After only six weeks of India’s annual 17-18 week summer monsoon, India’s Uttarakhand state is reeling under a series of flash floods that experts blame at least partly on the hydroelectric projects that had been started in the Himalayan state and then abandoned under a Supreme Court directive following the huge flash floods of 2013.
Faced with this double whammy of climate change impacts and abandoned partially-built dams that have channelled rivers in new directions, residents of many Uttarakhand villages are now stuck behind multiple landslides, with food running out and their homes in danger of being washed away or buried under yet another
People suffer, ministries bicker
In such a situation, different ministries of the Indian government are quarrelling over the resumption of the stalled dams. The ministries of power and of environment, forests and climate change have told the Supreme Court that they want five of the hydroelectric projects resumed, while the ministry of water resources and Ganga rejuvenation has opposed any resumption.
The Indian Water Resources Ministry told the Supreme Court: “The three rivers, namely Alaknanda, Mandakini and Bhagirathi, and Ganga river from Dev Prayag downwards till Ganga Sagar should remain in their current condition without any further disruptions/interruptions or diversion.”
Alaknanda, Mandakini and Bhagirathi together make up the Ganga before it descends from the Himalayas to the plains. Ganga Sagar is at the mouth of the Ganga, where it flows into the Bay of Bengal.
Officials in the ministry said the prime minister was keen to ensure “sufficient” water flow in the Ganga to dilute at least the worst of the pollution it suffers from further downstream.
But the power ministry is finalising a fresh hydropower policy to give a push to the sector that has been virtually halted due to opposition on the ground from people likely to be displaced by the projects. Environmentalists have also been opposing the projects, and the situation in Uttarakhand gives strength to their arguments.
There were 24 hydropower projects under construction in Uttarakhand when the 2013 floods hit the state, out of the 70 that have been planned for many years. Together, these 70 projects are supposed to generate 9,000MW, but the water resources ministry has now pointed out to the Supreme Court that this potential has been bandied about without any consideration given to the carrying capacity of the rivers, the minimum water flow required to keep the rivers alive (the so-called environmental flow or e-flow) or the needs of local residents. The ministry now wants a cumulative impact study, taking all the proposed projects into account.
The five dams that the other ministries want to resurrect are the 300MW Alaknanda project, 24.3MW Bhyunder Ganga project, 4MW Khirao Ganga project, 171MW Lata Tapovan project and 195MW Kotlibhel 1A project. The government has recommended “considerable design modifications” on the Alaknanda and Kotlibhel 1A projects.
Opposing this and pointing out that rejuvenating the Ganga was one of its mandates, the ministry has told the Supreme Court: “If the origin of the Ganga is compromised, then the rejuvenation of the river will be impossible.”
The Environment Ministry had told the Supreme Court something similar in 2014 but has now changed track. There are media reports that the change came after a meeting convened by the prime minister’s office.