A three-member expert panel constituted by the Union Ministry of Environment & Forests (MoEF) has given the green signal, effectively clearing the decks for the resumption of the half-finished mega project.
Construction work on the National Hydroelectric Power Corporation Ltd (NHPC)-funded project, which is being executed by a consortium of Indian and foreign companies, commenced in 2005 and was scheduled to be completed by 2010.
But from the very beginning, the project ran into many obstacles. Initially, there were problems of land acquisition. Once construction started, landslides and geological hurdles, as well as recurring floods, kept delaying its execution.
The dam also had to be re-designed. In November 2010, when construction work had reached the half-way mark, protests started building up in Assam. Within a month, the protests, led by the influential All Assam Students' Union and various other organizations, became intense and construction work came to a halt in December 2011.
The protesters have forcibly stopped transportation of material and machines to the project site. By then, Rs 6,600 crore had already been spent on the project. The then Union Environment Minister, Jairam Ramesh, met the protesters and agreed to set up an expert committee to re-evaluate the project.
The protesters had argued that the mega dam --- being set up in a seismically fragile zone --- could cause a huge disaster in the event of an earthquake. The protesters had also contended that the project would harm the fragile ecology of the region.
It could cause flooding due to sudden release of water from the reservoir during the monsoon and affect the livelihood of the people downstream of the Subansiri river.
The expert panel, which submitted its report to the MoEF at March-end this year, noted that several major hydroelectric projects, like the Bhakra-Nangal, Pong and Ranjit Sagar dams, have been built in similar geological and seismo-tectonic environments of the outer Himalayas.
These hydroelectric projects have been operating successfully for decades and, hence, the Lower Subansiri project also would pose no danger, said the panel. The MoEF wrote to the NHPC in June this year informing the Corporation of the expert panel's clearance.
The National Green Tribunal (NGT) also, meanwhile, dismissed petitions filed by organizations in Assam objecting to the composition of the expert panel. This has ultimately cleared the decks for resumption of work on the long-delayed project.
The expert committee also recommended immediate resumption of work, warning that "any further delay in resuming construction activity is bound to have irreversible deleterious effect on the project".
That is because the exposed rock mass and the unfinished works are deteriorating due to the natural process of weathering and degradation.
The expert panel noted that "...downstream issues raised by protesters in Assam about the continuous minimum flow for sustenance of flora and fauna, flood control and forecasting mechanism, sediment management, protection of river banks, provision of social security to the riparian population and dam break analysis have been taken care of..." as per the recommendations of various committees.
This led the NHPC to announce earlier this week that construction work on the project would start soon.
But even before this announcement, the Asom Jatiyatabadi Yuba Chatra Parsihad (AJYCP), another influential students' organization of Assam, launched a 100-hour blockade from 10 August to stop the transportation of materials to the construction site.
The AJYCP has rejected the expert panel's findings and NGT's dismissal of the petitions against the constitution of the expert panel. The AJYCP continues to hold that the mega dam on the Subansiri, which contributes to about eight percent of the total flow of the Brahmaputra, poses a threat to the ecology and downstream habitations.
However, armed with the panel's green signal and the NGT's concurrence, the NHPC and the union and state governments are likely to brook no more protests and will let the project take off.
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