A high powered committee created by the Prime Minister of India reviewed the social and environmental aspects of two planned dams on the Bhagirathi river, a Himalayan tributary of the Ganga and recommended that the projects be shelved.
Respect for social and religious sentiments of the people along with environmental concerns was the reason given.
Mr. Jairam Ramesh the Minister for Forest and Environment was one member of the committee along with Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee and Power Minister Sushil Shinde.
This good news though hides a more ubiquitous failure and that is that the system put in place to review large infrastructure projects did not object to these projects. The Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) which should have raised a red flag instead waved a green one. Its only a higher level intervention by the Prime Minister that has saved a stretch of this river from being reined in.
In fact this high powered committee reassessed the EIA and found violations in the environmental clearance process.
The EIA needs to be fixed from the bottom up and that means fixing some of its the structural problems. As I have written before the EIA is becoming a rubber stamp for getting clearances for projects. The Terms of Reference are deliberately kept restricted. Not enough time is given for comprehensive studies. And it does not have the authority to make the project conditional to the findings of the study.
This is what Mr. Jairam Ramesh needs to fix.
If he has to run to the Prime Minister, let it not be for creating another high level committee to specially look into one project ...but to plead to the PM that the ground level process set in place to review all big projects have real teeth and muscle to delay, redesign or need be cancel projects. He should ensure that fly by night consultants who do incredible shoddy science are fired and permanently blacklisted and projects not started until a serious scientific assessment of the project is complete.
There seems to some movement on that front. Mr Ramesh has ordered that the cumulative impact of a cascading series of hydroelectric dam projects on the river Alaknanda in Uttarakhand and the river Teesta in Sikkim be studied. Previously the EIA were restricted to studing each dam in isolation as if nothing was happening upstream and downstream of that one project.
The river Bhagirathi falls in the Ganga basin. The Ganga is a pretty special river and so complaints about damage to religious sentiments and the ecosystem have plenty of sympathetic ears. There is a special Ganga River Basin Authority set up to restore and clean up the river.
Other rivers and projects are not that lucky and overall the system put in place to evaluate projects is failing.
That's what needs to be corrected pronto if India want to develop while still protecting critical, sensitive and bio-diverse ecosystems.