Srinagar: Setting aside grave environmental concerns, the Jammu and Kashmir administration has set the ball rolling to transfer hundreds of hectares of eco-fragile forest land for the construction of the strategic Ujh multipurpose project in the Jammu region.
The geography-altering project is being constructed at a cost of Rs 9,167 crore on Ujh, a tributary of the Ravi river, for which 4,350 hectares of land has been identified by the J&K administration in Jammu’s Kathua district.
“The project has got Stage 1 clearance. We (forest department) will divert over 680 hectares of land while the rest is state and private land,” said chief conservator of forests (CCF), Jammu, K. Ramesh Kumar.
Officials said more than 621 hectares of the forest land being diverted and over 3000 hectares of the total land being acquired for the project would be submerged by the 116-metre high dam that is going to be built near Kathua’s Deoli village.
Besides, over two lakh trees have been marked by field officers in Billawar, Kathua and Samba forest divisions that will be axed to pave way for the ambitious project, the government of India’s forest advisory committee noted last year in a report.
The Ujh project has three components – hydropower generation, irrigation and drinking water. According to officials, the project will generate 212 MWs hydropower, irrigate 31380 hectares of agricultural land and provide 20 cusecs drinking water for Kathua and Samba districts.
‘Disaster in making’
In a report, the J&K government told the Centre that 44% of the Ujh project’s catchment area of 14,14,700 hectares in the Billawar division falls under the “high erosion category” which will increase sedimentation in the river.
“It is not good for hydropower generation. Due to high sedimentation, there will be an increase in siltation in the dam,” said professor R.K. Ganjoo, who is a professor at the Department of Geology at the University of Jammu.
“Siltation shrinks water holding capacity of a dam, besides potentially damaging main turbines. Salal power project (also in J&K) faced similar problems because of which it has now almost become defunct,” added Ganjoo.
In case of a breach in the dam, a report of the Centre’s Expert Appraisal Committee notes, there will be “little reaction time for executing any rescue plan” as the high water level will affect 18 km area downstream.
The Ujh project, which was declared as a ‘national project’ in 2008, will affect 52 villages, displacing over 3700 families comprising of over 28000 members, according to the 2011 Census. Two villages – Dharalta and Dungara – are going to be fully submerged.
The project will not only uproot human habitations but also intrude into the eco-fragile forests. It falls within 10 km of Jasrota National Park, home to some of the critically endangered species of animals such as Indian Fox, Jungle Cat and Leopard which are listed in Schedule 1 of Wildlife Protection Act.
Despite this, the expert appraisal committee recommended the grant of environmental clearance for the project, asking the Union Ministry of Forest and Environment to submit plans for wildlife conservation, muck management, local area development plan, etc.
“There will be ecological and micro-climate changes due to the denuding of forests. In the coming years, people will face a lot of problems during summer. Besides the loss of forest cover, it will also gravely impact wildlife,” said Professor Avtar Singh from the Department of Geology/Remote Sensing & GIS at the University of Jammu.
In October last year, the J&K high court castigated the forest department for shrinking forest cover in the Union territory “due to encroachments and illegal cutting of trees but the concerned authorities have failed to take urgent steps to check the prevailing situation.”
In February this year, a Supreme Court nominated committee pegged the cost of each tree with a lifespan of 100 years at Rs 75 lakh, given the benefits to nature and mankind, including the cost of oxygen it would emit into the air.
Asked about the apex court committee’s assessment, CCF Kumar prevaricated, “Compensatory afforestation amount is mandatory to be paid by the user agency before obtaining final approval of forest land diversion.”
“The cost of land has been fixed at Rs 8 lakh per hectare. Once we get the payment, we will write to the central government for Stage 2 clearance,” he added.
However, a senior officer in the forest department said the compensatory afforestation for the project was calculated on the basis of the market rate of timber, “Besides the market value of land, the user agency is supposed to pay double the cost of the timber.”
More than two lakh trees are set to be axed in the newly created Union territory which is rapidly losing forest land to non-forest activities, said social activist Raja Muzaffar Bhat. “We can’t afford to build more and more dams when the outcome is not environmental friendly in the longer run. Hydropower may be clean energy, but to set up these plants, axing thousands of green trees makes no sense,” he said.
Professor Ganjoo said forests act as a sink for excess carbon in the atmosphere, “Extensive deforestation disturbs the carbon cycle which leads to climate change whose effects may be felt even hundreds of kilometres away,” he added.
Defending the project, the CCF Ramesh said: “We can’t compensate the loss of flora and fauna (due to the axing of trees). But the project is in the larger interest of the nation and sometimes sacrifices have to be made.”
Compensatory afforestation proposal
To make up for the loss of the forest cover, the J&K administration has proposed a compensatory afforestation scheme in 15 patches on 1345.39 hectares of land, double the size of the land diverted for the Ujh project, as per norms.
However, the sites identified by the J&K government are located in high elevation which are not accessible by road. “Due to heavy rainfall and floods during the time of site inspection, the roads were blocked and most sites could not be visited,” a factsheet of the J&K government which was sent to the government of India, noted.
“As per analysis of sites on Google Earth and detailed discussions with local officers, some sites are having encroachment which will require timely eviction by the competent authority,” the factsheet notes.
Several studies have shown that extensive deforestation reduces cloud formation and rainfall. Besides, afforestation is not a substitute for deforestation. Last year, a top officer of the Union forest ministry pointed out discrepancies in afforestation data in a letter.
“Despite repeated requests from the Forest Survey of India, a significant percentage (70%) of data (on afforestation)… is either incorrect or incomplete,” Inspector General of Forest, AK Mohanty said in his letter to the states and Union territories.
Also, the funds released by the Centre under Compensatory Afforestation scheme CAMPA, have barely been utilised. In 2019-20, the central government released Rs 408.35 crore to Jammu and Kashmir.
But not a rupee was expended for plantation works, according to the government of India’s e-Greenwatch portal.