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‘Unjustified’: Experts Write to PM Modi Against Hydro Projects in Ganga Himalaya

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Rescue team members work near a tunnel after a part of a glacier broke away and flooded Tapovan, Uttarakhand, February 8, 2021. Photo: Reuters/Stringer

Bengaluru: A group of more than 60 experts and prominent citizens have written to Prime Minister Narendra Modi against his government’s decision to restart construction of seven hydroelectric power (HEP) projects in the Ganga-Himalaya. In 2014, a committee called Expert Body I, put together on the Supreme Court’s direction, strongly recommended against building HEPs in paraglacial zones. The Union environment ministry expressed support for this decision in an affidavit it filed with the Supreme Court that year, adding that future decisions on the matter would have to have “strong and sound” scientific backing. However, the letter states that the Modi government’s new decision to resume construction of the seven projects, six of which lie in paraglacial zones or their buffer areas, lacks any scientific support and should be rolled back.

The experts’ letter is reproduced in full below, followed by the list of 64 signatories (as on September 10, 2021, 1:55 pm). Some notable endorsers include Ramachandra Guha, Medha Patkar, Ravi Chopra and C.P. Rajendran.

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Open Letter to the Prime Minister, Minister of Environment and media:

Restarting seven under-construction hydro projects in Ganga Himalaya unjustified

Recently the MoEF&CC has recommended restarting the construction of seven under-construction HEPs  in Uttarakhand namely Tehri II (1000 MW), Tapovan Vishnugad (520 MW), Vishnugad Pipalkoti (444 MW), Singoli Bhatwari (99 MW), Phata Byung (76 MW), Madhmaheshwar (15 MW), and Kaliganga II  (4.5 MW). The news came as a shock to citizens, devotees and environmentalists who have been struggling  since over a decade to preserve our national river Ganga and the Himalaya. The deeply felt concern over  the fate of these two pivotal ecological systems and defining symbols of Indian culture, compel us to write  this letter. Not the least, as a citizen, it is also our constitutional duty ‘to protect and improve India’s natural  environment’.

In the past the MoEFF&CC has strongly supported and concurred with the findings of Expert Body-I (EB I), a body formulated on the directions of the Supreme Court, which found that HEPs aggravate disasters  and cause irreversible environmental damage. The MoEFF&CC stated in its affidavit (5/12/2014) ‘that it  was a cause of pain, anguish and outrage that so many lives had been lost and properties damaged.’ Therefore, it said any decision on HEPs should be on ‘very strong and sound footings with scientific back  up.’ In direct contradiction to this the only reasons given for restarting these projects is that ‘a substantial  progress and sizeable investment’ has been made.

Six out of the seven projects (except Tehri Stage II) recommended, lie in para-glacial zones, or in its buffer.  The EB-I Report had explicitly highlighted the dangers of building dams in the para-glacial zone, now  understood as the region upstream of the MCT. Several scientific publications thereafter have also  supported the EB-I recommendation against building dams in these areas. The destruction of the  Vishnuprayag, Phata-Byung and Singoli Bhatwari HEPs in 2013 whereas the Rishiganga and Tapovan  Vishnugad HEPs in February 2021 are recent examples.

The Madhmaheshwar and Kaliganga HEPs are proposed on virgin rivers in a para-glacial zone. Scientific  publications in the recent years have highlighted that small para-glacial tributaries are more destructive than  the main rivers. For example, the most severe destruction in 2013 was caused by Khiro Ganga, and in 2021  by Raunthi Gad and Rishiganga. Following the June 2013 disaster, Madhmaheshwar and Kaliganga rivers  are virtually clogged with sediment. These sediments are likely to get mobilized during extreme hydro  meterological events thus likely to impact the Singoli- Bhatwari HEP, whose barrage is located barely a few hundred meters below the confluence of Madhmaheshwar ganga with the Mandakini river as happened  with the two HEPs in February 2021.

