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Mainstream, VOL LIII No 37 New Delhi September 5, 2015

Uttarakhand: A People-friendly and Environmentally Responsible Step sacrificed at the Altar of Development

Saturday 5 September 2015

by Rakesh Agrawal

More than 700 existing, proposed and under construction dams and hydro-electricity projects (HEPs) in Uttarakhand had not only put its highly sensitive Himalayan eco-zone into danger by submerging thousands of hectares of forests and agricultural land, devastating its fragile mountains, creating landslides and inducing earthquakes as massive amount of water is stored in their reservoirs, these have also uprooted thousands of people from their homes as they have to leave their villages that were directly and indirectly ‘affected’ by these dams and HEPs.1

Then, as these bumper-to-bumper dams had turned the River Ganga, the Hindus’ holiest river, almost into a tunnel, visible only at a few places, 82-year-old Dr G.D. Agrawal, a noted environmental activist and ex- IIT Professor, now rechristened as Swami Gyan Swaroop Sanand, went on a fast unto death at Uttarkashi, where the two arms of the Ganga—Bhagirathi and Alaknanda—join and only then the river becomes Ganga. After a long fast by Agrawal, now rechristened as Swami, the then UPA Gove-rnment was forced to notify the 100 km stretch from Gomukh to Uttarkashi, comprising a 4179 sq km area, as an Eco-Sensitive Zone (ESZ) where no dams and HEPs would be allowed and only pro-people micro-level development can be undertaken.

Just within six months of its notification, Uttarakhand was hit by its worst natural disaster, killing thousands and displacing even a greater number of people. Although it was a natural disaster, it was aided and aggravated by these dams and HEPs as many studies and reports indicated.2

Even the Supreme Court took its note and stopped all under-construction dams and HEPs,3 besides prohibiting new ones until a report of a committee appointed by the Court came to a conclusion. This expert commission concluded that the Uttarakhand flood disaster was worsened by the existing hydropower projects;4 hence the Supreme Court gave no environmental clearance for hydro-projects in Uttarakhand. It was reconfirmed by the report of one expert body headed by Dr Ravi Chopra that recommended that at least 23 hydropower projects should be dropped, that hydropower projects played a significant role in the Uttara-khand disaster and that there is an urgent need to improve the environment governance of hydropower projects in April 2014.5 The report was submitted to the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests on April 16, 2014 and was made public following hearing in the Supreme Court on April 28, 2014. A committee was appointed by a reluctant Union Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) in October 2013, following the Supreme Court’s suo moto order of August 13, 2013.

Earlier, moved by Agrawal’s fast, the then UPA Government declared the stretch from Uttarkashi to Gomukh, the Ganga’s snout, as the ESZ on December 12, 2012 that came into effect on December 18. However, even after two years, the Uttarakhand Government, now headed by Harish Rawat, who replaced Vijay Bahuguna in February 2014 after the latter’s incompetence and wide-spread criticism for his post-disaster relief works, failed to provide any alternative, pro-people micro-development plan that the ESZ Notification had required and its actual implementation remained suspended; hence protests broke out in this area where 88 villages started staging protests demanding the Union Government scrap the ESZ Notification on their area fearing it will lag in development if implemented, while the truth is just the reverse as the per capita Gross State Domestic Product of the district was 42,521 in 2010-11, while that of the State as a whole was 73,819,6 despite the district having big dams and HEPs like Pala Maneri and Lohari Naglapala.

Because of this Notification, the State and Union Government stopped construction of the 480 MW Pala Maneri dam and a 381 MW Bhaironghati power project. Subsequently, the Centre also imposed a ban on the NTPC’s 600 MW Lohari Naglapala hydro-power project and several other HEPs on the Ganga river.

Meanwhile, experts keep on submitting their reports and voicing their concerns against dams and HEPs in Uttarakhand. Even the new government at the Centre7 admits that the Uttarakhand dams have caused ‘irreversible’ damage to its environment as the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change told the SC that hydro-projects in the Ganga-Bhagirathi and Alaknanda basins have shortened Uttarakhand’s forests, augmenting a possibility of landslides and other geological consequences

If we read the Notification carefully, it has all provisions for people-friendly, sustainable development and in order to implement this Notification, the State was supposed to prepare the Zonal Master Plan in consultation with the 88 Gram Panchayats in the affected area to protect both the ecology and livelihoods of the locals. The ESZ Notification dwells on methods for protecting villages settled on geologically sensitive mountain slopes.

