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Mega Projects Threaten Himachal Climate

by Manshi Asher

3rd November 2009, The Tribune, Oped

SINCE the BJP came to power in Himachal Pradesh, it has paid lip service to climate change issues — be it the distribution of CFL bulbs or a ban on plastics.

That mega-project centred development focussing on building more hydropower projects, more cement plants and limestone mines, more thermal power projects and rapid industrialisation is highly resource-intensive is un-debatable.

There is little doubt also that such a model will only exacerbate the impact of climate change, be it flash floods, drought, unpredictable monsoon or receding glaciers. The brunt of these phenomena is borne by the communities depending heavily on the resources around them.

Spontaneous agitations have emerged at several locations against large projects in Himachal. The most prominent of these have been in Sundernagar against the Harish Cement Project, in Mandi district against the Lafarge cement green field plant on the Renuka dam in Sirmaur district; the Karchham Wangtoo hydropower project in Kinnaur and Jaypee's thermal plant in Nalagarh.

Let it be known that each of these projects is going to cause irreversible damage to the environment.

The proposed Harish Cement plant will be located right next to the Trambri Nature Conservation Park. The entire Bal valley, which is Himachal's food bowl, will be impacted by pollution from the mining and cement factory.

The Renuka Project will submerge more than 700 hectares of mixed Sal forests, including 49 hectares of the Renuka Wildlife Sanctuary. Lafarge's limetone mines will involve the destruction of 800 hectares of forests and grass slopes in Karsog tehsil.

The area is prominent for its wild pomegranate production which is the main source of livelihood for the local people. Jaypee's Karchham Wangtoo project has been surrounded by controversy ever since it was proposed.

Its tunnel construction has disturbed the water acquifers of the villages in the area causing a drinking water crisis. The project is one of the 20-odd cascade of projects planned for the entire Sutlej river basin.

Local groups have been crying hoarse about the permanent damage to the landscape and climatic conditions in years to come as much of the Sutlej river will flow in the tunnels instead of the valley.

As per the Himachal Forest Department's own data between 1980 and 2009, 8528 hectares of forests have been diverted to various projects in the state. Fifty per cent of the land was diverted for mining and hydropower projects.

Each of the agitations is resisting the destruction of natural resources but the government has in turn responded by restricting the issue to compensation and offering private benefits to divert attention from common properties and the larger environment-development debate.

Despite the passing of the Forest Rights Act 2006, which provides for recognition of rights of forest-dwelling communities to use and conserve forests, Himachal Pradesh, where 67 per cent of the area is under forests, is lagging behind in the implementation.

A recent report by the Ministry of Tribal Affairs on the status of implementation of the Forest Rights Act reveals that not a single claim has been recognised in the state under this project.

The State Pollution Control Board, which is the only regulatory authority to ensure compliance, has failed to ensure that clearance norms are complied with by companies.

A recent report by the Kalpavriksh environment action group on the state of environment compliance mentions "In the case of the Parbati II Hydroelectric Project in district Kullu of Himachal Pradesh, there has been continued dumping of muck/debris in rivers and down the hill slopes ever since the project construction work was initiated in the year 2000. While these observations were made in the monitoring reports and site visits from September 2003 to April 2007, they were regularly denied in the compliance reports submitted by the project proponent". The project continues to operate and has met with almost no action.

Civil society and community-based organisations in Himachal are demanding a moratorium on mega projects; scientific studies of river basins to understand the impact of hydropower projects; declaration of areas above 3000 feet as eco-sensitive zones where development activity is strictly controlled.

They have put down an alternative vision for formulation of a Himalayan Development Policy that is based upon the sustainable utilisation of natural resources for the creation of livelihoods and ecosystem services.

Global diplomacy and scientific mitigation have dominated the climate change discourse in India like elsewhere, sidelining resource exploitation and equity issues which should be at the centre of the debate.

If the government of Himachal is seriously committed to addressing the climate change issue, it is high time it should relook at its misplaced development agenda and lead the way for the other states as well as the government at the Centre.


Also see attached the original/unedited version of this article
Manshi Asher,
Nov 10, 2009, 6:26 PM