Phata-Byung and Tapovan-Vishungad can in no way be considered as 50 per cent complete. They have  suffered extreme damage, and lie buried under debris even to this day. Their upstream geomorphology and  catchment ecology is completely obliterated compared to what it was when the projects were designed and  approved. They would require detailed fresh investigations, new DPRs and fresh clearances if they were to  be considered for reconstruction. Local reports suggest that Vishnugad-Pipalkoti construction too, is under  50 percent. Tehri 2 HEP, if constructed, would immediately recycle the river water that emerges out of  Tehri 1 dam without allowing for even a minimal stretch of flow in which the Ganga could revive herself.  Studies by NEERI have found that Tehri 1 has already compromised the self-purifying property of  Gangajal. Tehri 2 would only deteriorate it further.

Glaciers in the Himalaya are retreating faster than the global average. Hence the increased frequency of  downstream flooding, glacial lake floods, and other disasters is expected. We have recently witnessed Rishi  Ganga HEP being wiped out in minutes by the flooding in the Rishiganga River. Tapovan-Vishnugad and  its tunnels was buried under tonnes of debris minutes later, and still remains in a deplorable condition.  Labourers lost their lives in a tragic and horrific manner and many dead bodies could not even be retrieved  from the tunnel. ICIMOD had already predicted in 2009 that, ‘Valuable infrastructure, such as hydropower  plants, roads, bridges, and communication systems, will be increasingly at risk from climate change. Entire  hydropower generation systems established on many rivers will be in jeopardy if landslides and flash floods  increase, and hydropower generation will be affected if there is a decrease in the already low flows during  the dry season.’  

Fresh designs, costs of the damages suffered and reconstruction will make the power produced by Phata Byung and Tapovan-Vishugad prohibitively costly, especially when compared to the cheap solar power  available today. The price of recovery in the valley after 2013 Kedarnath flood was estimated at Rs.6,259  crore (aprox 1.1 billion dollars). Perhaps the MoWR is already aware that the power production costs at  Tapovan-Vishnugad and Singoli Bhatwari have currently escalated to Rs.23/unit and Rs.16/unit  respectively.

Given all these facts, reports and studies, it would be a profound error, indeed a self-defeating exercise, to  implement any more HEPs in the Himalaya and on the Ganga, whether under construction, new or  proposed. The life security of our people is at stake here, and is paramount. The Himalaya are the sentinels  of India and river Ganga supports almost half a billion people in its basin. The Ministry of Jal Shakti has  submitted that, ‘along with the conservation of water flow, the protection of the catchment area, the forest  cover and the protection of overall biodiversity is much needed because the eco system services of the Ganga-Himalayan basin is extremely significant and have a direct and indirect impact on the overall food  and water security and climate conditions of the entire nation.’ 

We strongly emphasise that the world is in the grip of a climate change crisis. The recent IPCC report has  declared a ‘Code Red’ for humanity. It has particularly cautioned that India will be among the hardest hit  nations.

In our hearts and minds is also ever present, the deaths of, Baba Nagnath, Swami Sanand, and Swami  Nigamanand who sacrificed their lives in prolonged fasts, to ensure the aviralta and nirmalta of Mother Ganga.

Our collective Conscience and Science both demand that the decision to restart these seven projects be  reversed, keeping in mind many factors that have been ignored, in the best interests of our nation and the  stated goal of the government to rejuvenate the Ganga. There are alternatives for electricity generation but  there are no alternatives for our age long cultural and civilizational identity- the Ganga and the Himalayas.

The PMO has already taken a welcome and judicious decision in its meeting of 25/2/2019, that:

‘No new hydro-electric project shall be taken up on River Ganga and Its tributaries  in the State of Uttarakhand. 
All projects in which the work has not started on the ground shall be dropped. c. Considering the revenue and opportunity lost to the State of Uttarakhand, it was  decided that the State of Uttarakhand may be compensated for the projects which are  being dropped and on which work has already started.’ 

We conclude with the observation of the Jal Shakti ministry itself: ‘As may be seen from the views of experts  and expert organizations indicated in the foregoing para, the HEPs will adversely affect the ecology of the  Himalaya, leading to an irreversible loss to the Himalayan eco system and to the national river Ganga  which is the nation’s identity and symbol of faith and heritage.’ 

We sincerely hope that you will reconsider the recent MoEF&CC recommendation to restart the construction of the seven HEPs.

Yours Truly,

The post ‘Unjustified’: Experts Write to PM Modi Against Hydro Projects in Ganga Himalaya appeared first on The Wire Science.

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