NEW DELHI (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – India's Supreme Court has told the government to suspend giving clearance to hydroelectric power projects in the disaster-hit Himalayas, concerned that dams had contributed to the devastation caused by recent floods and landslides, the Hindu reported on Friday.
Unprecedented rainfall in June wreaked havoc across India's northern state of Uttarakhand, causing rivers and glacier lakes to overflow and triggering massive landslides.
Almost 6,000 missing people are now presumed dead, while the devastation has disrupted the lives of two million people – one-fifth of Uttarakhand’s population.
In a judgement passed down by Justices K.S. Radhakrishnan and Dipak Misra, the Supreme Court bench expressed concern over the mushrooming of hydroelectric projects in area, quoting a study that said there were plans to build 69 dams over the Himalayan rivers, the Alaknanda and the Bhagirathi.
"The cumulative impact of those project components like dams, tunnels, blasting, powerhouse, muck disposal, mining, deforestation etc. on eco-system, is yet to be scientifically examined," the bench said, according to the report.
"The adverse effect of the existing projects, projects under construction and proposed, on the environment and ecology calls for a detailed scientific study. [A] Proper Disaster Management Plan, it is seen, is also not in place, resulting in loss of lives and property."
The Supreme Court bench has asked the environment ministry to put together a panel of experts to study to what extent dams contributed to the Uttarakhand disaster. It has also called on authorities to report on whether they had a disaster management plan in place and how effective this was in responding to the calamity.
Environmentalists have criticised the Uttarakhand government and its Chief Minister Vijay Bahuguna, saying the disaster was "man-made".
They argue the construction of hydro-electric dams, which involves blasting tunnels through fragile mountains to carry diverted flows of water, illegal yet rampant deforestation and the spread of unregulated buildings along river banks worsened the impact of the heavy monsoon rains.
Dumping of sediment and other materials into the rivers during the construction of dams, which raises the height of riverbeds, resulted in flash floods, they add.
Indian authorities, however, say the exploitation of Himalayan rivers in areas such as Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh and Kashmir is necessary, given the country is chronically short on power to drive its economic development.
Coal generates more than half India's electricity, but with resources running low, both hydropower and nuclear are seen as key energy sources.
In August last year, around 600 million Indians faced almost two days of blackouts in one of the world's worst power cuts.