Additionally, plans are also to be drafted for facilitating a plastic recycling and treatment plant, development of rainwater harvesting, organic farming, green industry, trekking, micro-hydro power projects and solar power generation. Women and Gram Sabhas/Panchayats are to play important roles in the execution of these works.8

The Notification also talks of ensuring the flow of rivers and streams, encouraging traditional architecture and preservation of natural and man-made heritage like confluence of rivers, scenic spots, waterfalls, green areas, temples and sites of historical crafts.

The Notification does not prohibit the development of the Gangotri National Highway or construction of rural roads while large dams, commercial logging and large mining works are prohibited. The people of this region have a history of protesting against environmental destruction. However, the State Government and dam supporters are opposing the ESZ Notification.9

The policy-makers and political parties ignored these findings and organised a protest on December 18, 2014, the second anniversary of the ESZ Notification, in Uttarkashi town. A bandh was observed. They demanded that the Union Government withdraw the ESZ tag from Gomukh to Uttarkashi. Local leaders from the Congress, BJP and BSP joined the bandh. Chandan Singh Panwar, the pramukh of Bhatwari block, demanded the scrapping of the ESZ Notification. “Eightyeight villages come under its ambit. The villages need development to face any disaster,” he said. The protesters submitted a memorandum to C. Ravishankar, the District Magistrate of Uttarkashi, requesting for the cancellation of the ESZ Notification.

The ruling Congress party responded fast. Chief Minister Harish Rawat and his Cabinet held a meeting and passed a Mera Gaon Meri Sadak (My Village, My Road) scheme. “Under this scheme roads will be built in villages as part of the MGNREGA programme. This will also provide employment to the villagers,” Rawat said.

NGOs and scientists, who had welcomed ESZ and lobbied for it, blame the misinformation being spread by vested interests for provoking the people’s protests. “The ESZ allows pro-people development like constructing with locally available materials and slate mining. So it depends on how one defines development. Then, the State Government was supposed to make an action plan for the ESZ area within two years and submit it to the MoEF, but it has failed to do so,” said Anil Gautam of the People’s Science Institute, a Dehradun-based NGO heading the anti-dam lobby.

“The MoEF, for the first time, has accepted that dams do impact the environment and did adversely aggravate the June 2013 flood disaster,” says Gautam. In a key shift from its earlier stand, the Centre now wants to review and modify the designs of all hydropower projects in the Alaknanda and Bhagirathi basins to ensure that minimum flows are maintained in rivers to sustain local communities.

 “The State Government has suspended the process of making a Zonal Master Plan for the ESZ,” says Ranbir Singh, Principal Secretary, Department of Forest and Environment, Government of Uttarakhand.10 The State Government was supposed to submit a Zonal Master Plan which would be approved by the MoEF within two years of the ESZ Notification, along with ideas pitched by the local people, especially women, taking their needs into consideration. But the State Government has failed in this crucial duty.

Little wonder, political leaders see a vote-catching opportunity in this controversy. State Congress President Kishore Upadhayay travelled to Uttarkashi on December 18 to join locals protesting against the ESZ and Chief Minister Harish Rawat has asked Prime Minister Narendra Modi to reconsider the Notification.

Many see a conspiracy behind this protest, “Contractors are staging it and political parties are taking advantage of it,” remarked Kamala Pant, convener, Uttarakhand Mahila Manch, a State network of women.

However, a few like Avadesh Kaushal, founder of Rural Litigation and Entitlement Centre (RLEK), a Dehradun-based target-oriented mega-NGO, aligned himself with the protesters, demanding the immediate withdrawal of the ESZ Notification. “It is anti-development, hence anti-people and against the betterment of our hill State,” he declared.

Many NGOs see the ESZ as a means of ushering in eco-friendly development. It will, they say, put a stop to the indiscriminate building of dams and HEPs, mining, commercial felling of trees and setting up of polluting industries. Instead cottage industries could be set up using locally available natural resources. Roads that link villages could be built. Uttarakhand could become a model of sustainable development.

“The government should empower local communities and panchayats to own and operate mini-and micro-hydel plants since Uttarakhand is an eco-sensitive hill State,” says Trepan Singh Chauhan, convener of Chetana Andolan, a people’s movement against dams and HEPs in Tehri-Garhwal.

In October, the Chief Minister had announced that micro-hydel plants up to 25 MW would be handed over to gram panchayats to manage. But, this turned out to be a camouflage to invite big companies and make them the real owners of these projects as when the MoUs were signed it became clear that gram panchayats had to sign those with companies that have the prior experience running micro-hydel plants else-where. So these companies will run, operate and maintain the plants and be their real owners as they will be having a major share.

