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Environmental and social movements in India and Colombia

Woes of a mountain: pollution cuts the crisp air of Himachal Pradesh

, by MENON Manju

This is a story of a journey to a beautiful place, one that is on the tourist map of most travellers who love the mountains. But like many other journeys I have done, I got to witness the unpleasant things that are done to beautiful places. The mountain air was crisp at Shimla and our first destination over 250 kilometres away. In the Himalayas that could be a long distance to travel and we had been warned about the bad roads and the slowing of traffic, due to landslides. We could also be delayed if we encountered the blockages due to the scheduled time for blasting on one or the other hydro electric projects under construction in the area. We were traveling along the Sutlej river all the way upto the district of Kinnaur in Himachal Pradesh. With the Rampur and Natpha-Jhakri hydro-electric project behind us, we were now to enter Jaypee’s area.

Jaypee Karcham Hydro Corporation Limited (JKHCL), a subsidiary of Jaiprakash Associates Limited has its heavy machinery spread across the project area of the 1000 MW Karcham-Wangtoo project. Many projects on the Sutlej river are named after the two villages that they are located between. Our little car did well to carry us despite the massive bumps on non-existent roads that led to the upper reaches of Kinnaur district. Mountain roads require massive investments to be maintained and relaid especially if heavy construction equipment are transported on them.

On entering Sutlej valley, we felt the heat of a pressure cooker. What made it worse was the noise of heavy machinery and clouds of dust on the roads that were leading to Rekong Peo. The massive tunneling undertaken for these ‘run of the river’ projects was visible from a distance. The signboards welcoming us to the region were not of the Government of Himachal, but of the company constructing the dam. Considering these are long gestation projects, they were there to stay and therefore making their presence felt.

Four years ago, we were traveling along the glacial fed Parbati River which was being tunneled for the construction of two projects, the Parbati II and Parbati III hydro-electric projects. Our trip was part of an investigation to look at the compliance of environmental conditions laid out when the Parbati II project was granted an environmental approval under the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) notification, 2006. The problems we had noticed then in those projects were the same with these ones too. The tunneling of mountains, the massive dumping in the river, the retention walls being unable to hold back the excavated debris, the already fragile roads full of cracks and slush and the river water full of dust and silt.

As our investigation had progressed we realised that all of these were in violation of the conditions that were laid out and had to be followed by the National Hydro-electric Power Corporation (NHPC) which was constructing the project. The investigation revealed that many environmental violations were recorded during the construction activity. In fact, the disposal of muck into the river and water pollution were critical violations that have been repeatedly recorded by the Himachal Pradesh State Pollution Control Board. Letters and show cause notices had been issued from August 2003 onwards, repeatedly pointing out instances of muck disposal and damage to retention walls in different locations along the project stretch. This has been in gross violation of Air and Water Acts [Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1981 and Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1974] as well as environment clearance conditions were were all mandatory to follow.

In fact the Northern Regional Office (NRO) of the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) that had granted approval to the Parbati II project in 2001 had made extremely strong observations on the violations. The office, even though located fairly far away in the city of Chandigarh, following a site inspection had reported in its Monitoring Report dated 2nd April, 2007 that, “Muck and rock cuttings are not being handled properly. Dumpers loaded with debris, muck or rock cuttings are emptied from hill top leaving behind dust clouds. Even flora and fauna in Buffer Zone of Reserved Forest near Adit 4 & 5 is being destroyed by this action of contractors. It observes that the muck disposal sites have not been properly selected. Those are on convex side of river meanders and below high flood level.”

The project’s construction also saw substantial damage to forest areas as well. In three divisions of the State Forest Department (Parbati, Seraj and Great Himalayan National Park areas) from August 2003 to 2007, damage bills had been issued on account of irreparable damage to trees due to dumping of muck and debris both from tunneling and road construction. A letter as late as 18th October, 2007 pointed to dumping in the river and damage to retaining walls. Violations of the Forest Conservation Act, 1980 have repeatedly been observed and regular fines imposed. While NHPC has paid fines in crores of Rupees (approximately Rs. 3,43,50,036 from three forest divisions), illegal activity has continued and not once have the violators been taken to a court of law.

