Fault lines

Print edition : October 08, 2010

Activists and many residents blame a hydel project for the growing frequency of landslides in some Uttarakhand villages.

in Bhatwadi/Uttarkashi

Houses damaged by a landslide sitting precariously over the Bhagirathi river.-

THE nearly 3,500 residents of Bhatwadi village along the Uttarkashi-Gangotri highway in Uttarakhand saw their world come crashing down around them on the night of August 12/13. A massive landslide that hit the village formed cracks up to five metres wide on the highway and these crept up the hills to over 100 metres. Many houses and shops collapsed, and many still sit precariously over the Bhagirathi river, ready to tumble any moment. Others, apparently in tact, are damaged beyond repair. Luckily, there has been no casualty.

The entire village has been declared unsafe and its residents have been asked to vacate their homes. Still waiting for the compensation announced by the government, many who lost their houses have taken shelter in local schools or government offices.

Others are wondering where to go; the government is yet to provide alternative accommodation for them. In order to draw the government's attention to their plight, the affected people have been on an indefinite fast since September 1.

So far no compensation has come our way. Those who lost their houses or shops totally have been given only Rs.20,000. But what can one do with so little? Besides, normally three or four families reside in a house, but the compensation is given only to the family in whose name the house is registered. The other families are left to fend for themselves, said Raghvanand Nautiyal, former pradhan of Bhatwadi village, who, along with Mamta Raturi, member of the panchayat, and Mahadev Nautiyal, a former panchayat member, have joined the fast.

There may be nothing new about landslides happening in this part of the Garhwal hills, but it is significant to note that Bhatwadi is barely one kilometre from Pala, where a 2.7-km-long tunnel has been constructed after blasting the hills for the now-abandoned Loharinag Pala hydel project. According to local people, the frequency of landslides has increased ever since the blasting began in the area in 2007. Heavy rains this time made matters worse. The blasts have also apparently affected many adjoining villages such as Barsu, Kujan, Tihar, Sanglai, Sunagar, Salan, Buki, Hurri and Bhangeli. Many houses here have developed cracks though major landslides like the one in Bhatwadi have not happened yet. Bhatwadi is a warning. It cannot be a coincidence that all these villages fall within a 2 km radius of the blasting site. This needs to be looked at in the larger perspective because the blasting sends shock waves in all directions and since tectonic activity in this area, which falls in seismic zone V, is already high such landslides are bound to happen, said Priyadarshini Patel, the convener of Ganga Ahvaan, an umbrella organisation spearheading the Save Ganga campaign, along with other activists and scientists. In fact, the Government of India decided to scrap the project because of such protests by scientists and religious activists. But this too has been mired in controversies. The project got highlighted first in 2008, when Prof. G.D. Agrawal, a former professor at the Indian Institute of Technology Kanpur and a renowned geologist/environmentalist, undertook an indefinite fast demanding that hydropower projects along the 100-km Gangotri-Uttarkashi stretch of the Ganga be scrapped to ensure the uninterrupted flow of the river ( Frontline, March 13, 2009). He has mentored the likes of the late Anil Agarwal, founder of the Centre for Science and Environment; Dr Ravi Chopra, director of the People's Science Institute, Dehra Dun; and Rajendra Singh, Magsaysay Award winner and founder of the Tarun Bharat Sangh and who is popularly known as Water Man.

The barrage area of the project.-BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

In a study, Agrawal has convincingly argued that the technical committee that gave the green signal to the proposed projects did not apply standard scientific methodology to assess their hydraulic feasibility, geological safety, economic viability and environmental impact. This should be understandable once it is realised that the objective of the study was only to satisfy the formalities to obtain MoEF [Ministry of Environment and Forests] clearances and not any sincere or realistic assessment of likely impacts, he writes in the report.

The report says that even basic tests such as simulation modelling, taking into account the impact of similar existing glacier-fed projects such as Maneri Bhali or Tehri, were not done to assess the project's real impact on the environment. It says primary matters such as pre-project (namely, cycles of the flow variation, water spread, water depth, velocity and silt load) or post-project impact too were not assessed.

Agrawal broke his fast on the government's written assurance that the issues raised by him would be looked into. Subsequently, the Prime Minister declared the Ganga a national river and constituted the National Ganga River Basin Authority, to be headed by him, in order to take a holistic view of all issues relating to the river. The authority recommended an immediate halt to all power projects on the river, pending the final report of a study by an Empowered Group of Ministers. The State government, meanwhile, cancelled two major hydropower projects, Bhairon Ghati and Pala Maneri.

