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Uttarakhand Flash Floods: Another Disaster Waiting to Happen?

Ayaskant Das |
Environmental norms were allegedly being flouted at the Tapovan and Rishi Ganga hydropower projects.

Representational use only.

New Delhi: The human and environmental tragedy that unfolded in Uttarakhand during flash floods following a glacial burst on February 7 was a disaster waiting to happen. Even as the death toll continues to mount it has gradually emerged that various environmental norms were allegedly not being followed at the two under-construction hydroelectric plant sites which were the most affected.

Nearly 20 days after the tragedy 72 dead bodies have been recovered by rescue agencies while several people are still missing. A statement by the Uttarakhand Police on Saturday said 40 of those who had perished had been identified so far while nearly 30 different human organs have also been recovered which are being forensically examined to establish identity. At the Joshimath Police Station alone 205 missing persons complaints have been filed in relation to the flash floods.

The flash floods caused extensive damage to the Tapovan Vishnugad Hydroelectric Power Plant of the National Thermal Power Corporation (NTPC) on Dhauliganga River after having completely washed away another power plant upstream on the Rishi Ganga River. While the flash floods resulting from a glacial burst was a natural calamity, would it have been possible to avert the human tragedy that resulted from it?

“The human tragedy was definitely man made. In retrospect, it can be said that the glacial burst was also man made since it is a climate change-induced event. There was an absolute lack of forewarning systems that could have averted the disaster. There was definitely a time lag between the impact of the flash flood at the Rishi Ganga plant and then at NTPC’s plant downstream. If there had been a forewarning system upstream several lives could have been saved, at least downstream at the NTPC plant,” said Manoj Misra, an expert on riverine ecology who heads the Delhi-based Yamuna Jiye Abhiyaan.

Rishi Ganga, which feeds from the Nanda Devi Glacier, merges with the Dhauliganga near Raini village in Chamoli district. Both rivers are upstream tributaries of the Alaknanda River which finally merges with the Ganges. “The level of disaster preparedness at the two plants is suspect. They had sufficient time at hand to evacuate workers at the NTPC site. Besides, the power plants have been constructed in a para-glacial influence zone and should not have been there in the first place,” said Himanshu Thakkar, coordinator at the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People.

In fact, in the year 2014, a Supreme Court-appointed expert committee to examine the impact of 24 hydro-power plants in Uttarakhand had recommended the closure of all but just one plant. It was based on the idea that “negligent muck dumping” could exacerbate the magnitude of a possible disaster resulting from unpredictable glacial activities or bursts. It has come to light that NTPC had been allegedly disposing waste materials in an improper manner at its hydro-power plant.

Incidentally, last week, the principal bench of National Green Tribunal dismissed a plea by NTPC to waive off a penalty of about Rs 58 lakhs imposed upon it in December 2020 by the Uttarakhand State Pollution Control Board for violating norms pertaining to “muck disposal site maintenance”.

Two of the five muck disposal sites were not being operated in accordance with norms. However, instead of paying up and undertaking corrective measures, NTPC appealed to the tribunal to quash the penalty.

“… the slope of muck dump is observed to be about 60 [degrees] which is hazardously double the standards. Upstream side of the muck dump is subjected to the entry of water which has further added to trigger severe mass erosion. Under such unstable conditions, as expected, huge mass erosion has been seen in terms of very deep gully formation in downstream of this muck dump,” the pollution control board had noted in its order.

However, NTPC officials denied the possibility that these muck dump yards would exacerbate the impact of the flash floods.

“These dump yards are located away from the river bed. We have valid permissions for muck disposal at these points. Irrespective of the level of our preparedness the flash floods hit suddenly and did not provide us with any time at all to react and evacuate workers. In any case, we put in our best efforts. It was only because of a prompt response that we managed to rescue 12 people who had been trapped inside a tunnel,” R.P. Ahirwar, Project-in-Charge and General Manager of NTPC Tapovan Vishnugad Plant, told Newsclick.

Experts also said that the impact of a flash flood tends increase whenever there is rampant commercial or residential construction activities along rivers, particularly in the hilly terrain of Uttarakhand. The NGT had issued a series of guidelines for government agencies in Uttarakhand in order to avoid a repeat of the Kedarnath tragedy in June 2013.

In addition, India does not have River Regulation Zone (RRZ) guidelines in place for regulating developmental activity on river fronts and floodplains. “At the same time, to map any area as environmentally sensitive and then failing to take concrete action for enforcement of laws in that area is part of a larger malaise in the country,” said environmental lawyer Sanjay Upadhyay.

In 2019, a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) had been filed in the Uttarakhand High Court alleging that activities that endanger riverine ecology were being carried out at the site of the Rishi Ganga Hydropower Plant. It was alleged that activities like crushing and drilling of stones were being carried out in the riverbed at the project site. The PIL had also alleged that there was movement of trucks on the riverbed and dumping of debris into the river.

The Rishi Ganga project had been taken over by the Delhi-based Kundan Group following National Company Law Tribunal proceedings towards the end of 2018 after the company was referred for insolvency and bankruptcy. The PIL alleging environmental violations at the project site is still under adjudication even as the plant has been washed away completely.

Responding to a query on behalf of Newsclick, a spokesperson of the Kundan Group said: “The allegations are wrong. This project started in 2011. A committee verified and found no alleged various environmental violations by the organization. All safety measures were in place. However, the disaster magnitude was so devastating that within 10 to 15 seconds of the glacier burst, the impact was at the project site of the occurrence (sic).”

While the loss of lives and livelihoods owing to the flash floods is one side of the story, there has been considerable loss to property too at both the under-construction hydro-power plants. Union Minister of Power Rajkumar Singh, who visited Uttarakhand along with a team of officials a day after the flash floods, said that there has been a loss of nearly Rs 1,500 crore to NTPC’s plant alone from the disaster. However, a thorough probe alone can determine if violation of environmental norms and negligence, if any, on the part of the hydro power plants were responsible for the human tragedy.

“No probe has been ordered till now. Our entire focus at present is on relief, rescue, reconstruction and restoration activities. Our immediate priority was also to reach out with food supplies and medicine to those people who were trapped in villages cut off from the rest of the state following the flood, an objective that we were able to achieve,” Chamoli District Magistrate Swati Bhadauria told Newsclick.

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