Shimla: Green activists have long protested the hydropower projects in Himachal Pradesh that have been gobbling up forests and drying up water channels. Now a report from the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) too backs the claims of the greens.
Compensatory afforestation was highly deficient, as 58 percent of the 12 surveyed hydropower projects reported no afforestation at all, the CAG has said.
As per the union environment and forests ministry, the hydro project developer is required to deposit funds for compensatory afforestation in place of the number of trees that were axed and the extent of afforestation required. The state forest department carries out the afforestation, meant to "rehabilitate" degraded forests and improve the habitat in a project`s catchment.
The CAG pointed out that lack of re-greening of hills poses severe hazards, both for the region`s natural ecology and for stabilization of hill slopes.
Significantly, the CAG report, tabled in the state assembly this month, pointed out that reforestation was negligible, even though companies had deposited the necessary funds for it; the blame, thus, lies with the state government`s forest department.
"Thousands of trees have been axed and thousands would soon meet the same fate," rued R.S. Negi, who heads the Him Lok Jagriti Manch (HLJM), a people`s movement in Kinnaur district which champions environmental issues and has been spearheading the fight against upcoming hydro projects.
Before allocating any new project in the entire Himalayan region, which falls in seismic zone-IV and the more severe zone-V, the government should first undertake carrying capacity and cumulative impact assessment of the projects, Negi said.
Many residents of the remote Lahaul Valley are up in arms against the hydro projects in the Chenab river basin, as it falls largely in the high-altitude region (above 2,500 metres) in Lahaul and Spiti district.
"The Chenab river basin is under threat. The government has allocated more than two dozen mini and mega projects in the past four-five years," said Ravi Thakur, local legislator and president of Jispa Bandh Jan Sangharsh Samiti (a group fighting against the large numbers of dams in the region).
"Of late, abnormal rise in temperatures, receding glaciers and increase in precipitation in these cold deserts indicate that something has gone wrong with nature," Thakur told IANS.
In Chamba district, since 2003, the people of eight panchayats in the Saal Valley, under the banner of the Saal Ghaati Bachao Sangharsh Morcha, have been demonstrating against an upcoming private hydro project.
The Hul hydropower project, being executed by Hul Hydro Power Private Ltd near Chamba town, will ruin five kilometers or one-fourth of the catchment of the Hul stream, a tributary of the Saal river, environmentalists Manshi Asher and Prakash Bhandari said.
Forest Minister Thakur Singh Bharmouri told IANS that the government is sensitive to the concerns raised by environmentalists.
"We are soon going to set up an authority to look into environmental violations by any project and monitor implementation of catchment area treatment, compensatory afforestation and environment management plans," he said.
According to forest department estimates, over 9,000 hectares of forest land has so far been diverted to non-forest use. Of this, 7,000 hectares were used for hydel projects.