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Striking a blow for environmental projection, the government has agreed to ban all new construction on the river Ganga and its tributaries. Crucially, the ban will encompass hydel projects.
While rejecting an expert panel's report clearing six hydel projects on the river system last month, an Inter Ministerial Group said that "it is important to maintain the river's environmental flow and protect the ecology dependent on it".
The IMG comprises the ministers Uma Bharti, Prakash Javadekar and Piyush Goyal, and is chaired by Water Resources Secretary Shashi Shekhar.
The government has to submit a report on clearances to proposed hydel projects on the river's tributaries Alaknanda and Bhagirathi to the Supreme Court. The court is set to hear the matter on 20 January.
There are 86 hydel projects on Alaknanda and Bhagirathi, all in Uttarakhand, with an installed capacity of 3,600 MW. Another 41 projects, with a combined capacity of about 2,378 MW, are under construction.
While the terms of the ban haven't yet been spelt out, none of these projects is likely to be affected.
Immediately, the move will affect only six projects that are pending for want of clearances.
The projects are NTPC's Lata Tapavan, NHPC's Kotlibhel IA, THDC's Jelam Tamak, GMR's Alaknanda, and Super Hydro's Khirao Ganga and Bhyunder Ganga.
The government has faced flak for its Ganga policy since floods devastated Uttarakhand in 2013.
In response, it has so far formed three expert panels to review clearances given to proposed hydel projects on the river.
The first two panels advocated an outright ban on new hydel projects.
The first body, led by Ravi Chopra, the director of the People's Science Institute, a non-profit public interest and research organisation, was set up in October 2013.
Chopra has said he has never been contacted by the environment ministry on the matter since.
The second panel headed by Vinod Tare of IIT-Kanpur was specifically tasked to review whether the six pending projects should be allowed.
It concluded that if the projects are allowed at all, their capacity must be reduced to ensure maximum flow of water to sustain aquatic life.
The two panels also concluded that existing projects had greatly contributed to the 2013 tragedy.
It was based on these findings that the environment ministry had told the SC in December 2014 that hydel projects had "direct and indirect impact in the aggravation of floods" in Uttarakhand.
The third panel, led by the hydraulics expert BP Das, and formed in June this year, was tasked to assess the "seismological vulnerability of the region, glacial movement and likely impact on hydel structures".
It was to also identify no-go areas for proposed projects and study their "socio-economic impact".
It concluded that six pending hydel projects had sufficient legal grounds to go ahead.
On 23 November, the government formed the IMG to look into the panel's report.
But why form three expert panels one after the other to examine the same issue?
Because, according to Himanshu Thakkar of the South Asian Network for Dams, Rivers and People, the environment ministry "desperately wanted an expert body to give clearances to the hydel projects commissioned in the state".
"The Das panel concluded that clearances should be given to the six projects," says Himanshu Thakkar. "It basically nullified the findings of the previous two panels." So, the IMG's move to reject the panel's findings and "ban all hydel projects on the river basin will be a positive move if implemented".
BD Tripathi, an expert member of the National Ganga River Basin Authority, calls it a "bold move", but cautions that "implementation will be the key".
"The Manmohan Singh government too had banned various projects across the river basin, but many still function illegally," he points out.
According to reports, they will be scrapped and their promoters compensated out of the Namami Gange, or Save the Ganga, fund.
Namami Gange project "integrates the efforts to clean and protect the river in a comprehensive manner" and the cabinet has approved Rs 20,000 crore for it over the next five years.
Many activists are against compensating them, however. "There should be no compensation as none of these projects was given any clearance to start construction," says Thakkar.
"Instead, those who allowed the projects to be constructed should be held accountable. To use the money allocated for Namami Gange for this purpose will in no way 'save the river'."
Malika Bharot of Ganga Ahvaan, a people's movement to save the river, echoes the view. "None of these projects have a case for compensation. Those that started construction did so without adequate clearances."
"Super Hydro's Khirao Ganga Hydropower project, for example, continued construction even after all clearances were lifted."
Others though are more amenable to the idea. "The promoters might demand more compensation than what they deserve, citing delay. But if it helps wading off new construction, then I welcome the view," says R Sridhar of Environics, a non-profit.
Sridhar, and others, however, insist that compensation shouldn't be paid out of the Namami Gange funds.
Malika feels that the IMG should now look at existing hydel projects since the "topography of the land" has changed and clearances granted previously "no longer hold ground".
The urgent concern, though, is whether the government is really serious about the ban. We will get an idea when the IMG submits its report to the Supreme Court next month.