Invitation to Disaster: Even before the Uttarakhand disaster, NTPC was violating muck disposal norms at Tapovan project

In March 2020, the Uttarakhand Pollution Control Board found NTPC violating the environment ministry’s muck disposal rules. Despite repeated warnings, the violations continued, and the PCB slapped a fine of Rs 57,96,000 on the company. The NGT has upheld the fine. But it is too little too late, say environmentalists.

Megha Prakash
| Updated: March 1st, 2021

Two hydro power projects have suffered damages in the flash floods in Chamoli, Uttarakhand. Pic: By arrangement.

Dehradun, Uttarakhand

As water and mountain debris crashed down the mountainside in Uttarakhand on February 7 this year, the force of its fury swept away the under-construction Tapovan-Vishnugad Hydroelectric Power Project at Joshimath in Chamoli district. The project was being executed by the government’s public sector unit, the National Thermal Power Corporation (NTPC), Ltd.

Long before the Uttarakhand calamity happened, NTPC had been warned about its flagrant disregard for safety norms in disposing muck from its construction site, claim local villagers. Exactly a year ago, last March, acting on complaints received by residents of Tapovan about the lack of proper muck disposal, and on the orders of the National Green Tribunal (NGT), officials of the Uttarakhand Pollution Control Board visited the disposal site of the Tapovan-Vishnugad Hydro-Electric Power Project.

The pollution control board found NTPC violating the safety norms, as laid down by the Union ministry of environment, forest and climate change. There was danger of the muck flowing into the Dhauliganga river, the pollution control board warned.

Photo for representation purpose only. Credits: SDRF Uttarakhand Police

“It is interesting to see how one government body has levied a fine on another government-run agency,” Saraswati Prakash Sati, professor and head of department of basic and social science, College of Forestry, Ranichauri, Tehri Garhwal, told Gaon Connection. He said it was a matter of concern that despite being aware of the grave consequences of irresponsible muck disposal, government agencies themselves flouted the norms framed by their government. “It does convey a loud message,” he said.

“The penalty may not restore the riverine ecosystem but it will caution other developers to abide by the norms and maintain their dumping zones more responsibly,” JA Johnson, a river ecologist with the Dehradun-based Wildlife Institute of India, told Gaon Connection.

Muck disposed of downhill poses threat to the village below. This village is located on the Rishikesh-Gangotri highway, near Kandikhal, some 15 kilometres off Chamba towards Uttarkashi. Credit: Saraswati P Sati

Violating muck disposal rules 

Muck is the material (rocks and earth) removed during excavation or tunnelling and moved to another location. Improper disposal of muck is a potential environmental hazard leading to mass erosion, water pollution, sedimentation of water bodies, loss of green cover, and a negative impact on the aquatic ecosystem.

“Improper muck disposal is one of the reasons behind the growing disasters in the hill state,” observed Sati.

Photo for representation purpose only. Photo: SDRF

According to Sati, for every kilometre of road constructed, anything between 30,000 and 60,000 cubic metric tonnes of muck is generated. “It takes about 500 years to flush out the muck once it is deposited downstream. The incidence of flash floods have increased in the state after development projects mushroomed, because of improper muck disposal,” added Sati.

The muck that washes into the river not only affects the river’s natural flow but also elevates the river bed. Because of this, water levels rise and there are floods, he explained.

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The Uttarakhand Pollution Control Board, after its field visit, reported: “…the slope of muck dump is observed to be about 60 degree which is hazardously double the standards. Upstream side of the muck dump is subjected to the entry of water which has further triggered severe mass erosion. Under such unstable conditions, as expected, huge mass erosion has been seen in the deep gully formation downstream of this muck dump…”

Based on the field observations, the committee’s report submitted in March 2020, unequivocally stated that NTPC had not maintained the operative muck disposal sites as per the norms laid down by the environment ministry. The pollution control board made recommendations to prevent the muck, generated during the construction work of the project, from reaching the Dhauliganga river system. It spelt out measures to minimise environmental damage.

Photo for representation purpose only. Photo: SDRF

However, about seven months later, when the state pollution control board re-inspected the site in October 2020, it found that NTPC had not adhered to the measures suggested by them. In December 2020, the state pollution control board recommended the fine, and that was upheld by the court.

A fine of Rs 57,96,000 was slapped by the pollution control board on NTPC for violating muck disposal norms and degrading the environment. The latter approached the National Green Tribunal (NGT) against the fine, admitted its fault and promised to restore the muck disposal site as directed. But, in its recent order on February 18, the NGT dismissed the appeal,  upheld the fine and directed the NTPC to pay the same.

“Indiscriminate muck dumping destabilises the disposal site, making it prone to erosion, and when the muck slides into the river bed, it affects the river flow, increasing the chances of a disaster,” Manoj Misra, an ex-IFS (Indian Forest Service) officer and convener of non-profit Yamuna Jiye Abhiyan, told Gaon Connection. “In this case, unfortunately, the disaster has already happened,” he pointed out.

Is a fine enough to repair the damage?

Improper muck disposal is a burning problem in the hills of Uttarakhand, where a large number of infrastructure projects —  dams, tunnels, road widening —  is underway. 

Sati pointed out how something similar took place in Srinagar in 2013.

“Some five lakh cubic metric tonnes of muck was disposed of irresponsibly. As a consequence, the muck entered the houses along with flood waters and caused severe damage,” he said.

According to him, the fine imposed on NTPC was merely symbolic and not enough to restore the damage caused to the riverine system.

“We do not know yet how much muck has gone into the river system and what kind of damage it has caused,” Ashish Garg, a civil engineer who works on sustainable structural designs and is vocal about local environmental issues in Dehradun, told Gaon Connection.

The fine amount may be utilised for repairing the disposal sites, he said. “What is not taken into account is the money needed to clear the obstruction causing changes in river flow,” Garg said. The fine was woefully inadequate to make up for the irresponsible muck disposal, he reiterated.

Photo for representation purpose only. Photo: SDRF

Also Read: Uttarakhand Disaster: The Hindu Kush Himalayan region’s glaciers, which support over 1.3 billion people, are under threat

“The community should be sensitised to report bad dumping practices by project developers in their area,” said Ravi Chopra, a Dehradun-based environmentalist and chairperson of a high-power committee of the Chardham project that hopes to connect the four sacred temples of Kedarnath, Badrinath, Gangotri and Yamunotri. “Local administrators such as the district magistrate and the sub-divisional magistrate should have the authority to act on such cases,” he added.

Will NTPC be further held accountable for the damage caused by the recent flash floods? Gaon Connection approached officials of the state pollution control board for a statement, but they were unavailable for comment.