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Uttarakhand: Project Blocking Tiger Corridor Cleared After Modi Cabinet Backs it

Despite rejection by the National Tiger Conservation Authority, the multi-crore Jamrani multipurpose project in the hill state gets wildlife clearance.
Despite rejection by the National Tiger Conservation Authority, the multi-crore Jamrani multipurpose project in the hill state gets wildlife clearance

Image Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

New Delhi: A multi-crore irrigation and drinking water project in Uttarakhand has been cleared for construction – even though it will “completely” block a critical tiger corridor in Northern India – after it received financial support and firm backing from the Narendra Modi government at the Centre. 

The Rs 2,580-crore project will be constructed in a part of the Dudhwa-Lagga tiger corridor in Nainital district which is used by the feline predators to move between the Corbett, Pilibhit, and Dudhwa tiger reserves.

The Jamrani multipurpose project, hanging in balance for the past 50 years, is aimed at bringing an additional 57,065 hectares under irrigation and is estimated to generate 63.4 million electricity units annually from a 14 Mega Watt (MW) hydropower plant.

The dam of the hydroelectric project will be constructed across Uttarakhand’s Gola River. However, conservationists have argued that blocking the tiger corridor would result in straying of big cats into Haldwani, even though the project will solve the drinking water crisis of the populous town that depends almost entirely on underground resources for its potable water needs.

“The project should not have been cleared because it affects a protected area and does not have clearance from the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA). It will have major implications in terms of climate change affected monsoon rainfall and flood issues. But these have not even been studied,” Himanshu Thakkar, coordinator of South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People (SANDRP), an informal network of organisations and individuals working on issues related with the water sector and large dams, told this writer.

Due to its imminent risk to wildlife, the project was rejected by NTCA, a statutory body under the Union Ministry of Environment, Forests & Climate Change (“the ministry”), which works for conserving the dwindling population of tigers in India.

While granting environmental clearance for the project, the ministry had made it mandatory for the project proponent, Uttarakhand’s irrigation department, to obtain a no-objection certificate from NTCA. Thereafter, the Wildlife Institute of India (WII), an autonomous research institute under the ministry, had said in a report commissioned by NTCA that the project should be ideally “rejected” to conserve the tiger corridor.

However, the National Board for Wildlife (NBWL), an advisory body of the ministry, gave the go-ahead to divert 400.89 hectares – which is equivalent to more than 560 football fields put together – from the tiger corridor in a recently-concluded meeting, the minutes of which were published on February 7.

The project, including the dam, which will be 480 meters in length and 150 meters in height, is proposed over a massive area of 475.19 hectares. It envisages diversion of 351.55 hectares of forest land for which Uttarakhand has obtained final clearance from the ministry.

The project also includes takeover of 89.68 hectares of private land which will impact 208 families. This includes 42 families belonging to Dalit communities while another 47 families are below the poverty line. Nearly, 4.28 sq km of land will be submerged by the reservoir of the dam.

The environmental clearance which was granted to Uttarakhand was conditional and categorically stated that a nod from NTCA was mandatory.

“The project is falling in the Dudhwa-Lagga Tiger Corridor, therefore, “No objection certificate” shall be obtained from National Tiger Conservation Authority,” said the EC letter dated December 13, 2019.

To assess the potential ecological impact of the proposed project on tiger habitats, the NTCA thereafter commissioned the WII in December 2022 to compile a report based on field inspections. The WII submitted its report to the NTCA in May 2023 stating clearly that the “best mitigation measure for the project” would be to leave the tiger corridor untouched by human activities.

“Despite all technological and scientific developments, our understanding of complex natural processes in the Terai landscape which has taken millions of years to evolve, is still primitive and far from complete and therefore many other impacts of the project on the natural systems may remain unforeseen as of today. The best mitigation measure for the project is avoidance of any developmental project in the identified Tiger Corridor Area,” said the report.

However, simultaneously, the WII also presented an alternate recommendation to aid the NTCA in its decision-making process, if the project is considered more important than conserving the tiger corridor.

“If this MPP [multi-purpose project] is unavoidable due to other considerations and has to be approved, then mitigation measures proposed in both the Tiger Conservation Plan and in Wildlife Management Plan have to be undertaken. A regular and transparent monitoring of compliance conditions has to be in place, hence an independent committee comprising of members from NTCA, WII, FRI/ICFRE [Forest Research Institute / Indian Council of Forestry Research and Education], State FD [forest department] may be constituted to oversee the implementation of mitigation measures on a half yearly basis and submit their report to NTCA for strict compliance by the project proponent,” the WII further recommended.

The NTCA raised objections against the project during a meeting of the NBWL standing committee held on August 29, 2023. The NTCA’s member-secretary told the meeting that construction of the dam would be “completely blocking the corridor connecting Corbett Tiger Reserve – Pilibhit Tiger Reserve – Dudhwa Tiger Reserve”. The NBWL was also informed that NTCA rejected this proposal because it would not only have a major adverse impact on tiger movement but would also result in “dispersal of tigers in Haldwani and other nearby towns”.

In contrast, the Chief Wildlife Warden of Uttarakhand told the meeting that low tiger movement had been reported in the area since 2014. It was also argued that the project would block only one branch of the tiger corridor against which the state’s irrigation department had recommended adequate mitigation measures.

In view of the differing opinions, the NBWL standing committee decided to constitute a sub-committee under the chairmanship of its member HS Singh to conduct a site inspection afresh.

However, an important development a few weeks thereafter paved the way for the project’s clearance notwithstanding its alleged potential adverse ecological consequences and the threat it posed to wildlife. On 25 October 2023, the project received the seal and approval of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The Cabinet Committee on Economic Affairs (CCEA) decided to grant central support of Rs.1,557.18 crore to Uttarakhand for completion of the project by March 2028. The CCEA also included the project under the centrally-sponsored Pradhan Mantri Krishi Sinchayee Yojana-Accelerated Irrigation Benefit Programme.

The report of the NBWL sub-committee is not available in public domain. Nonetheless, deliberations of NBWL over the project seemed to be a mere formality thereafter.

The project was cleared by NBWL on January 30, 2024 despite the sub-committee members informing that their enquiries of local people had revealed that a tigress had recently crossed the area even at a stage where construction activities were yet to begin.

Certain measures to reduce the impact of construction activities on tiger movements were discussed during the meeting. These included measures for marginally reducing the height of the dam, dropping the component of a power house from within the scope of the project, providing paths for wildlife on either side of the dam waterline and construction of small bridges at appropriate locations for tiger movement. But, rising demand of drinking water in Haldwani and neighbouring villages, which increases significantly during the lean months due to high population growth in the area, was the pre-dominant factor on which NBWL cleared the project.

Several more ecological issues, including seismological studies, seem to have been omitted during the clearance process.

“The Gola River, across which the dam will be constructed, runs through an area that is seismologically active. River water seeps into fault lines and fractures in the land. This aspect was not adequately considered while clearing the proposal. Further, the project was cleared based on old hydrology data. The hydrology of the river has significantly changed over the years ever since data was last collected,” added Thakkar.

The proposal for constructing the Jamrani multipurpose project is more than 50 years old. In 1975, administrative approval for the project had been granted by the government of the undivided state of Uttar Pradesh before Uttarakhand was carved out of it. A barrage across the Gola River and an elaborate canal system for irrigation was completed in 1981. The project was revived in May 2018 after the Bharatiya Janata Party was re-elected to power in Uttarakhand after five years of being voted out by a Congress government.

The writer is an independent journalist.

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