Following glacial burst, experts flag concerns about four infra projects in Uttarakhand

Following glacial burst, experts flag concerns about four infra projects in Uttarakhand

Following glacial burst, experts flag concerns about four infra projects in Uttarakhand

Uttarakhand: The recent catastrophe in Uttarakhand that washed away two hydroelectric dams and killed 56 people has raised concerns among environmentalists about the viability of infrastructure projects in the Himalayan state. Geological experts attribute this tragedy to global warming but also to the unplanned construction in what they say is an ecologically-fragile region. If the government doesn't review the development projects that are already underway or just approved, it can lead to more mishaps in future, they warn.


Uttarakhand currently has close to 32 such economic development projects, each costing Rs150 crore and above. Most of these involve building power stations, roads and railways in mid- to high-altitude regions in the Himalayas. This also includes a masterplan that the BJP is developing to build townships in Kedarnath and Badrinath valleys. 


In a conversation with 101Reporters, experts identify four projects in Uttarakhand that are threatening its ecology and people alike. 


Vishnugad Pipalkoti Hydro Electric Project: It’s a high-altitude, 4 x 111 MW project coming up on the river Alaknanda in the district of Chamoli. In 2014, an expert body had sent a report to the Supreme Court arguing against the construction of dams in para-glacial regions (which are regions bordering the glaciers). Following which, the apex court had put a stay on 24 such dams but not on the Vishnugad Pipalkoti project or the Tapovan Vishnugad Hydroelectric Power Plants that was battered by the recent flash floods, informs eminent scientist Dr Ravi Chopra, director, People’s Science Institute, Dehradun, Uttarakhand.


Dr Chopra defends the report, explaining that in the high Himalayas, where the valley elevation is at an altitude of 2,000 meters or above, glaciers leave behind huge amounts of debris, moraines and boulders when they recede. “In the event of rainfall, flood or avalanche, the mixture of snow, ice and water moves down the slopes of the streams with extreme momentum and energy, as it happened in the recent tragedy, and destroys every barrier along its way.”


The environmental impact of such projects sets off even before the construction begins, he informs. Mountain slopes have to be cut to make roads and sub-roads to transport the construction material to the project sites. This can make them vulnerable to landslides, apart from causing a loss of biodiversity. “Eventually, the impact reaches the river bodies where the [construction] debris is dumped in an unregulated manner,” he points out. And since hydro projects such as this tend to be diversion projects, they also affect the underwater ecosystem downstream.


In 2013, the local communities had protested against this Rs3,860.35 crore-project for similar reasons. They also feared that the blasting and drilling work would weaken their houses. Their claims were investigated by the main funding agency World Bank, which later gave a nod to the dam.


Rishikesh-Karanprayag Railway Line: This project will accelerate the army’s movement to the India-China border and is, therefore, of national strategic importance. In its current phase, the plan is to lay down a single-track railway line of 125 kilometres along with 35 bridges and 17 tunnels. This includes a 15.1 km tunnel between Devprayag and Lachmoli, one of the longest in the country. In 2016, when the first phase of the project commenced, the Union Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change had transferred 300 hectares of the forest land to the railways. 

A slope is being cut for the construction of the Rishikesh-Karanprayag Rail Project. Credit Mani Mahesh Aurora

Dr SP Sati from the Department of Geology at Hemvati Nandan Bahuguna Garhwal University, Srinagar, has two major issues with the project. One, the blasting activities fracture the already-fragile mountain rocks. Two, the construction of tunnels generates a huge amount of debris, a problem, he says, is mostly sidelined and the hazards of which are underestimated. 


“The management of the muck is not done in a responsible way. They are usually disposed of on the river slopes, hence, becoming one of the largest culprits for increasing the intensity of the natural disasters. Our valleys have no more room for the new debris being generated," he emphasises.


Char Dham Highway: Budgeted at Rs12,000 crore, it aims to improve the connectivity to the char dham pilgrimage sites — Gangotri, Yamunotri, Kedarnath and Badrinath — in Uttarakhand. Currently, a stretch of 900km of national highway is being laid in addition to bypasses, bridges, tunnels and flyovers. It's estimated that the project would clear around 56,000 trees in the mountain state.

The Char Dham Highway project in progess. Credit Hemant Dhyani

Renowned environmentalist Hemant Dhyani from Dehradun, who has been a member of the Supreme Court Expert Body for assessing environmental degradation and the impact of economic development projects in the state, calls this one a “Himalayan blunder”. Upgrading the road infrastructure in hilly terrains starts with cutting through the mountain slopes and that’s where the damage begins. “In order to meet these standards for the Char Dham Highway, 700 hectares of forest land has been sacrificed with an official felling of about 48,000 trees. On the route, the green cover of the slopes has been cut beyond the suggested 24 meters RoW (Right of Way). The damage is unrepairable, unaccounted, and cannot be compensated,” he argues.


The damage can be far-reaching. "Extensive tarred surface is bound to create a heat-island effect in the Himalayan valleys in future. And there is no space left for the plantation to be done along the road as they are tarred up to 12-15 meters. Heat generation and pollutants would contribute to climate change. We have been using our nation's funds to destabilise our own Himalayas," he adds.


Moreover, the project aims to increase the vehicular influx to 10,000 cars a day while the capacity recommended by the experts is only 6,000 persons a day. This is an invitation to disasters, especially during the peak tourist season, scientists warn.


Expansion of the Jolly Grant Airport: It's one of those development projects that even the Centre has raised objections to. On January 30, the environment ministry wrote to the Uttarakhand government for the second time to revisit its proposal on the non-forestry use of 87 hectares of the forest land in Dehradun required for the expansion. The state is yet to respond to the concerns even as Phase 1 of the project is heading towards completion next month.


With an anticipated cost of Rs456.86 crore, the project by Uttarakhand Civil Aviation Development Authority aims to acquire forest land, including the high conservation value area of Shivalik Elephant Reserve. It's being said that the airport is being expanded to generate revenue by offering night-time parking facilities to the planes.

Locals protested against the Jolly Grant Airport Expansion project in October 2020. Credit Ridhima Pandey

Ridhima Pandey, a 13-year-old climate activist who featured on BBC's 100 most empowering and influencing women list of 2020, snubs the idea. "The area has already seen man-animal conflicts due to the destruction of natural habitats. The wildlife corridor, which is being chopped [for this project] is home to many endangered and indigenous animal species, including the Indian Elephant. In fact, the [Shivalik Elephant] Reserve has among the highest densities of elephants in India."



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