Uttarakhand’s Battling Interests: Time to Change Priorities?

A wide-angle view of the Tehri Dam across the Bhagirathi in Uttarakhand Source: Wikicommons/ Mayank Gupta CC BY SA 4.0

Tourism and hydroelectricity generation are the major contributors to Uttarakhand’s economy. However, underutilisation of existing hydroelectricity projects, indifference towards environmental impact, proposal of new projects in environmentally sensitive zones and acute concentration of tourism in selected pockets is a cause of much worry.

A wide-angle view of the Tehri Dam across the Bhagirathi in Uttarakhand Source: Wikicommons/ Mayank Gupta CC BY SA 4.0

Every year Uttarakhand becomes a silent witness to nature’s fury in the form of floods, cloud burst, massive landslides, and subsequent roadblocks. November 9, 2015, marked the 15th anniversary of the state. Much of the social, political, and cultural life in Uttarakhand has changed over these 15 years. But what has not changed is the unabated exploitation of the pristine ecology that the state harbours.

Large-scale hydro power generation and tourism are two major sectors contributing majorly to the state’s economy. While both the sectors have experienced significant growth in the last 15 years, they have also been responsible for widespread ecological exploitation in the fragile central Himalayan state. The state’s economy has become so dependent on these two sectors that the growth of other sectors has been relatively compromised with.

Lopsided ‘Developmental’ Polices

In its 15 years of existence, Uttarakhand sadly could not look beyond being a ‘Pryatan Pradesh’ (tourism state) and an ‘Urja Pradesh’ (power generating state). The ‘developmental’ policies were solely aimed at ‘conquering’ nature either by ‘colonising’ lush green hills and terraced fields with summer retreats, resorts, villas, ashrams, and schools (to which the local pahari has no access), or submerging bio-diversity hotspots to make way for dams.

In this background of misplaced priorities of a state that is married to the economic notion of development—which reduces humans to just an ‘economic being’ devoid of sentiments and attachments with its surroundings—our pet projects of tourism and mega power generation aimed at ‘transforming’ the state needs to be revisited.

It is this economic conception of development that has led to the construction and proposal of hundreds of dams and hydroelectricity projects in an ecologically fragile region like Uttarakhand, which is marked as grade IV and V seismic zone (the most vulnerable region prone to earthquakes) in India.

Writing in the Economic and Political Weekly (Hydropower Projects in Uttarakhand Displacing People and Destroying Lives; July 20, 2013), Rakesh Agarwal— a Dehradun based researcher on natural resource management—estimates that roughly 558 dams and hydroelectricity projects are proposed to be constructed in Uttarakhand.

In this regard, a 2009 report of the Comptroller General of India (CAG) titled ‘Performance audit of hydropower development through private sector participation’ states that “the entire State of Uttarakhand is categorized as falling in Zone IV and V of the Earthquake Risk Map of India. The region has witnessed devastating earthquakes in 1720 (Kumaun Earthquake) and 1803 (Garhwal Earthquake). In the recent past earthquakes in Uttarkashi (1991) and Chamoli (1999) have been witnessed. Despite the threat of earthquakes looming large, hydro-power projects are in vogue in the State”.

Environmental Impact of Hydroelectric Projects

Ironically enough, Uttarakhand is a state which on one hand boasts of having 70 per cent of its area under forest cover, while on the other does not shy away from expressing its displeasure over the Ministry of Environment and Forests’ decision of declaring the ecologically fragile Uttarkashi-Gangotri region as an Eco-Sensitive Zone because it will affect the state’s economic interests!

In the ‘Uttarakhand Annual Plan 2013-14’ presented to the Planning Commission, the government argues that, “Uttarakhand’s economy will be seriously affected by the Uttarkashi-Gangotri eco-sensitive zone notified recently. It has seriously hampered the development of hydro-power in the region as now hydro-projects of capacity of more than 2MW will be completely banned”. It further added that “Non-realisation of hydro power potential due to environmental bottlenecks [is] resulting in loss of precious revenue to the state”.

Uttarakhand is a very sensitive region with a large part of its are faling under seismic zone IV and V

This stand of the Uttarakhand government is an oxymoron. Experts point out that the state has been unable to even capitalise the existing facility and the power generated is well below the existing potential of the hydroelectric projects. Agarwal in his article further says that the Tehri hydroelectricity plant (reportedly the fifth highest dam in the world which displaced thousands of people) “is producing less than 30 per cent of its installed capacity of 2,400 MW…if the Tehri project was running at its full capacity, no other hydroelectricity project would be needed to meet the state’s energy demands…At present there are more than 100 hydroelectricity projects that have been constructed but are lying defunct”.

