Over 1,000 people from various groups have petitioned the Union Environment Ministry against extending the environmental clearance (EC) of the Integrated Kashang Hydroelectric Project (HEP) in the Kinnaur District of Himachal Pradesh.
Local gram sabha members, environmentalists, people affected by the project, students and scientists have sent detailed objections to the environment ministry’s expert appraisal committee (EAC) on River Valley Projects, which is due to appraise the project's EC extension on Friday.
The petition is centred around ecological concerns; hazards of large-scale construction in a region that is prone to landslides and erosion; forest rights and wildlife conservation issues.
The Kashang HEP, located in Kinnaur, comprises of four stages. Stage-I was commissioned in 2016 with an installed capacity of 65 MW.
According to Himachal Pradesh Power Corporation Ltd. (HPPCL) officials, the plant generates around 55 MW electricity.
The environment ministry had granted green clearance for the project’s second, third and fourth stage. It had also given forest clearance for the HEP's Stage II and III in April 2010 and June 2011 respectively.
Nearing the expiration of its environmental clearance, HPPCL has sought an extension.
However, objectors point out that the Environment Impact Assessment prepared for the project is dated at 2008.
Subsequently, endangered and schedule-I species such as Snow Leopard and Himalayan Brown Bear have been also been spotted through photos at the Lippa Asrang Sanctuary adjacent to the proposed project area.
“The Integrated Kashang project is proposed in the upper reaches of Kinnaur which has dry, sandy and loose soils and steep gradients, highly prone to erosion," the petition states.
According to the petition, even the website of the District Disaster Management Authority of Kinnaur acknowledges that various “unplanned construction activity, deforestation, faulty land use planning, use of explosives in construction, practicing unscientific mining, quarrying, tunneling methods, unscientific dumping on the valleys etc” are responsible for frequent slope failures.”
Last month, on April 30, a landslide in the Pangi region resulted in the death of a labourer from Nepal. Many apple orchards were also damaged in the incident.
In 2018 and 2019, flash floods damaged roads in the Sutlej valley. Landslides also followed.
The objection letter gives focus to the concerns regarding flash floods in Pager stream near Lippa village, as well.
Here, the locals fear that due to the Kashang Stage-II project, the Kerang stream, that usually offsets the dangers posed by a flooded and silt-laden Pager stream, will be diverted into a tunnel, thus increasing the risk of damage to nearby villages during flash floods.
The petition also highlighted that the livelihood of the villagers will be disturbed as the tunneling work of the HEP poses threat to the aquifers and natural springs that feed horticulture and seasonal farming of peas, potato and Rajma (kidney beans).
Commenting on the concerns raised by locals, Surender Paal, Deputy General Manager, HPPCL said -- “Landslides have happened in this region repeatedly, even before the project came into existence. This region is prone to landslides."
"The National Green Tribunal had heard the issue of aquifers and we are going to make arrangements for irrigation canals for the locals," he added.
The project has been mired in legal wrangles over the years, as well. These include cases on forest rights and most recently on the transfer of forest land lease to HPPCL without obtaining the consent of the Gram Sabha.
In 2016, local villagers had moved the NGT against the project on grounds that the work had begun without prior approval of Gram Sabha and without settling individual and community claims under the Forest Rights Act, 2006.
NGT had ordered the state-run company to halt work until the forest rights issues were not settled and approval was not obtained from the Gram Sabha of Lippa village.
While the community forest right claims of Lippa village were approved by the district level committee in August 2018, the state government went ahead and executed the lease deed for the proposed forest land in November 2018 without obtaining a no-objection certificate from the Gram Sabha.
A case against this order was filed by the Lippa Gram Sabha against this order before the Shimla High Court in 2019, which still stands pending.