LANDSLIDE VICTIMS ON a dharna at Bhatwari village on September 3 to draw the government's attention to their plight.-SANDEEP SAXENA

However, the work on the Loharinag Pala project, which was executed by the NTPC, continued. The argument given in its favour was that a lot of money had already been invested in the project. According to a senior NTPC official, Rs.675 crore has been spent as of date and commitments totalling Rs.1,930 crore have been made so far on the project. And it was also said that a minimum of 16 cumecs (cubic metres per second) of water flow in the river would be ensured at all times.

Dilly-dallying by GoI

On July 12, the Group of Ministers, with the Finance Minister as its head and the Power Minister and the Environment Minister as other members, decided that the project should go ahead as planned. This prompted massive protests by Save Ganga activists, and Agrawal undertook an indefinite fast again on July 20 in Haridwar. This time he continued his fast until August 23, when the government decided finally to scrap the project.

Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee wrote to Agrawal saying that the Government of India had decided to totally scrap the Loharinag Pala hydel project on the river Bhagirathi in Uttarakhand, not to proceed with the Pala Maneri and Bhairon Ghati projects and declare the approximately 135-km stretch from Gomukh to Uttarkashi as an eco-sensitive zone under the Environment Protection Act, 1986.

THE LOHARINAG PALA project site where work has been abandoned.-SANDEEP SAXENA

He wrote: I am writing to let you know in clear terms that we have come to this decision keeping in mind the very special features and unique status of the sacred Ganga in our culture and in our daily lives. The holy Ganga is the very foundation and is at the very core of our civilisation. Our government is very conscious of the faith that crores of our countrymen and women have in this most holy of rivers and it is in keeping with this faith that these decisions that have been communicated to you have been taken.

Too late

But it appears that the decision came a bit too late. As feared by Agrawal and mentioned in detail in his study on the environmental impact of such heavy construction activity, including the blasting of hills and the excavations in this ecologically sensitive zone, a lot of devastation has already happened as was seen in Bhatwadi village. Besides, more such landslips are feared because of the tunnels.

The project originally had envisaged the Ganga to be diverted to a 13.75-km-long tunnel. Of this, roughly four kilometres have already been dug up while blasting was on for the rest. The only option left now is for the tunnels to be refilled. But no one knows how this will be done.

PRIYADARSHINI PATEL, CONVENER of Ganga Ahvaan, which is spearheading the "Save Ganga" campaign. She says blasting generates shock waves, and since tectonic activity in the area is high, landslides are bound to happen.-SANDEEP SAXENA

Officials of the NTPC are hoping against hope that the National Ganga River Basin Authority, which is to give its final approval to the scrapping of the project, will reverse the government's decision and the project will be restarted. In their opinion, this is one of the most beautiful, ecologically suitable and environmentally sound projects for this region. Terming the decision unfortunate, a senior NTPC official said it was the first time ever in this country that a project has been scrapped on religious grounds, not on technical grounds. He said the Government of India had been trapped by scrapping this project because this has set a precedent as more such demands would arise for similar projects to be scrapped elsewhere and the government would be in no position to say no then.

Green bonus

Meanwhile, a huge section of the local population, which does not have too many avenues for employment, is demanding that the project be restarted because it had given employment to at least 3,000 local people. All of them are now jobless. This has given rise to tremendous hostility towards those advocating the closure of the project. Why should the government be held to ransom by one man [Agrawal]? What does he know of the problems here? If he is actually concerned about the river then he should get it first cleaned in the plains, especially in his own city, Kanpur, where the river is the filthiest, said Sachidanand Nautiyal of Bhatwadi.

A retired schoolteacher, he says that if at any stage the project was given the green signal, then it should not have been cancelled now. Why are they dilly-dallying on it? The project should be completed. To leave it now would mean inviting further devastation in the hills, he said.

Significantly, Chief Minister Ramesh Pokhriyal Nishank, who is aware of the local sensibilities on the issue, while agreeing with the decision to stop the project, has demanded compensation from the Centre in the form of a green bonus' as the heavily forested hill State has only limited resources to generate employment. Seventy per cent of our State is covered with forest, which we have to preserve in the national interest. We cannot allow too many industries, we cannot have too many power plants. How do we then generate employment for our youth? The Centre should give us Rs.5,000 crore every year as green bonus because we are preserving the country's pran vayu [fresh air], he told Frontline. He said the Centre should also restore the special economic package, which had been withdrawn early this year and the State should get 2,000 MW free power every year.

ANOTHER SCENE OF devastation. More landslides are feared in Bhatwadi, according to a study on the environmental impact of heavy construction activity in the ecologically sensitive zone.-SANDEEP SAXENA

We cannot be compared with other States on these issues. Ours is a special State which needs to be dealt with differently, he said. He has plans to hold a meeting of all Himalayan States on such issues. We are going to demand a separate Himalayan State policy from the Centre because our problems are different from those of other States, he said.

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