Recently, a delegation from Uttarakhand went to meet the Prime Minister and returned exultantly, as the Centre promised to reconsider the ESZ Notification. “After the meeting, the attitude of the Central Government was visibly changed. We hope that these projects will get the Centre’s approval and all stopped hydro-projects would be re-started, besides new projects will began,” hopes G.P. Patel, Managing Director, Hydro-Electricity Nigam Limited, Uttarakhand. Adds N. Ravi Shanker, Chief Secretary, Uttarakhand: “We requested the Central Government to withdraw the ESZ Notification as we already have the Bhagirathi River Valley Development Authority in Uttarkashi district constituted in the year 2005 that serves the purpose of the ESZ Notification, which is that of maintaining ecological balance and sustainable development.”

As the government failed to come up with a master plan that was required as per the ESZ Notification and didn’t take the people of 88 villages falling in 4179 sq km area into confidence and has fallen prey to the contractors’ lobby, a well-meaning step couldn’t be realised on the ground as the Notification promised to implement sufficient measures to prevent land degradation of sensitive slopes and save them, while prohibiting to dump debris into the rivers when building roads, along with allowing building two-storied homes, plastic recycling, bio-farming, green industries, trekking and other adventure sports, micro-hydel electricity projects, solar energy projects etc. It also talked of involving women and gram panchayats actively in all these works. The Notification aimed to maintain the water flow in rivers and rivulets and encourage local and traditional architecture in hotel, resort and home construction along with conserving natural and human-made heritages like river confluences, splendorous areas, ponds, waterfalls, temples and historical monuments.

Now, as a new study by the premier institute, Wadia Institute of Himalayan Geology, Dehradun, finds that dust from the HEPs may contribute to the melting of glaciers in Uttarakhand,11 this may sound warning bells as there are more than 500 glaciers in the State; many of them are melting on a rapid scale and there are more than 100 HEPs operating or are under construction.

Clearly, if the pro-dam and contractors’ lobby has won in their design, it is also a failure of well-meaning NGOs and environmentalists who couldn’t make the people of these 88 villages aware about the details and real provisions of the Notification. The people have a history of fighting against the environmentally destructive projects and protect the environment; and they were not opposing this pro-people step. 



1. Agrawal, Rakesh (2013),”Hydropower Projects in Uttarakhand: Displacing People and Destroying Lives,” EPW, Commentary, July 20, Vol. xlviii no 16 29, pp. 16-19.

2. See, South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People (2013), Lessons not learnt in Uttarakhand from Past Disasters or Reports August, https://sandrp.wordpress. com/.../report-of-expert-committee-on-uttarakh and sandrp.in/Lessons_not_learnt_in_Uttarakhand_from_ Past_Disasters_or_ August 2013.

3. See,No%20environmental%20c learance%20for% 20hydro%20projects%20in%20Uttarakhand,% 20says%20Supreme%20Court%20%20% 20North,%20 News%20-%20India%20Today.htm.

4. See, http://www.circleofblue.org/waternews/2014/world/uttarakhand-flood-disaster-made-worse-existing-hydropower-projects-expert-commission-says/.

5. “Assessment of Environmental Degradation and Impact of Hydroelectric Projects During The June 2013 Disaster in Uttarakhand” (2014), https://sandrp. wordpress.com/2014/04/29/report-of-expert-committee-on-uttarakhand-flood-disaster-role-of-heps-welcome-recommendations/.

6. Uttarakhand Statistical Diary 2012-13 (2014), Directorate of Economics and Statistics, Department of Planning, GoU, Dehradun, pp. 34-36.

7. See, Report by The Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change, admitting Uttarakhand dams have caused ‘irreversible’ damages to environment (December 2014), http://ukexpress.org/world/india/centre-admits-uttarakhand-dams-have-caused-irreversible-damage-to-the-environment/.

8. See, for detailed provisions of ESZ, “The Gazette of India, Extraordinary (2012),” Ministry of Environment and Forest, Government of India, New Delhi, (December 18), pp. 3-4.

9. Ibid.

10. See, Agrawal, Rakesh (2015), “After Protest, ESZ tag may go”, Civil Society, February, February, pp. 9.

11. See, www.indiaenvironmentportal.org.in/... environmental % 20degradation%.

Rakesh Agrawal holds a doctorate degree in International Relations from the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. Currently, he is based in Dehradun and working as a researcher and writer, carrying out studies on water policy, traditional water harvesting structures, forest rights and management. He writes regular features for civil society and TerraGreen magazines.