New Delhi: The Supreme Court has lifted the stay on the development of hydropower projects on the upper and middle Subansiri river basin in Arunachal Pradesh, effectively clearing the way for at least 19 projects that will together generate 12,000MW.
The apex court’s order will immediately benefit state-owned NHPC Ltd which can now go ahead with its 2,000MW Subansiri (lower) project.
“We hope to sign the memorandum of understanding (MoU, or agreement) with the state government shortly. From the legal angle, this was the only stumbling block. We are in talks with the state government and the power ministry for expediting the signing of the MoU,” said S.K. Garg, chairman and managing director, NHPC.
The court’s reversal of the stay has irked environmentalists who have once again raised questions on the need for basin-wide impact studies, recently recommended by the ministry of environment and forests (MoEF).
While granting approvals for the lower Subansiri dams, the government of Arunachal Pradesh and NHPC had agreed that there would be no other hydroelectric project upstream of this.
The apex court’s original stay order, in 2004, was based on this. The government of Arunachal Pradesh in May 2005, approached the court asking for a modification of the earlier order after work had already started on the lower Subansiri project.
NHPC subsequently stopped work on the project although the stay wasn’t applicable to it because the state-owned firm wanted to be clear about the legality of developing hydropower projects in the entire basin before it went ahead.
Environmental activists are up in arms against what they see as a complete reversal of an original agreement between them and the state on the development of hydropower projects in the basin.
“A key condition was that the catchment area upstream of the dam be declared a national park and that no more dams be constructed upstream. This condition was accepted as the very basis on which clearance for lower Subansiri was granted... Diluting this condition to allow more dams will not only destroy primary forests, but also throws up issues of governance. What is the sanctity of an agreement with government, if it can be so casually broken?” asked conservationist Bittu Sahgal, who was a member of the Indian Board of Wild Life standing committee of 2003 that reviewed the lower Subansiri project.
After Arunachal Pradesh’s 2005 appeal, the Supreme Court asked the National Board of Wild Life (the new name of the Indian Board of Wild Life) to review the case.
A different standing committee of the National Board of Wild Life subsequently recommended that projects be allowed in the river basin, subject to approval on a case-by-case basis. The report, which was submitted last December, however, was not without differences between members.
Asad Rahmani, a member of the standing committee, said that he had recommended a cumulative-driven basin study on the impact of all projects before any decision allowing upstream projects. “But ministry officials on the committee did not agree to that. And now instead of the 1,000 sq. km of protected area recommended earlier, only 160 sq. km will be set aside, which is just token.”
The recommendation on a case-by-case approval, however, goes against the April 2007 order of the National Environment Appellate Authority, which had recommended that whenever multiple hydro- projects are carried out in one river basin, advance cumulative studies have to be conducted.
Jairam Ramesh, the minister for environment and forests also, said in a 30 June letter to the ministry of power: “As far as hydel projects are concerned, we need to carry out cumulative impact assessments on a basin-basis and not just assessment of individual projects. This is particularly true in the mega projects that are under way in states like Arunachal Pradesh and Sikkim.”
Utpal Bhaskar contributed to this story.