floods, prompting the Supreme Court to immediately put a halt to all hydro project works in the state.

While the latest disaster in February concerned the 512 MW Tapovan Vishnugadh project, both the state government and environmentalists besides the promoters of the hydro projects of the state are caught in a situation that has thrown up conflicting interests. The state government contends that it has to incur expenses upward of INR 1,000 crores to meet its electricity requirements and hence there is the need to generate power from within the state by implementing hydro power projects.

Environmental experts within the state point out that only a limited percentage of the generated power output will be made available to Uttarakhand owing to the projects being undertaken by private players. Their stand on the issue stated, “Consequently, the state is faced with a grave environmental hazard with little benefit accruing to the locals.” For the people living in the state it’s a matter of livelihoods besides the risk of losing their lives.

Environmentalists also cited the global warming signs like drastic reduction in the temperature of ice in the mountainous terrain, excessive snowfall and heavy downpours that might interrupt the successful implementation of the hydro projects in the state. An emerging solution for this vexatious issue is the promotion of solar energy projects in the state. Over the years, the unit cost of solar energy has climbed down to affordable levels and this offers itself as an attractive solution.

The prolonged litigation that is under the scrutiny of the Supreme Court however, has its roots elsewhere. In a typical “follow the money” trail it gets scented that six of the private investors who were affected by the SC’s decision to ground all work to a halt pleaded for a repeal of the apex court’s verdict, stating, “Our projects had already obtained government clearance prior to the Kedarnath deluge and it’s only fair to allow us to go ahead with our proposed plans.”

Now the setting up of committees is a very popular way vested with our legislative arm to interminably prolong such issues that involve the interests of financial stakeholders. Prior to the litigation of the private parties, it was noted by environmentalist Ravi Chopra’s 17-member committee that the majority of 23 hydro projects proposed can cause irreversible environmental damage to the ecosystem. Subsequently, the findings of the Chopra committee were assigned for re-scrutiny with the Supreme Court asking Vinod Tare, an IIT Kanpur graduate to examine the environmental feasibility. The report came out with much the same summarized findings: “The projects might have a significant impact on the environment.”

It was then the turn of the Environment ministry to find a solution to the seeming imbroglio. The ministry appointed a new committee that was headed by BP Das, who had a known record for dissenting the original environmental committee’s report that proved to be unfavourable to the private hydro power project investors. Needless to explain, the Das Committee ruled in favour of the six power project investors and also cited modifications that could make it a “safe bet” way back in 2015. This tossed the ball in the court of the Environment ministry to take a stand on passing of the projects.

The stables turned clear from the Environment ministry as well as the power ministry. However, Uma Bharati heading the Water Resources ministry was totally opposed to giving the go ahead to these projects. The tide finally turned in 2019 when the re-christened Jal Shakti ministry cleared seven of the 24 projects on the pipeline stating, “Other than those projects it had cleared, no further projects would be permitted.” As of now, a team of local experts spelt it clearly that this development might cause heavy damage to the environment and it would require the Centre to come out with a consistent stand that will help resolve the crisis.

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