Lessons from Uttarakhand for Sikkim
The 7th February natural calamity (N.C.) that happened below Raini village in Chamoli District of Uttarakhand, reportedly due to glacial break at 5700 meters height, causing flash floods, augmented the flow of Rishiganga river so much (300 to 350 kmph) that a BRO bridge and major portion of 13.2MW Rishiganga hydro electric project(HEP) were swept away and substantial damage was caused to long delayed 520 MW Dhauliganga HEP.
Several houses very close to two banks of suddenly swollen river may have been also affected. Nothing has been heard about loss to life and property in these hamlets as focus is on 1200 metres long Tapovan tunnel wherein 30 to 35 labourers are trapped for over two days, after 12 of their colleagues were rescued by brave and daredevils of NDRF,SDRF & ITBP who reached the site sooner than expected. They were ably supported at the nick of moment by Army, Air Force and Navy men. This speaks of commendable professionalism of rescue and relief operations after NDMA has come into being in 2009 under ever alert MHA.
While about 80 persons have lost their lives as per reports, reportedly , more than 200 persons are believed to be still missing. One can very well understand the anxiety levels of family members of injured and missing persons in such an inclement weather.
PIL of 2019 & Recent Project Approvals
While taking note of the P.I.L. filed by people of Raini village before Uttarakhand High Court in 2019 that construction of Rishiganga HEP could cause damage to environment and inhabitants of the area, the Court had directed the DM,Chamoli and State Pollution Control Board to constitute a joint team to inspect the project with reference to issues raised. Nothing is known pertaining to follow up action. Rather, it has been gathered that with a view to transform Dev Bhumi into ‘Bijli Bhumi,’ about 400 HEPs, dams and barrages were approved in the last three to four years.
Development Vs. Conservation of Environment
This reverts one rightly to the debate linked to the very sustenance of humans– Whether forest & ecology need to be protected or pace of development is to be bolstered.
Perhaps it has been argued on umpteen occasions that both are significant; rather they need to go together, provided enough safeguards are taken or routinely executed and “Compensatory Afforestation Programme” is undertaken in all seriousness.
It is not only mini, micro or macro HEPs that need to be minimised but rapid construction and widening of roads in ecologically fragile zones of relatively young mountain formations need to be also reviewed as seriously as possible.
Connectivity & Tourism Angles
These twin emerging issues, no doubt ,should be accorded the attention they deserve but one should not forget that one has to slow down these activities in the entire Himalayan belt in view of depression/recession in tourism activity World over.
Also if one carries out a study or quick survey, domestic tourists not owning a transport still refrain from an outing to ‘recharge & refresh’. Either they do not have enough resources or they are hesitant to take a risk due to Covid factor, even if it may have begun receding for more than a month.
The point, one is making is that issues of construction of power projects or gravity flow water supply schemes or roads or widening of existing roads are different in a plain area vis a vis mountains. It is sincerely felt in human interest that these may not endanger the community or environment as much in flat portions as these are likely to impact the hilly and mountainous terrains.
Secondly, present slow-down of economy may help us in review of many such projects which may be beneficial both from cost and utility viewpoints.
My own humble exposure as an IAS officer in a hilly state and experience of hill area road, earth stabilization, land use and power projects shows that it is better to be slow than reach a point of regret later.
Projects of short duration or gestation have to get precedence but only after weighing their pros and cons from utility ,durability , maintenance and economic returns angles.
It would be my sincere plea that it may have become easy if not a cakewalk to dig and construct a road or foot path under the schemes of Rural or Urban Development or Highway Ministries but it is simply Herculean to maintain the same later out of stretched State resources especially when no pie is provided for drainage and minimum avenue plantation.
Even unwanted employment generation of outsiders in some Special Category States has to be substantially brought down if no benefit accrues to the local economy and nature is also disturbed, simultaneously, without any rhyme and reason.
Lessons For Sikkim Power Projects
In view of the fact that one mini and one mega power project of Uttarakhand has suffered fully and substantially due to sudden upsurge of water level in Rishiganga river, Sikkim needs to introspect quickly to put on hold ongoing small hydel and minor rural road projects and cancel the Stage IV Teesta project altogether.
It is not only in the midst of commissioned Stage V project and advancing Stage VI project but same is going to be located within 10 kms or even less than two projects. Thus the lesson to be drawn from Uttarakhand tragedy is loud and clear. The ground of fast vanishing Lepchas of the State may be once again reiterated if earning ousts livelihood and culture factors.
Threat From Lhonak Lake
At the same time, one should not ignore the perpetual danger to be caused to Teesta basin ( right up to Melli) by ever expanding vast Lhonak Glacial lakes, located at 16,000 feet plus, above Mukuthang area in North Sikkim. Even two visits by a widely Respected Ice Pyramid scientist of Ladakh, in addition to several assessments by the State and Central scientific teams has not provided the targeted relief.
Additional Pertinent Issues That Emerge
(a) Hydel power may be clean and green but same cannot be at the cost of environment,
(b) Revenue for the benefit of people at large should not sacrifice slow and traditional yet sustainable mountain livelihoods.
(c) Ongoing N.C. in Uttarakhand goes on to prove that we have not learnt lessons from the tragic 17 June 2013 Kedarnath deluge, which gave free hand to swollen Chorabari lake, which pushed down tremendous silt and rocks finally leading to 5,700 casualties.
(d) Kedarnath happened in Summer/Monsoon while Rishiganga and Tapovan took place in extreme winter, perhaps tossing aside Global Warming or Climate change angles,
(e) Why should mega hydel projects come up in ecologically fragile regions ?
(f) If NHPC is the authorized and time tested agency for hydel projects, why should NTPC specialising in thermal power enter this domain ?
(g) Who can answer the question as to why we had warmest January mechanically in 2021 when experience wise it was severest in a decade ?
(h) The Issue per se is such that whenever we attempt to fiddle with nature we should be ready to search for answers ourselves or FACE a N.C., as it comes.
Together with use of rapid advancements in means of communication and regular sensitization & training of Punchayats or local bodies, documentation and periodic experience sharing may certainly lessen the burden.
The author is a former Chief Secretary of Sikkim