Uttarakhand

Paying the price

Print edition : September 30, 2016

Debris carried by floodwaters of the Alaknanda river crashing against a temple in Chamoli district in Uttarakhand on June 18, 2013. Photo: AFP/Indian Army

For the first time, a company in India will have to pay compensation for damage occurring during a natural disaster: the NGT imposes a fine on GVK for aggravating the impact of the 2013 floods in Uttarakhand.

THE June 2013 floods in Uttarakhand wreaked havoc in the Kedarnath valley and in Srinagar town in the State’s Garhwal region. The floods, which killed thousands and destroyed property worth hundreds of thousands of rupees, were indeed a natural disaster, but various man-made factors aggravated their impact. While the devastation in Kedarnath hogged headlines because it ravaged the shrine and killed thousands of pilgrims from across India, the devastation in Srinagar got comparatively less attention because it was limited to a specific geographical area of the town and involved only the people living there. But the impact of the tragedy was no less horrendous: while the gushing floodwater swept away entire areas, a huge amount of silt came down the hill slopes and buried everything that came in its way, houses, institutions, hotels and restaurants. The local people said at that time in hushed tones that the GVK power company, which is executing the Shrinagar Hydro Electric Project in the area called Alaknanda Hydro Power Co. Ltd (AHPCL), was responsible in a big way for the disaster because it was dumping huge amounts of muck and silt on the hill slopes and on the riverbed without taking adequate precautionary measures. This allegation has now been proved conclusively by the National Green Tribunal (NGT). It has imposed a fine on the company for the environmental damage, an unprecedented move in India, which has a history of companies operating with impunity and paying scant attention to the environmental degradation they cause.

The landmark judgment, which the principal bench of the NGT delivered on August 23, asked AHPCL to pay Rs.9.26 crore as compensation to the residents of Srinagar, for the damage and injuries they suffered because of the project’s improper waste disposal. The judgment rejected the company’s contention that the residents had suffered owing to an “act of God”. Along with the compensation, the NGT bench also directed the company to pay an amount of Rs.1 lakh each to the applicants in the case by way of cost. The judgment was given by a two-member bench of judicial member U.D. Salvi and expert member A.R. Yousuf.

The NGT’s judgment is the first one to fault a hydropower project for damage caused during floods and to impose an environmental compensation. The Shrinagar Hydro Electric Project, which became commercially operational in 2015, is situated on the Alaknanda river and has a 66-metre-tall dam with an installed capacity of 330 MW.

The Srinagar Bandh Aapda Sangharsh Samiti and a local activist, Vimal Bhai of Matu Jansangthan, had approached the NGT seeking compensation from AHPCL for the loss of life and property and for restoration of the affected area in Srinagar. The applicants had submitted that AHPCL had inappropriately dumped a large quantity of the muck generated during the construction without ensuring necessary safeguards. This, they claimed, aggravated the impact of the floods and swept massive amounts of muck into Srinagar town and nearby villages on June 16-17, 2013, leading to fatalities and loss of property.

Completely agreeing with the petitioners, the bench said that even though the disaster occurred because of a cloudburst, the power company was aware that the project was situated in a geologically sensitive area of the Himalaya where cloudbursts were not a rare phenomenon. It also pointed out that the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests (now the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change) had sounded an alarm regarding the waste disposal. The bench, thus, said: “…having regard to these known conditions, human foresight could have reasonably anticipated that laxity in taking timely protective measures such as slope dressing, terracing, toe walls covering the top soil at the permanent muck disposal sites would prove disastrous to the environment, particularly, to the human beings.” The bench further said: “Material before us points out laxity on part of AHPCL in relation to taking adequate safety measures for muck disposal sites.”

Under Section 2 of the NGT Act, the bench termed the incident an accident that had happened because of the hydropower plant, and thus imposed the environment compensation under the principle of “no fault” liability under Section 17(3).

Bharat Jhunjhunwala, who has been crusading against big hydroelectric projects in Uttarakhand for years and is one of the applicants in this case, welcomed the judgement, saying: “The amount may be meagre, but it is a landmark judgement because it will deter more hydroelectric companies from coming into the State.”

Meagre amount

Himanshu Thakkar of the South Asia Network of Dams, Rivers and People said it was a good order and hoped it would set a precedent and make companies more responsible when it came to environmental issues, which had a direct impact on people’s lives. “The judgment should be seen in the context of how actions by corporate groups directly affect the lives of people and can cause tremendous damage if not handled sensitively.” Thakkar, who sounded disappointed by the meagre amount awarded as compensation, was also of the view that the NGT needed to go “deeper” when issues of this nature came up before it. For example, the JP Group, he said, had been allowed to get off scot-free for a similar crime in Uttarakhand in connection with the Vishnuprayag Hydroelectric Project. “The JP Group had also been dumping boulders and muck in the river, and after the 2013 disaster they simply shifted the muck from upstream to downstream. This is paving the way for an even bigger disaster if similar floods were to happen again. But the NGT let them off without any punishment in 2014,” he said. In fact, considering the scale of the damage, it is an understatement to say that the compensation amount is meagre. This correspondent visited Srinagar a few days after the deluge; entire localities had been flattened, single-storey houses had simply disappeared and the entire area had turned into a flat ground through muck deposition, people had lost their life savings, thousands of tonnes of foodgrains stored in a godown were buried under the silt, an entire industrial training institute building had gone under muck, and countless animals had been buried alive. There was no way the area could be repopulated. “Nothing can be restored. It is impossible to bring it back to normal; relocation is the only option,” the Subdivisional Magistrate, Raza Abbas, told this correspondent at that time. Relocating entire neighbourhoods needs huge funds, so one feels Rs.9.26 crore is not only too late but also too little.

“My mind has stopped working. My entire life savings is gone. My house, everything inside it, nothing is left. Nothing can be restored either. I don’t know what I will do now,” Premdutt Raturi, a Shastra Suraksha Bal jawan, told this correspondent, despondently sitting outside his submerged house in the Shaktivihar locality of Srinagar then. His two-storey house was packed with silt and muck up to the roof. His family members barely managed to save their lives by rushing to the roof with whatever they could salvage as floodwaters and muck roared into their house on the night of June 16, 2013. He is just one among the 200-odd families that lost everything in the Bhaktiana-Shaktivihar locality. The gushing water of the Alaknanda river brought so much silt with it that it simply destroyed everything in its path. Once the water receded, the silt just deposited, burying everything underneath. There was no way anything could be salvaged.

Drinking water got contaminated, there was no electricity and the fear of epidemics loomed large. The worst part was there was no government help in sight even days after the tragedy. The first excavators made their appearance 11 days after the tragedy, and then the road-clearing work began. “There is nobody to think of us, no government official has bothered to come”—this is the complaint of countless number of people this correspondent met in the area. The administration was at a loss and was frozen into inaction.

One wonders what Rs.9.26 crore can achieve when the scale of the tragedy was so enormous. Yet a beginning has been made to fix accountability and hopefully this will make companies more responsible in future.

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