After the Uttarkashi (now in Uttaranchal state) earthquake Oct. 1992 N. D.Jayal and Shekhar Singh had filed a public interest petition in the Supreme Court, raising the issues regarding the controversial Tehri dam project. In the course of this petition, in January 2002 Supreme Court ordered the Government to present the latest status on the issues related to earthquake, environment and rehabilitation. The Central Environment ministry, the Tehri Hydro Development Corporation (THDC) and Government of Uttaranchal submitted affidavits showing the latest status of earthquake, environment and rehabilitation works.

In February 2002, Sanjay Parikh, the petitioner's lawyer had asked information of the status of the actions taken on the Government orders (related to earthquake, environment and rehabilitation) passed since 1973 through a questionnaire. Through the incomplete answers, the fact came into light that the Governments had violated the conditions laid by the environment ministry in its conditional acceptance.

The attitude of senior levels of the government towards the judicial process was evident when the hearings began. One junior lawyer was present in the court on behalf of the governments. Thereafter, the governments repeatedly asked for more time to reply the petitioner's arguments.
The Supreme Court bench comprising of Justice Rajendra Babu, Justice Devbrat Dharmadhikari and Justice Mathur started the final hearing on the project from 21 January 2003. It was not expected that court would hear Tehri case in full. The Honorable Court allowed Senior Counsel Indira Jaisingh and Sanjay Parikh in the main case. Advocate Rajeev Dhavan argued on behalf of well known gandhian Sunderlal Bahuguna as intervener in the main case. The advocates raised objections on the conditional clearance given by the Ministry of Environment to the Tehri dam project on 19 July 1990. They said that the Government had not implemented the conditions mentioned under the environment clearance. There has been no treatment of the catchment area and no development of the command area. No study has been conducted for the plants and species to be plunged in the reservoir. There is no plan for water conservation, maintenance of quality of water and disaster/crisis management. A Bhagirathi valley basin management corporation has also not been established. The accepted recommendations of Hanumanth Rao committee and Expert Group on safety, which were formed after the 74-day long fasting by Sunderlal Bahuguna, have also not been followed by the Government

During the first 4-day long hearing the petitioner's advocates expressed their surprise as to how a Government official can reject the recommendations made by an expert Group, appointed by the Government itself. It is clearly mentioned in the environmental conditional clearance that "The rehabilitation package covering population affecting Koteshwar dam as well as those living on the rim of the reservoir and likely to be affected will be prepared before 31.3.1991."

On behalf of the petitioners, Advocate Jaisingh said that now the government is preparing another package for two groups, according to affidavit filed by the Uttaranchal Govt on 7 January 2003. This indicates that the government is postponing the work, which was supposed to be completed before 12 years. She further argued that:

  • The issue of dam's safety is related with the lives of lakhs of people living in the areas below the dam.
  • Not having a study on flora and fauna in the Himalayan region that is full of bio-diversity is an irreparable loss to the environment. This is not a technical fault but intentional negligence.
  • The condition of Pari-Pasu (environmental and rehabilitation work should progress with the raise in the height of dam accordingly) has also been violated.

The petitioner prayed that following directions be issued by the honorable Court. Firstly, 2 tests (three dimensional study (3D) and second is dam break analysis) should be undertaken. Secondly, there should be no further construction of dam until these tests are done. Thirdly, no increase in the water level of the reservoir; no closure of diversion tunnel no. 1 and 2 and fourthly, appoint a commissioner by the Court (as the Court has already done in the cases of death due to hunger) to submit a report to the Court after reviewing the status of issues related to environment and rehabilitation within a period of 8 weeks or within a time period as determined by the Court. Indira Jaisingh also suggested the name of former Secretary N.C.Saxena for this purpose.

