Battling for compensation

Thousands of Uttarakhand residents suffered major losses in the floods. In many cases, government apathy has added to the woes of people who have spent savings accumulated over decades to rebuild their lives after the floods. Many are still pursuing legal battles to seek their dues.

Back in the Shakti Vihar area of Srinagar, there are visible remnants of the damage, as the debris brought in by floods can still be found in gardens or verandahs of homes. While Upreti has spent most of his savings restoring his life and home, many of those living around him do not possess the resources to recover from the disaster at their own cost. One of Upreti’s neighbors refused to clear any muck from his house and is still fighting a case against the Uttarakhand government for enhanced relief.

A house that has been intentionally left unrestored since 2013 by the owner, who is demanding additional compensation from the government. Image by Kartik Chandramouli/Mongabay.

The area adjacent to Shakti Vihar, which includes the training ground of Sashastra Seema Bal, a paramilitary force of the Indian government, also suffered heavy damages. Hriday Ram Kotnala, whose house is adjacent to the training ground, said that before 2013, the training ground was several feet below the level of the locality but now it is several feet above the ground level of their colony due to muck deposition.

On the other side of the colony, there is an industrial training institute, which has not been restored to its pre-flood state. The classrooms and training halls are still filled with debris. Machines worth millions of rupees and several cars and trucks also languish beneath the muck.

Submerged and abandoned structures serve as a reminder of the past. Image by Kartik Chandramouli/Mongabay.

Local communities in Srinagar believe the 330-megawatt Srinagar hydroelectric power project built on the Alaknanda River, one of the headwaters of the Ganges River passing through Uttarakhand, amplified the damage.

Their fears were confirmed by a 2014 report from an expert committee, formed on the Supreme Court’s order and led by environmentalist Ravi Chopra.

“The Srinagar hydropower project officials appear to have been unable to retain the muck which got washed into the river and assisted in aggravating the damage in the lower reaches of Srinagar town,” the report noted.

Muck Dumping
Improper management and disposal of muck was identified as one of the factors that aggravated the floods in 2013. Currently, there is a stay order on muck dumping, but the activity still continues. Image by Kartik Chandramouli/Mongabay.

“Local people are not benefiting from these projects,” said Vijaya Laxmi Raturi, a Srinagar-based activist and member of the Bharatiya Janata Party, one of the country’s major political parties. “This is not planned development. I agree that electricity is our need but big dams are not needed. Rules are not followed in such projects and in many cases government collude with these private corporations. We have not learnt any lessons even five years after the 2013 tragedy.”

Further up in the mountains, the area surrounding Kedarnath Temple, which is dedicated to Lord Shiva and is a major tourist spot, was among the most damaged areas in the 2013 tragedy. The devastation remains visible today. The town around Kedarnath Temple and the downstream area were heavily damaged due to the collapse of Lake Chorabari, some 1.5 kilometers (0.9 miles) upstream of Kedarnath.

While the route that pilgrims took to trek up to the temple until 2013 was destroyed, some isolated patches can still be seen while going up the mountains.

A comparative map of the change in the Alaknanda River’s flow near Srinagar, Uttarakhand, after the flooding in 2014 and then in 2017 as the hydroelectric project continued to function. (Drag to view.)

The government continues to push for dams

Despite several expert committees questioning the role of a large number of dams spread across Uttarakhand, the state government has not slowed its push for more such dams, maintaining that hydropower is an important source of revenue and will bring development to the state.

In terms of the hydropower potential, Uttarakhand is second only to the state of Arunachal Pradesh in northeast India.

According to data from Uttarakhand Jal Vidyut Nigam Limited (UJVNL), the nodal corporation of the Uttarakhand government for managing hydropower generation at existing power stations and developing new hydro projects, the plan is to develop 450 hydroelectric projects (HEPs) across the state to harness its potential of 27,039 megawatts.

More than 250 of these projects are still on the drawing board, and growing concerns about the effect of dams on biodiversity and riverine ecosystems have not helped their case.

