India’s environment ministry’s expert panels have recommended clearance for the Ujh multipurpose hydroelectric project in Kathua region of Jammu and Kashmir for which 2,14,502 trees in the ecologically sensitive area will need to be cut.

The project is envisaged on River Ujh, which is a tributary of River Ravi that flows into Pakistan and is part of the Indus river basin system. Over the past few years, as the political relationship with Pakistan deteriorated, India’s endeavour has been to step up the utilisation of the water it has rights over, under the Indus Water Treaty. Indus Water Treaty is an agreement signed between India and Pakistan that details the sharing of waters from the Beas, Ravi, Sutlej, Indus, Chenab and Jhelum rivers.

A multipurpose project

The Ujh project was considered for environment and forest clearance by the ministry’s expert appraisal committee and forest advisory committee respectively in December 2020. Both the expert panels have recommended clearance to the project. Once a project gets a nod from the expert panels, it usually gets the final clearance from the ministry. It is a rare occurrence when any recommendation of these panels are overturned. Wildlife clearance was already granted to the project in August 2020.

Ujh Project is a multipurpose project (hydropower, irrigation and drinking) and the total land required for the project is about 4,350 hectares – over twice the size of Delhi airport. Of the total land required, the submergence area is 3,450 hectares which comprise 329 hectares of government land, 680.1 hectares of forest land and 2,441 hectares of private land.

The project, which was declared as a “national project” in the year 2008, involves the construction of 116-metre high concrete face rockfill dam, a powerhouse of installed capacity 186 megawatts and a barrage 11.5 kilometre downstream of the dam. The irrigation benefits from the project will comprise annual irrigation of about 31,380 hectares.

During its meeting on December 22, 2020, the forest advisory committee observed that this project is of “national importance which provides geopolitical strategic advantage in form of more effective use of water of the Ujh River”.

“This project will ameliorate the agricultural and power sectors in the otherwise barren Kandi area,” noted the minutes of the forest advisory committee’s meeting. “It will also be a boon in the dry Kandi belt which is reeling under the peril of impending water crisis during the dry season and also reduce the miseries of floods in the monsoons.”

The minutes highlighted that that the panel accepted the “justification” given by the authorities of Jammu and Kashmir regarding “considering a patch of compensatory afforestation area that is of less than five hectares after detailed deliberation on the overall proposal”. This is when the amount of forest area being considered for diversion is much larger.

The expert forest panel recommended the project after “thorough deliberation” and noted that a large number of trees are proposed to be felled due to the project. “Every effort shall be made to ensure that trees are felled only when felling is unavoidable and it shall be done in a phased manner,” the minutes noted. “The administration shall therefore also ensure that compensatory afforestation is taken up in the first year of the construction of the project, and adequate post-planting measures are taken to ensure healthy growth of the regenerated forest.”

The panel asked the authorities to ensure that the resettlement and rehabilitation plan is not proposed over forest land and told them that authorities monitor the area to ensure that “no project affected person occupies forest land”.

Demand for green development

Jammu and Kashmir-based social activist Raja Muzaffar Bhat remarked that “in Jammu and Kashmir, every year hundreds of thousands of trees are cut for one project or another such as highways, roads, dams”.

“No one is against development but what we want is green development – a development that takes into account concerns related to forest, tribal people, and environment,” Bhat told Mongabay-India. “It needs to be sustainable. A rough estimate states that over two million trees have been cut over the last 15 years to 20 years in the region. This could impact the microclimate of the area as well. While taking up the developmental projects, the government of India must ensure that they do not violate the commitments India made vis a vis environment and climate change under the sustainable development goals.”

It is estimated that Jammu and Kashmir have the potential to produce over 16,000 MW of hydropower.

Following the nod for forest clearance from the forest advisory committee, the environment ministry’s expert appraisal committee for river valley and hydroelectric project considered the project for environment clearance on December 30, 2020.

The minutes of the expert appraisal committee’s meeting noted that the Jasrota Wildlife Sanctuary is within 10 km of the project site but the project does not involve any interstate aspect as the River Ujh, does not cross any other region except Jammu and Kashmir.

The minutes of the expert appraisal committee’s meeting observed that in all 52 villages with 3,700 families are likely to lose their homesteads as a result of the process of land acquisition due to construction of the dam and subsequent submergence area.

An image of the Ranganadai Dam in Arunachal Pradesh. It is estimated that Jammu and Kashmir have the potential to produce over 16,000 MW of hydropower. Photo credit: Karen Conniff/Flickr

During the meeting, it was claimed that the project has provision for the supply of 10 cusec of drinking water to the Ujh Command area and it will “solve the drinking water problem of the people in the area”.

“The project will provide relief from the miseries of floods to the people living in the area,” noted the expert appraisal committee’s minutes. “The project has the scope of indirect benefits such as pisciculture, tourism and other progressive development. Job opportunities will drastically improve in this area. At present most of the population sustains on agriculture and allied activities. There are no major industries or other avenues of occupation in the area.”

It stressed that the construction of the project will open a large number of jobs to the local population during the project construction phase and various types of indirect business opportunities like shops, food-stall, tea stalls, besides a variety of suppliers, traders, transporters will come here and benefit the locals immensely.

Fauna in the region

The minute revealed that the “terrestrial fauna in the Ujh multipurpose project” area includes mammals, birds, reptiles, butterflies and amphibians. “Some of the birds found in the region include Black-winged Kite, Great-horned Owl, Black-faced Banting, Blue-throated barbet, Common Hawk Chuckoo, Common Indian Nightjar and Common myna … Some of them (mammals) found in the project vicinity are Asiatic Jackal, Barking deer, Common Grey Mongoose, Grey Musk Shrew, Himalayan Hoary bellied squirrel, Himalayan palm civet, Himalayan rat, House Rat, Indian Fox.”

It emphasised that “jungle cat and leopard”, which have the highest protection under India’s wildlife laws, are also found in the area.

The panel recommended the proposal for grant of environmental clearance while directing for a “wildlife conservation plan and detailed muck management”.

“The primary schools of all project-affected villages shall be equipped with computer labs providing internet connectivity,” the panel directed while giving their nod.

The panel further said that “after five years of the commissioning of the project, a study shall be undertaken (by an independent agency) regarding the impact of the project on the environment”.

This article first appeared on Mongabay.