A recent judgment by the National Green Tribunal of India gives elected village councils rights to decide about the construction of hydroelectric dams
The Indian state of Himachal Pradesh has about a quarter of the country’s hydropower potential. It has an installed capacity of a little over 10,000 MW out of its full potential of over 27,000 MW. While the last decade saw a surge in hydropower development in the state, for the last three years the state government has been making desperate attempts to revive the hydropower sector.
Falling revenues, the lack of interest of the private sector in taking up any new projects, the inability of existing projects to be completed on time, the rising cost of hydropower, and the social and environmental impacts leading to local resentment are some of the indicators that the government seriously needs to review its unrelenting faith in hydropower development as the driver of the state’s economy. But instead of taking a critical look at the hydro policy the government has kept the focus squarely on easing the environment for developers.
On 4 March 2014 the state government’s Power department issued a notification on amendments to the Hydropower Policy 2006 doing away with the requirement of separate No Object Certificates (NOCs) the from Public Works Department (PWD), the Irrigation & Public Health Department (IPH), Revenue Department, Fisheries Departments and Gram Panchayats (village level elected bodies).
On 17 August 2016 this notification was issued again with the intention to fast track clearance procedures. Last year approximately two dozen groups and community representatives made a submission objecting to these amendments especially to the dilution of the NOCs of local village councils stating that it was in violation of the provisions of the Forest Rights Act 2006 which is yet to be implemented in the state. Despite this the government went ahead with the changes.
The Himachal government has also dragged its feet on the implementation of the Forest Rights Act, precisely because it is worried about its provisions being an obstruction for hydro-development. And now on 24 September the Cabinet of the Himachal government approved a proposal regarding non-applicability of the Forest Conservation Act, 1980, in the Scheduled Areas of Kinnaur, Chamba and Lahaul-Spiti for a period of two years. Amidst such a dismal scenario, the people of a small non-descript village in far-away Kinnaur, who challenged the forest clearance for the Kashang Hydropower project, have been in the news for getting their voice heard.
A village in the Himalayas
Article 51 A (g) of the Constitution of India imposes upon every citizen, the duty to protect and improve the natural environment including forests, lakes, rivers and wildlife, and to have compassion for living creatures. The National Green Tribunal quoted this article in May 2016 in a judgment on the Integrated Kashang Hydropower Project in Kinnaur, and expressed, “a deep sense of foreboding and serious anxiety on the future of the state and its progeny” in the context of the number of hydropower projects coming up in the state and the subsequent ecological impacts of these.
NGT directed MoEFCC and the Himachal state government to place the entire forest diversion proposal for the said project before the affected Gram Sabhas for their perusal. The judgement went on to conclude that, “the Gram Sabha shall consider all community and individual claims” in the process bringing under it the cultural, religious, environmental and livelihood impacts as a result of the loss of forests and water sources.
This visual journey through Lippa, one of the main affected villages helps put the NGT’s judgment in perspective.
Lippa, also referred to as Chhota Shimla, is tucked away in a high mountain valley in Kinnaur. A bridge greets you at the entrance of the Lippa village. Underneath flows the roaring Kerang khadd (stream), a perennial snowfed river that makes its way through steep slopes into the mighty Satluj. It is this river that will be diverted from its original route through a tunnel and dropped into another river called Kashang to generate 130 MW of power. It is the lifeline to the people of Lippa village.