Posted on behalf of Sanjay Kumar.
In a judgement with far-reaching consequences, India’s Supreme Court on Tuesday put a moratorium on the construction of new hydroelectric dams in the Himalayan state of Uttarakhand.
The region witnessed unusually heavy rain and catastrophic floods and landslides in mid-June that left more than 5,000 people dead or missing. Some ecologists and geologists suggested that a proliferation of dams and hydroelectric projects was in part to blame for exacerbating the effects of the monsoon.
The court’s findings reflected those concerns, describing the “mushrooming of a large number of hydroelectric projects in Uttarakhand” and their impact on the basins of the Alaknanda and Bhagirathi rivers, the two major tributaries that merge to form the Ganges River.
The court ordered the environment ministry and the Uttarakhand government “not to grant any further environmental or forest clearance for any hydro-electric power project in the state until further orders”. It also mandated fresh scrutiny of the environmental impact of 24 proposed hydropower projects.
The court referred to a study commissioned by the environment ministry and conducted by the government-funded Wildlife Institute of India (WII), based in Dehradun. That study reported in 2012 that out of total 39 proposed hydroelectric projects it examined, 24 had significant impacts on biodiversity in the two sub-basins. If all of these proposed projects were to reach completion, a significant area of fish habitat would be modified or lost, affecting 87% of the fish species in the basins, the study found.
Several projects that have been proposed or that are already under construction would impact the remaining wildlife habitats of the snow leopard, brown bear, black bear, Tibetan wolf and musk deer, the WII warned.
Critics of the government such as the non-profit think tank South Asia Network on Dams Rivers and People point out that more than 300 projects are operational, under construction or proposed in Uttarakhand alone — and that for all of India’s Himalayan range the number exceeds 1,600. The government of Manmohan Singh has been overriding environmental and scientific concerns to expedite the approval of stalled projects.
The court has now directed the environment ministry to set up an expert body comprising representatives of the state government, the WII, the Central Electricity Authority and the Central Water Commission to study the environmental impact of hydroelectric projects that are in existence or under construction, to find out whether they played a role in the June disaster. The committee is supposed to report back in three months.