Stop Axing Trees for UJh HE Project

Dr Raja Muzaffar Bhat

The recent glacier burst around the Nanda Devi glacier in Uttarakhand’s Chamoli district is seen as an outcome of the insensitivity of the Government in executing the developmental projects particularly construction of hydroelectric (HE) projects. Experts say that authorities have been executing numerous projects one after the other without properly assessing the impact of these projects on the local environment particularly the mountain ecosystem. A study published in the journal Science Advances in June 2019, shows that glaciers have been losing the equivalent of more than a vertical foot and half of the ice each year since 2000 – double the amount of melting that took place from 1975 to 2000. Researchers at Columbia University in the US say that the data indicates that the melting is consistent in time and space, and that rising temperatures are to blame. Temperatures vary from place to place, but from 2000 to 2016 they have averaged one degree Celsius higher than those from 1975 to 2000, they said. Researchers analyzed repeat satellite images of some 650 glaciers spanning 2,000 kilometers from west to east. “Any area has an eco-sensitiveness and we are exploiting its limit. This disaster was a triggered one. I believe that the current government hasn’t been showing enough sensitivity towards nature. The environmentalists, who have been voicing their concerns to the government against such large projects, have never been taken seriously” said Anand Arya noted environmentalist while talking to a national news channel a few days back. Arya who is former Chairman of the Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS) Committee on earthquake engineering further said that another reason behind such tragedy is not following environmental assessment properly. Another noted environmental expert Anil Joshi also raised an important issue on relying upon large dams to fulfill the upcoming needs. He says that there are other means to live. He said in his TV interview that Government is relying upon hydropower more than any other form of energy because of its cost efficiency and reliability. “But we are missing out to evaluate the risk factor involved in the construction of dams this size” he added. Ujh hydropower project Recently an expert committee in the Ministry of environment, forests, and climate change gave clearance for the Ujh hydroelectric project in Kathua district of J&K. More than 2.14 lakh trees in this ecologically fragile area would be axed in the coming months. The project would be set up on the river Ujh which is one of the tributaries of the Ravi river that flows from Punjab and then enters Pakistan. Ujh is not only a hydropower project but it is considered to be a multipurpose project that would be used for irrigation and supplying drinking water to people as well. More than 4300 hectares of land would be required for the proposed project out of which almost 3500 hectares land will get submerged. In addition to Govt land which is around 300 hectares or more around 700 hectares of forest land and approximately 2500 hectares of private land will also be acquired by the Government for this project. Ujh has been already declared as a national project more than 12 years back. The project is said to of 186 megawatts capacity. In recent past thousands of forest trees were axed during execution of 440 KV Double Circuit Samba Amargrah transmission line. Only last month more than 200 trees were axed around Sonmarg area during construction of the tunnel. For Srinagar Ring Road project thousands of apple and plus trees will be cut down and in return farmers are paid compensation @ year 1995 rates when apple was sold @ Rs 16 and plus @ Rs 13/ kg in wholesale market ? This is complete injustice … Environment and SDG’s Economic growth, environmental protection, and social inclusion are three core elements of sustainable development. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDG’s) set up by the United Nations in 2015 are the blueprint to achieve a better and more sustainable future for all by 2030. Through SDGs, the nations are likely to address challenges that include poverty, inequality, climate change, environmental degradation, peace, and justice. Climate change and environmental degradation are the important aspects of SDG. Environmental Sustainability can only be achieved when we ensure environmental conservation, investment in renewable energy, saving water, supporting sustainable mobility, and innovation in sustainable construction and architecture. According to the national review report on the implementation of Sustainable Development Goals (SDG’s) in India, the opening statement of which begins with VasudhaivaKutumbakam, which is an ancient Vedic phrase whose literal meaning is “the world is one family”. The opening statement read as “The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are thus part and parcel of the country’s longstanding tradition and heritage. Indeed, the goals substantially reflect the development agenda of India”. During his speech at the UN -SDG summit, PM Modi had said “Much of India’s development agenda is mirrored in the Sustainable Development Goals. Our national plans are ambitious and purposeful; Sustainable development of one-sixth of humanity will be of great consequence to the world and our beautiful planet.” In a place like Jammu & Kashmir where there is already a scarcity of land, how can the Govt allow the construction of big dams for hydropower projects which is a great threat to our ecology and environment as forests and trees are axed in large numbers. These arbitrary decisions not only violate many eco- laws but this goes completely against the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), also as the policy adopted by Govt, is completely unnatural and unsustainable. SC panel report A technical panel appointed by Supreme Court in its report has estimated the value of a tree at 74,500 rupees multiplied by its age. This monetary valuation of the tree was made by a panel of experts which submitted its report to the apex court recently. The report will help frame the guidelines on the estimation and valuation of trees that are axed during land acquisition processes. As more than 2 lakh trees are to be axed during Ujh hydropower project, will Govt be able to provide adequate compensation to people or the forest department as the valuation of trees has been enhanced a lot. Earlier the estimation would be done on the basis of wood, fruits, and life span of trees but the expert panel has now included oxygen as also one of the major components of a tree. A panel of experts told the Supreme Court bench, headed by Chief Justice S A Bobde, that trees serve the society as well as the environment and its a valuation can be reached on various counts including oxygen, micro-nutrients, compost, and bio-fertilizer. The reference was made vis a vis heritage trees but this can be attributed to smaller trees as well with a life span of even 40 to 50 years. Conclusion The Govt’s arbitrary decisions like axing of two lakh fourteen thousand trees will destroy the areas surrounding Ujh river in Kathua. Such decisions cause a great threat to J&Ks ecology and environment. If things continue like this by 2030 instead of achieving sustainable development goals (SDG’s) in Jammu & Kashmir, people in this part of the world will be pushed into a never-ending environmental disaster. PM must fulfill his promise what he made during the SDG summit 2015 wherein he assured the United Nations to work on sustainable development and to ensure there is no environmental disaster under the name of development in J&K. The UT administration in J&K & central Govt in particular need to learn a lesson from the Uttarakhand glacier burst and put a moratorium on the mega hydropower projects in J&K. Let the solar energy be explored instead by setting up community solar power stations in towns and villages across Jammu & Kashmir (The author is Chairman of the J&K RTI Movement. )