"India has always been a difficult place to do business - excessive bureaucracy, endemic corruption and poor infrastructure are the most common problems - but now it seems Hindu gods must be added to the list. Plans for what would have been India's first international ski resort in the Himalayan foothills have come unstuck after a group of Hindu gods ruled that it was environmentally unsound."
Thus reported the Telegrah of the UK on 21 February 2006, following a formal Jagati Puch (grand convention) of 175 local deities by the local people, led by a former Member of Parliament, Maheshwar Singh. The convention had concluded with a declaration that the local deities gave a nod against the construction of a Ski Village in their area. The reasons could not be overlooked entirely, as they included pollution, cultural erosion and other impacts on the locals residing in the northern end of Kullu valley, Himachal Pradesh.
Palchaan, site of the proposed Himalayan Ski Village project
(photo credit: Manshi Asher).
The event sent ripples across the country and abroad, raising the question whether the 300 million dollar project, to be developed by the Himalayan Ski Village (HSV) Private Limited, with the money of Alfred Ford (great-grandson of the legendary American carmaker Henry Ford) could be stalled by such un-thought-of reasons. Unfortunately, the momentum and media interest diffused, and state government became more determined. On 25 May 2006, the Himachal Pradesh cabinet gave approval to the project. Activists from the Him Niti Campaign in the state claim that the Detailed Project Report (DPR) was never debated in the state legislature, and the approval was given on the basis of a summary document alone.
The project involves the development of facilities for a 'Ski Village', which includes the construction of hotels, restaurants, cafes, entertainment and shopping areas. Apartments and villas will also be built alongside. It is estimated by the project proponent that the total daily water requirement of the project will be 1200 KLD and power demand will be 22 MW. Similar facilities are also proposed to be developed at Whispering Rocks, the Khanora village area, Upper Kothi village and Beas Base-Resort Operation Centre. According to a March 2008 estimate, 12 panchayats of the area, comprising 60 villages with a total poulation of 32,832 will be affected.
ABOUT THE PROJECT
133 acres of built up area at Whispering rocks (resort arrival and Gondola terminal); Village Khanora - Primary mountain village; Kothi Village - Hotels; Chalets; Five 7 star hotels, Six 5 star hotels, Four 6 star hotels;
Access to 6000 acres of pristine forests and mountain areas
1,546,380 sq.ft.(about 36 acres) area under entertainment facilities - fitness spas, shopping malls; sports centre; restaurants
Storage house and support base (Heli pad and gas station) near Beas river
Employment to be generated - 1000 direct and 3000 indirect jobs
Annual Royalty of up to Rs.3.5 crores to the Government of Himachal Pradesh
Source: Extracted from a copy of the Detailed Project Report referenced at Forest Department's Office in Kullu, and as reported in the Fact Finding Report titled, "Dream Destination for world class tourists ... Nightmare for the Himalayas" (Impacts of the proposed Himalayan Ski-Village Project in Kullu, Himachal Pradesh. The report has been compiled by Manshi Asher for Him Niti Campaign, Himachal Pradesh; Jan Jagran Evam Vikas Samiti (JJVS), Kullu District, HP and Equations, Bangalore (March 2008)
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While the project was opposed locally amidst ongoing debate, it came to national light in a significant way only when it was scheduled to be considered for environment clearance by the Expert Appraisal Committee (EAC) on new construction projects during its meeting on 25 February 2008. The EAC had also reviewed the project once earlier in December last year. These reviews are part of the mandatory procedures for several projects as per the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) Notification, 2006.
Opposition to environmental clearance
The notification process also requires an impact assessment study to be conducted, as well as a public hearing to solicit locals' views. When local activists and networks in Himachal Pradesh learnt about this, they decided to send in a submission to the EAC a day before the committee was to consider the project. Three separate submissions were sent by Jan Jagran Vikas Samiti (JJVS), an NGO working in Kullu district, the Him Niti campaign, and Equations (a group working in tourism-related issues based in Bangalore) each highlighting different concerns. Their comprehensive compilation of facts highlighted several shortcomings in the project, including poor transparency and inadequate assessment of impacts.