If completed, more than half of the 450 HEPs projects will have an installed capacity of 5 megawatts or more. The majority of them will divert rivers through tunnels to powerhouses downstream.

In its 2014 report, the Chopra committee suggested dropping 23 of these hydropower projects, but the issue is still pending in court.

Experts believe the development of these projects will irreversibly affect the landscape of Uttarakhand.

Pradeep Srivastava, a scientist at the Wadia Institute of Himalayan Geology in Dehradun, Uttarakhand, said the region was disaster-prone and had seen similar disasters since the 1890s, but the magnitude of the damage had increased over time.

“River connectivity has become an important parameter,” he said. “The entire Ganga, Brahmaputra, Sutlej and Saraswati plains have been formed due to the interaction between the river systems and mountains. If in between this, such dams are created, it means we are playing with the natural water flow. We will not understand the effect now because these things act beyond human time scales.”

Pradeep Srivastava, a scientist at the Wadia Institute of Himalayan Geology, talks about the urgent need for mountain-centric infrastructure in Uttarakhand.

 

Local villagers, too, fear another disaster.

“We saw what happened in 2013 and all those mistakes are being repeated again,” said Sushila Devi, an activist from a village near Banswara in Uttarakhand. “The dam that is being built near our village has a huge tunnel inside the fragile mountains. There will be a constant danger to our lives.”

Sushila Devi is actively fighting for the rights of her village near Banswara, against the under-construction hydroelectric project. She’s also one of the petitioners fighting the dumping of muck, through the National Green Tribunal, which ensures the speedy disposal of environmental cases in India.

‘Unrelenting’ pursuit of hydroelectricity

According to a 2015 report by the Comptroller and the Auditor General of India, the “natural terrain conditions combined with climatic/weather conditions and haphazard human intervention resulted in the unprecedented disaster in the Kedar and Mandakini Valleys and in other parts of the state.”

But no lessons seem to have been learned. In 2012, a 100-kilometer (62-mile) stretch of the Bhagirathi River, a tributary of the Ganges, was declared an eco-sensitive zone (ESZ), which meant that no new HEPs were allowed along that stretch.

Since then, the Uttarakhand government has been making efforts to get the Bhagirathi Eco Sensitive Zone notification amended, seeking permission to construct 10 hydropower projects along the river with a total capacity of 82.5 megawatts. The government has argued that they were allotted prior to the issuance of the 2012 notification and were under different stages of development and implementation. The latest plea to the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change was made in December 2017.

“The attitude of the Uttarakhand government, the ministers and the bureaucracy, is most disappointing,” said Chopra, who also serves on another expert committee, appointed by the National Green Tribunal, to draft the zonal master plan for the Bhagirathi ESZ. “Despite several admonishments from the courts and the central ministries they simply avoid implementing the notification in its participatory and environmentally friendly manner. It is obvious that the government is in the hands of the vested interests.

“The unrelenting insistence demanding approval for the 10 hydropower projects of the total capacity of 82.5 MW is simply incomprehensible,” he added. “The actual power available to the state will be about 38 MW which is less than 10 percent of the current installed capacity inside the Bhagirathi ESZ. This can be easily made up by more efficient power generation and transmission.”

Environmentalist Ravi Chopra at his home in Dehradun, Uttarakhand. Image by Kartik Chandramouli/Mongabay.

More than 60 percent of Uttarakhand is covered by forests that are home to about 4,500 plant species. Of these, 116 species are endemic, representing an invaluable genetic resource. Construction of dams requires clearing huge forest areas, which in turn poses a danger to this biodiversity.

A final decision about the amendment of the 2012 Bhagirathi ESZ is yet to be taken.

Meanwhile, even as the impacts of big dams are being debated, India is looking to build the country’s highest dam in Uttarakhand. The 5,040-megawatt Pancheshwar Multipurpose Project is being planned on the Mahakali River, known as the Sarada in India, at a location where the river forms the international boundary between India and Nepal.

 

This story was first published on July 4, 2018, by Mongabay-India.

Article published by Shreya Dasgupta
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