At a virtual event earlier this month organised by Bloomberg under the banner “New Horizons for Tomorrow”, Indian foreign minister S Jaishankar said that development projects should be transparent, environment friendly and should not saddle recipient countries with debt.
He shared India’s view on development projects at the three-day-long Qatar Economic Forum with the G-7 group of developed countries.
The irony of Mr Jaishankar’s remarks is the resistance Union Government is facing with the various ‘development’ projects across the country from environmentalists and activists who are protesting the cutting down of forests and destroying the ecology.
Buxwaha forests for mining, ONGC drilling projects in Tamil Nadu, Char Dham Project in Uttarakhand among many are successfully depreciating the ecological balance.
The 2013 floods in Uttarakhand was one such man-made disaster where more than 6000 people lost their lives in the Rudraprayag district. Another disaster earlier this year in February took over the village which birthed the environmental movement of Chipko Andolan.
A glacier burst damaged two power projects – The Rishiganga hydel project and the National Thermal Power Corporation’s Tapovan – Vishnugad hydel project. Workers from the local villages as well as other states like West Bengal, Bihar, Jharkhand and Nepal lost their lives when water filled the tunnels they were trapped inside.
The Vishnugad hydel project has been under construction for the last 15 years and is located in the ecologically fragile Nandadevi Biosphere Reserve zone.
Earlier this week with incessant rainfall that continued for days at a stretch, the rivers Pindar and Alaknanda in the Chamoli and Rudraprayag districts of Uttarakhand were overflowing and the residents living along the rivers were asked to vacate.
The National Highway 109 along the Pindar river in the Karanprayag block of Chamoli district comes under the ‘Bharat Mala’ project of the Union Government and defies the guideline of no buildings on the river banks, endangering lives.
Former Chief Minister Vijay Bahuguna, after the disastrous 2013 floods announced that there shall be no buildings near 200 metres of the river banks to mitigate future disasters.
The Char Dham Pariyojana is the Union Government’s frontrunner project in Uttarakhand to widen over 899 km of State and National highways connecting to the four religious shrines namely Yamunotri, Kedarnath, Badrinath and Gangotri.
A report stating that the 900 km Char Dham Pariyojana (CDP) has been broken into 53 smaller projects, each less than 100 km to evade the Environmental Impact Assessment, required for any project over 100 km.
This report was given by a High Powered Committee (HPC) that was formed to assess the project after an appeal filed by an environmental organisation based in Dehradun in 2018. After an unsatisfactory decision from the National Green Tribunal (NGT), the appeal was filed in the Supreme Court.
Other than the ignorance of all environmental laws and expert opinions in implementing the development projects in Uttarakhand, underreporting is taking a toll on its ecosystem.
The environmental shortcomings with the projects such as Char Dham cannot be outweighed by the compensatory afforestation.
The compensatory afforestation cannot substitute for natural forests with monoculture plantations as advocated by Ajay Kumar Saxena, Programme Manager (Forestry) at Delhi’s Centre for Science and Environment.
The environmental clearance, incessant cutting of trees, muck dumping and land sliding has increased since the Char Dham project, hydro projects in the fragile ecosystem, and the rampant blasting of rocks and tunnel diggings.
Consoled by the promises of employment in the state and ‘development’, government after government has created projects that invited destruction. In its report, Mongabay said that the incident has spotlighted “the rampant construction of dams and government’s policy in pursuing major infrastructure projects in Uttarakhand’s ecologically sensitive and fragile Himalayan region”.
The report also pointed out that in 2014, an expert committee formed on the Supreme Court’s order “held that the construction of so many dams had worsened the impact of the 2013 floods and recommended dropping of 23 hydropower projects”.
Under the ‘River training policy’ of the state empowers the district magistrates to use powers under the Disaster Management Act 2005 to auction desilting rights to private contractors.
The policy was introduced to ‘train’ the Uttarakhand’s rivers by desilting from the middle of the river beds to let them flow towards its centre and away from the banks.
A senior environmental lawyer Ritwick Dutta asked that “there must be some assessment done that lends itself to the conclusion that there will be a disaster if the sand and boulders are not removed. Because ecology works the other way around – sand and boulders serve to reduce the velocity of water and, in a way, prevent floods.
This is the role that nature has given them. Where is the study or assessment which shows that the presence of sand or boulders will lead to disaster?”
With negligible evidence to prove this theory, continuing desilting by going around the forest clearance is encouraging private contractors.
A petitioner in March 2020 argued that the use of heavy machinery in riverbed mining would eventually lead to environmental degradation. The Uttarakhand High Court stated mechanised mining in the Sarayu river after the petition but the government continued to issue tenders.
The pro-corporate economic development approach of the Union government has resulted in the loss of lives, employment, and infrastructure not to mention the years of growth erased by these disasters.