We were told then that the Parbati II project is one of the several projects lined up for the state in order to harness Himachal Pradesh’s projected hydro-electric potential of 20,000 MW. Back in 2008, it was envisaged to have 450 big and small hydro-electric projects in the three major river basins of Beas, Ravi and Sutlej. Today, many of these projects are at different stages of approval or construction.

Now, as we crossed the sites of Karcham-Wangtoo and Bapsa II (on Bapsa river which joins the Sutlej) under construction, the photographs released by the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People (SANDRP) on 31st January 2011 (based on pictures taken in November 2010) seemed to be coming alive. These pictures had revealed as to how the construction of the two projects were causing massive environmental damage to both the riverine and hill ecology of the area. The SANDRP report had also warned that the muck dumped into Sutlej ultimately ends up in the downstream Bhakra irrigation Dam, considered lifeline of Northern Indian states of Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan, reducing the water storage capacity there.

Some of these projects do figure on the Pollution Control Board’s violation radar. The Shimla head office of the Board, which is in charge of the control and prevention of air and water pollution in the state, has indicated as of May 2010 that there are 47 hotels, 3 small Hydroelectric projects (HEPs) and 2 large HEPs in the district. There are no chemical, pharmaceutical, fertlizer, garment, thermal power, mining, irrigation or nuclear power projects in the area. According to the information received from the Board in a letter dated 13.5.2010, no pollution is being generated from any of these HEPs.

However, in contrast, it is interesting to note that between 2000-2010, the Rampur regional Pollution Control Board (PCB) has issued 33 show cause notices to various projects operating in the region and has received replies for all 33 of them. Some of these relate to the two projects which have been mentioned earlier here. RTI records indicate several show cause notices have been issued to Jai Prakash Hydro Power Limited (JPHPL) with respect to the Bapsa II Hydro electric project of 300 MW since 2004 at least. Amongst the several instances of violations pointed out, on 12.5.2004, the Shimla PCB has issued a notice indicating that due to water seepage, the rock mass on the hill side has become fully saturated and may fall on the road anytime. However, in almost all these instances the issue seems to have been “settled” as the PCB’s data did not reveal that any strong action was taken or the issues taken up in the district court.

On 9.12.2009, a strong show cause notice has been issued to M/s NSL Tidong Power Generation (P) Ltd with respect to the Tidong hydro electric project. The notice refers to representations by Sh. B. Negi, Chairman of the Paryavaran and Van Sanrakshan Samiti that provisions of the Air and Water Act are being violated. It also mentions that the Rampur regional office has informed that construction activities have started without proper retaining structures in dumping sites, there is no arrangement for sprinkling water on the roads and haphazard dumping is being done. The Shimla PCB subsequently asked the project authorities to make a presentation before them on 23.12.2009. The project activities were not suspended. Tidong’s construction was on in full swing as early as June 2011.

Some discussion on the increase in water pollution in the pristine environment of Kinnaur has already begun, with the changing land use not being seen as benign. The Planning Commission while discussing the water quality of the region has stated that surface water pollution has been on the rise in the district. During the period of 1993-94 to 1996-97, an increase in total coliform was observed. This is based on the monitoring that has been done by the Pollution Control Board. Further, dissolved oxygen is lower in deep water, which may prove detrimental to the aquatic life in the region (Planning Commission, 2005)1.

So why is it that despite identification of problems and violations, no stringent action has emerged from the authorities? The occurrences of pollution and environmental violations seem to be on record in some places yet the heavy construction with all its implications continues unabated. The answer lies in the manner in which hydro projects are described and included in the options of clean and green renewable energy sources. Most of the impacts of these projects, especially the pollution related ones are ignored or explained off as temporary impacts of the construction phase. But these cumulative impacts of a number of projects that are all located now in the mountain states can have serious implications on the environment and people of the mountains. Until cumulative impact assessments are brought into the decision-making process, impacts from indivdual projects however critical will be ignored in the larger interests of economic growth and development.

1Planning Commission. Undated. ‘Evaluation Study on Functioning of State Pollution Control Boards’ (PEO Study No.180). Planning Commission. New Delhi

This article is available in French: Les malheurs d’une montagne : la pollution nuit à l’air pur de l’Himachal Pradesh

Manju Menon is a researcher who has been investigating and writing on the conflicts between environment and development in India. She is currently a PhD candidate at the Centre for Studies in Science Policy, JNU, New Delhi. She can be contacted at: manjumenon1975(@)gmail.com

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