Instead of capitalising the existing facilities to its full capacity, the political class appears hell-bent on making Uttarakhand a power generating hub with proposals for new projects, even if it means irreparable damage to the environment and local community.

It is to be noted that the Uttarkashi-Gangotri Eco-Sensitive Zone falls under Seismic Zone V and was one of the major regions devastated during the 2013 Kedarnath disaster. Numerous scientific studies have suggested that construction of hydro power projects in the region would be catastrophic for the ecology and may result in massive disasters.

The same was reiterated by the expert committee constituted on the directions of the Supreme Court in the aftermaths of the Kedarnath disaster. The committee in its recommendations had also suggested that “all rivers in the state be designated as Eco Sensitive Zones” and accorded adequate legal protection. Apparently, for Uttarakhand, these are not reasons substantial enough to retrospect its ‘development model’.

The 2009 CAG report also expresses serious concerns on the environmental impact of hydroelectric projects in the state. It says, “More grave is the total neglect of environmental concerns, the cumulative impact of which may prove devastating for the natural resources of the State…Given the current policy of the State Government of pursuing hydro-power projects indiscriminately, the potential cumulative effect of multiple run-of-river power projects can turn out to be environmentally damaging.”

It further adds in its observation that the “negligence of environmental concerns was obvious as the muck generated from excavation and construction activities was being openly dumped into the rivers contributing to increase in the turbidity of water. The projects seemed oblivious of the fact that such gross negligence of environmental concerns lead to deterioration of water quality and adverse impact on the aquatic biota”.

Concentrated Tourism Adds to the Chaos

The tourism industry, which is another major contributor to the gross state domestic product of Uttarakhand, also appears bereft of far-sightedness. Reports from 2012 suggest that Uttarakhand ranks eighth in the All India Standings in terms of tourists’ arrivals. Furthermore, between 2000 and 2012 the total number of tourist arrivals in Uttarakhand increased by 41 per cent.

Taken at face value, this does appear to be a win-win situation. However, the problem lies in the concentration of this booming industry in few pockets.

In these 15 years, Uttarakhand could scarcely develop tourist destinations outside the likes of Nainital, Musoorie, Almora and the Jim Corbett National Park. Even these destinations are now colonised by layers of concrete to such an extent that these hill stations are no better than any residential colony in Noida or Gurugram. The average floating population that destinations like Nainital and Musoorie host every year is well above their carrying capacities. Added to this is the massive population pressure on the fragile mountains during Char Dham yatra (Kedarnath, Badrinath, Gangotri and Yamunotri) and other religious pilgrimages in the state.

The problem of overcrowding and unplanned tourism was also admitted in the ‘Uttarakhand State Action Plan for Climate Change’—a 2012 report of the state government—which states that, “the inflow of tourists puts tremendous pressure on existing resources and infrastructure…in year 2010 for example, Uttarakhand received as many as 31.1 million tourists – about 300 per cent of the population of the state.”

The document also points out problems like pollution, inefficient waste management, health and safety, urban congestion, and lack of efficient transportation that plagues the tourism industry.

A Way Forward

Given this concentrated nature of tourism in the state there is an urgent need to develop new tourist destinations. This will have two major benefits.

First, these new destinations will ensure that the fruits of the tourism industry are not concentrated only around traditional hill stations, but are now shared also by those living at the margins. Second, this decentralisation of tourism will enable the traditional destinations to cope up with the overflow of floating population, vehicular movement (which is well beyond their carrying capacities) as well as other ecological and aesthetic challenges.

The need for decentralisation of tourist centres has also been advocated in the above-mentioned document and in the interim report on ‘Identification of Tourism Destinations in India’ (Uttarakhand chapter), submitted to the Union Ministry of Tourism in 2012. Despite this, no significant change is visible on ground.

While there are no doubts that tourism and hydropower generation will continue to remain the two major contributors to Uttarakhand’s economy, it will perhaps be prudent for the government to adapt itself to changing realities in the state.

A failure to do so will only further deteriorate the ‘hill state’.

  • This article was published in Terra Green-an internationally circulated environmental monthly published by The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI)- in June 2016.