Goriganga: safe, but for how long?

By Abhijit Menon-Sen <ams@toroid.org>

2010-06-18

Yesterday brought the heartening news that the Ministry of Environment and Forests has rejected NTPC's proposal to build the 261MW Rupsiyabagar-Khasiyabara power plant on the Gori river near Munsiari in Uttarakhand, because of the profound damage it would cause to the fragile and ecologically important area (which is to say nothing about how it would affect the people in the fifty-odd villages along the river that would dry up due to the diversion of water).

I've been following this project for a while, because I have a special interest in the area. I have visited a number of times for bird surveys (and I plan to do more work there in future), and my friends there have been tirelessly involved in local conservation efforts for many years; so I can claim to know a little about its ecology. It seems obvious to me that constructing a large dam there would be a disaster—no doubt it is obvious to NTPC as well, because they have been spreading misinformation about it from the very start.

To begin with, the environmental impact assessment prepared for them by WAPCOS (Water and Power Consultancy Services) is nonsense. To pick on just one section where I am qualified to comment, the biodiversity estimates are wildly inaccurate. Where they list fewer than a hundred species of plants and trees, a few thousand are documented from the area, many of which occur nowhere else. They mention only ten species of mammals and eight species of birds from an area whose checklist runs to about 300, and where I saw more than a hundred species in three days (and even an eight-year-old Ammu must have seen a few dozen on her first morning walk). Then they blithely conclude that the impact on wildlife would be minimal:

Disturbance to wildlife

During construction phase, large number of machinery and construction labour will have to be mobilized. The operation of various construction equipment, and blasting is likely to generate noise. These activities can lead to some disturbance to wildlife population. Likewise, siting of construction equipment, godowns, stores, labour camps, etc. can lead to adverse impacts on fauna, in the area. From the available data, the area does not have significant wildlife population. Likewise, area does not appear to be on the migratory routes of animals and therefore the construction of the project will not affect the animals.

Anyone who has visited the area and knows anything about wildlife would be able to see how ridiculous these claims are. The rest of the report follows in the same vein (for example, it talks about the advantages of importing migrant labour amounting to some 77% of the local population in terms of the "exchange of ideas and cultures between various groups of people which would not have been possible otherwise").

NTPC has also been hard at work in the area to make sure opposition to the project is ignored, downplayed, or eliminated. They have used force to intimidate people who questioned the project, bribed public officials (and admitted to doing so), and colluded with them to interfere in local Van Panchayat elections to disallow candidates who opposed the project. They have held "public hearings" when people from affected villages were not able to attend (because they were on an annual excursion to collect medicinal plants at higher altitudes), and refused to acknowledge and record critical questions at such hearings.

There are many people in the area who support the project because NTPC is bringing money and promises of development to a poor and remote area; and because they have no access to information about the environmental and social record of big dams in India to evaluate the promises, and no way to estimate the long-term costs to the area and their livelihoods to compare against the paltry compensation being offered for their lands today.

Now they might give me compensation…
That's not what I'm chasing. I was a rich man before yesterday.
Now all I have got is a cheque and a pickup truck, and
I left my farm under the freeway.
— Jethro Tull, “Farm on the Freeway

It remains to be seen if the MoEF's rejection is binding, or if the NTPC (which has already invested heavily in land acquisition and construction in the area), and the other people who stand to gain from the project at the expense of local inhabitants, will find some way to work around it.

How long can the Gori valley survive such determined opposition?