The monitoring process just like that in the case of the Sardar Sarovar dam on the Narmada River was demanded for the Tehri Project so that the direction of Pari-Pasu given under environment conditional clearance could properly be followed. Several other issues were also raised by the petitioners’ lawyers. For example, the recommendations of Hanumanth Rao committee should fully be applicable under which married adult of 18 years should be given 2 hectare of land considering him eligible and unmarried boys and girls should be given 1 hectare of land. There should be a land-pricing provision in the package providing the prices of land equal to the prices of circle rates of 2003. House construction assistance should be in accordance of the prevailing construction costs. The reservoir should not be filled before the completion of construction of bridges and other facilities in the cut of area. The villages like Khand (Bhagirathi valley), Syansu, Bhald etc. which are under the category of partially submerged villages should be considered under the category of fully submerged under special circumstances. The displaced people should not face repeated displacement.

On fourth day of hearing the Supreme Court gave a chance to environmentalist Sunderlal Bahuguna to put his arguments. The noted environmentalist emphasized his concern on the condition of people living in hills, quality of water, risks involved with the break down of dam, water rights of the people of Raika Patti and the problems faced by the women in the hills and requested the Court to give a direction to put an end to the money order economy so that the youths of hills may stay in the hills. Rehabilitating and forcing the residents of hills destroys the life of people. He said plantation would support the continuous availability of water in the rivers. Dam is a temporary solution; the residents of hills can continuously provide water to the country. The people of hills are so strong and hard working because they drink flowing water. Dam's water looses its vitality. He asked that the government make arrangements for the protection of the Himalayas.

The government on the other hand claimed that they have done good work on environment and rehabilitation issues. They are taking care of safety measurements for the Tehri Dam project and the also claimed that there is no need of three-dimensional study of the dam, dam break analysis and a disaster management plan, stating that these all are only theoretical exercises. They said that they are not only implementing the environmental and rehabilitation works done simultaneously with the engineering work but also not lagging behind then the conditions of the clearance of July 1990.

The attitude of senior levels of the government towards judicial process was evident when the hearings began. Only one junior lawyer was present in the court on behalf of the governments. They were repeatedly asking more time to reply the petitioner's arguments. The Honorable Court was annoyed with the governments and the THDC (Tehri Hydro Development Corporation) and took it as an insult that in “such a serious case government is behaving like this and not giving the required attention.”

Last day of hearing 25 Feb 2003
During the first half of the day Indira Jaisingh read the rejoinder of the petitioner. She filed a list of the dams in the world where 3-dimensional studies and dam break analyses had been done. The governments repeatedly said in the court that these are only mental or theoretical exercises, these studies are never made. The petitioners also filed a photo album showing the photo of Old Tehri Town, villages going to be submerged and showing impoundment due to closure of tunnels.

During the second half, Rajeev Dhavan raised some legal points to which the respondents wanted to file some papers. Indira Jaisingh firmly opposed this and the Judges concurred that this will be an unending process and that the respondents had had sufficient time. At the very end the Government put forward the plea requesting the court not to stop the dam and that the governments were ready to do whatever the court asks the government to do. After this the bench completed the hearing and reserved the judgment.

Meanwhile the government of Uttaranchal is trying to finish rehabilitation work on paper. In the first week of April, the director of rehabilitation declared that they have completed the rehabilitation upto a reservoir level of 780 meters. According to the authorities, rehabilitation of 56 villages has been fully complete. These villages will be fully submerged. But the reality is quite different. Oustees did not get land in many villages. For example in the village Chamm not even house surveys have been done. Villagers of Bryani did not get house plots. The same situation prevails at Sanyasu and Bhaldiyana. Villagers of Badkot were going to block the stone trucks for the dam, because they did not get land. Authorities have taken time till April 23 to resolve the issue. But they made the same promise on 28 January as well.

Two bridges are proposed to connect cut off area where more then 80,000 people are living. Work on one bridge in Bhagirathi valley is now abandoned and another in Bhilangana valley is under construction and will take more then one and half years. In the old Tehri town people are still on dharna and more then 200 families residing there facing serious troubles regarding basic civic amenities. The THDC Chairman has declared that they will supply drinking water for Delhi and Uttar Pradesh in December 2003. THDC has also been awarded with another project in Chamoli district of Uttaranchal on river Alaknanda.

The nation now awaits the decision of the Supreme Court.