Bhagirathi, one of the key tributaries of the Ganga, will now flow untamed and unchecked through the year for at least part of its stretch. In a decision that shows heightened sensitivity towards the environment and may have consequences for other hydroelectric projects, the government has decided not to proceed with two projects -- the 381MW Bhaironghati and 480MW Pala-Maneri hydroelectric plants -- planned on the river that originates at Gaumukh.

There are indications that even the ongoing 600MW project at Loharinag-Pala may be shut down, with the government analyzing the environmental costs of discontinuing work on the mega dam.

The decision, taken last week by a three-member group set up by the PM, was prompted by religio-political and environmental considerations, and marks a big shift from the days when the government would disregard dissent on dams.

The group led by finance minister Pranab Mukherjee and comprising ministers for power and environment, Sushil Shinde and Jairam Ramesh respectively, has, in fact, decided to turn the entire 55-km stretch from Gaumukh to Loharinag-Pala as an eco-sensitive zone; in other words, a "no-go" area for dams.

In case the Loharinag-Pala project also gets a thumbs-down, the 'no dam' stretch will get extended to 155km -- a big victory for environmental activists and locals who have protested against the dangers of damming the lifeline of Uttarakhand.

Confirming the decision taken on March 25, environment minister Jairam Ramesh said, "It was taken out of respect for sentiments of faith and culture as well as technical questions raised about the impact of the dams."

The move by Congress is bound to resonate positively with a large section of Hindu votebank in the Gangetic belt as well as local communities in Uttarakhand and green groups that have been protesting against an array of dams being built on tributaries of the Ganga throughout the Uttarakhand hills. While dozens of other small and medium sized dams being built over other tributaries to Ganga might continue to raise the hackles of local communities and environmentalists, UPA's decision to stop construction on Bhagirathi is bound to go down as a signal of attitudinal change in government towards river management and hydro-projects.

It comes months after the first radical shift in policy-making when Ramesh had ordered an assessment of the cumulative impact of all planned hydro-projects on the river Teesta -- the lifeline of Sikkim. Ramesh had told TOI, "After Teesta, the government should look at cumulative assessment of projects on other river basins, such as that of Alaknanda."

The meeting on March 25 -- attended by the three ministers, the CMD of NTPC, power secretary and environment secretary -- noted that environment issues and religious sentiments were involved in the concern about the impact of such projects on the river's flow.

While the decision on the yet-to-start projects was easy, minutes of the meeting show that considerable deliberation occurred on the Loharinag-Pala project on which Rs 600 crore has already been spent.

But it was noted that a decision to maintain an uninterrupted flow of 16 cumecs of water at the Loharinag-Pala barrage had been taken earlier by the power ministry in order to respect social and religious sentiments attached to the river. This automatically entailed that the dam would need to be shut down for five months a year when the water levels go down in summer.

Questions on the financial viability too weighed against the project when the decision was taken to constitute a committee of experts drawn from IIT, Central Water Commission, NTPC and the environment ministry to submit a report within six weeks on the possible environmental consequences of abandoning the project midway.

Listening to a petition in May 2009, the Uttarakhand high court had asked the NGRBA to decide the fate of the dams on the river. In October 2009, the National Ganga River Basin Authority chaired by the PM had asked a committee comprising the environment and power secretaries to assess the social and ecological impact of the dams. The report was submitted shortly after, recommending that plans for the two projects be shelved but indicated that the ongoing project be continued in view of the investments already made.

The environment minister then met experts and non-official members on board NGRBA in January 2010 to discuss the report. Another team sent by the ministry for site inspection found violations of environmental clearance conditions at the dam site.

With the power and environment ministry still not agreeing on the three dams, in February, the PM indicated that the matter be resolved by Pranab Mukherjee along with the ministers of power and environment.

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