New Delhi: An expert panel of the union environment ministry has cleared the 800 megawatt (MW) Bursar hydroelectric project in Jammu and Kashmir, reversing its stand that the power project was to be located in a rich biodiversity area and could only be cleared after a site visit by a sub-committee.

The project, permitted under the Indus Water Treaty (IWT), is strategically important for India and its clearance is in line with the Indian government’s decision to step up exploitation of India’s share of water in the IWT.

At a meeting in October, the environment ministry’s Expert Appraisal Committee (EAC) for River Valley and Hydroelectric Projects deferred granting clearance to the Bursar project in the absence of a site visit. However, in the first week of December, the panel went ahead and cleared the project without a site visit, saying that a visit was not possible before June 2018 due to poor weather conditions, which would delay the project.

The estimated cost of the project is Rs24,589.38 crore.

Prime Minister Modi had directed officials to pursue full exploitation of rivers under the IWT after a border incident in September 2016 in which 18 soldiers were killed when militants stormed an Indian Army battalion headquarters in northern Jammu and Kashmir (Uri region), close to the Line of Control.

According to the minutes of the EAC’s 24 October meeting, reviewed by Mint, members felt the “proposed location is located in a rich biodiversity area" as “Kishtwar High Altitude National Park is located within (a) 10 km radius of the project site".

The sub-committee was also to look at “endemic fish species and spawning grounds availability to be indicated from the secondary sources in the area including the zone of influence, if any".

The EAC then said it would reconsider the project for environmental clearance after seeing the sub-committee’s report. However, in its subsequent meeting on 5 December, the EAC recommended environment clearance without a site visit.

Once the EAC recommends or denies environmental clearance for a project, the environment ministry takes the final call but rarely overturns the EAC’s recommendation.

“The EAC had earlier suggested a site visit for proposed project by a Subcommittee to be carried out during early November, 2017 and submit a report on the project based on the ToR (Terms of Reference) suggested for the Sub-committee. However, the members of the Sub-committee could not visit the project due to very harsh climate conditions in the area during November, 2017," according to the minutes of EAC’s 5 December meeting

“The Member Secretary informed the Committee that the next visit would be possible only after June 2018 as by that time, weather conditions will become fairly good. As the grant of environmental clearance will be delayed by more than 7 months if we wait, the Committee took note of it and after deliberation, site visit to the project site has been dropped and EAC recommended for grant of EC to the proposed project," the minutes said.

The Bursar project is proposed to come up on Marusudar River, a tributary of the Chenab, near village Pakal in Kishtwar District. It envisages construction of a 265 m high concrete gravity dam. The project is proposed to be completed in 163 months including a pre-construction period of 36 months for infrastructural work.

The project, a storage scheme permitted under IWT, is the first such with a storage capacity of 0.5 MAF (Million Acre Feet) in the Chenab basin. It has been declared a national project and is under the Prime Minister’s reconstruction plan for J&K.

Total land requirement for the project is about 1,779.33 hectare, of which 1,149 ha is forest land. The total submergence area is about 1,442.71 hectare. At least 1,052 families are expected to be affected by the project.

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