The project will involve making artificial snow on mountain slopes to sustain the tourism potential of the Ski Village round the year. Aritificial snow on this scale, especially in times of increasing temperatures, is neither economically nor environmentally vialbe (see here and here). Also, the use of acrylic chemicals has been known to pollute water. Moreover, this chemically produced snow will need heavy inputs of both water and power, which are already under stress in the area. This is likely to impact the water and irrigation needs of the local population.
There are serious concerns on the impact the ski trails and ski lifts will have on the forests around the area, both in terms of deforestation as well as the restrictions on movement of locals in the area. In this Himalayan state, people's lives are intricately connected with the mountains - for grazing, fodder, fuelwood, medicinal plants and so on, and already, these activities are being impacted in this region, as it is overburdened by tourism.
The submission also highlighted a potential conflict of interest within the EAC itself. While not naming anyone specifically, it was pointed out that one of the members is associated with The Energy Research Institute (TERI), which has been contracted to prepare the Environmental Impact Assessment report for the project. We believe, the petitioners, "that this coincidence is sure to load the balance in favour of the HSV."
A positive turn from the EAC
As scheduled, the EAC met and discussed this project on 25 February 2008. According to the minutes of these meetings, the EAC took a very strong and critical view of the project, and directed the, "preparation of the detailed EIA ... conducting public consultation / public hearing, and [thereafter] submitting the proposal for considering issue of environmental clearance." Prior to this, the HSV had not gone through an EIA or public consultation to ascertain the concerns of the locally affected people. The EAC acknowledged the specific need for a public hearing, as there is resistance and complaints against the project.
Some of their other observations and directions are also noteworthy:
The proposed power consumption is nearly ten times that required for normal use, and the project authority needs to "examine the possibilities of reduction of demand for power, as well as use of solar energy and other alternative sources of energy." Further there is a need to arrange for power from two or more sources rather an installation of diesel generators.
Since borewells are proposed as sources of water for the project, the authorities need to select sources that are supported by adequate hydrological and hydro-geological studies of available alternatives.
A paragraph-wise response from the HSV authorities on the representations received by NGOs and local residents opposing the project, is also needed.
Separate permission and No Objection Certificates (NOC) are to be obtained for the proposals to connect different hill tops by ropeways. The details of the trees to be cut and impact on green cover and soil erosion are also to be submitted.
Separate permissions from a competent authority of the defence establishment close to the project site, and also from the Forest Department are needed, since the project is within 10 kilometers of a Reserve Forest/Sanctuary, and is close to Rohtang Pass extensively used by the Indian Army.
Studies and proposals on issues of soil erosion, disposal of hazardous waste glass and mercury, a Disaster Management Plan, traffic and transportation studies and so on, have also been recommended.
A map showing existing and proposed land use is to be submitted, along with a request for a land use conversion certificate from the state government.
The EAC also suggested to the HSV authorities to look at several other issues in the EIA report, which include impacts on culture, water, massive use of vehicles in the project area, impacts on public access to the area and so on.
Local residents participate in a rally against the ski village
(Photo credit: Rahul Saxena).
These observations of the EAC have come as a pleasant surprise, at a time when people have begun losing faith in the environment clearance process (See: here, here and here. The EAC's call for greater information and studies, nonetheless, is only a first step. Whether the committee is able to hold its ground following the completion of the EIA reamins a big question. Project proponents everywhere are careful to produce impact studies that claim their projects are the most benign, with the express objective of obtaining the clearances, and this sleight-of-hand has worked repeatedly in numerous projects throughout the country.
Against that background, undoubtedly it will be an uphill one for those who strongly believe (as stated in the March 2008 report) that the project "is unsuitable, incongruous and detrimental to the lives of the local community and environment of the region." A vision the gods of the area had back in 2006.