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15th February 2021 – Editorials/Opinions Analyses

Content

  1. Spotlight on dams after Chamoli disaster
  2. Fuzzy law, unclear jurisprudence, trampled rights

Editorial: Spotlight on dams after Chamoli disaster

Context:

  • A snow avalanche triggered possibly by a landslide caused a flash flood in the Rishi Ganga river, a tributary of the Alaknanda in Chamoli district of Uttarakhand, on a sunny morning on February 7, washing away a functional small hydroelectric project and destroying the under-construction 520 MW Tapovan Vishnugad project of the NTPC on the Dhauli Ganga river.

Relevance:

  • GS Paper 3: Disasters & Disaster Management

Mains Questions:

  1. Why are geologists worried about a slew of hydroelectric projects and environmental stress in Uttarakhand? 15 Marks

Dimensions of the Article:

  • Why did it happen?
  • Why is the Chamoli incident of concern?
  • Should Uttarakhand worry about the effects of climate change?
  • Way forward

Why did it happen?

  • Landslide avalanche: Union Home Minister told Parliament that satellite imagery from Planet Labs indicated that the landslide-avalanche event at an altitude of 5,600 metres occurred in a glacier in the Rishi Ganga catchment, and covered an area of 14 sq. km, causing the flood.
  • Destruction due to flood: While a fuller picture of the loss of life and destruction will emerge only after rescue operation and inquiry is complete, the disaster that struck Chamoli has turned the spotlight on several ongoing dam-based hydroelectric projects, rampant road building, tree felling for projects, and also construction practices in the State.

Why is the Chamoli incident of concern?

  • Deep movement of rock assemblages: Uttarakhand, which gained a distinct identity in the year 2000 as a separate State carved out from Uttar Pradesh, is geologically unique. As a part of the lesser Himalaya, in the populated terrane — a region bounded by earth faults — it remains active in terms of deep movement of rock assemblages.
  • Convergence boundary of two continental plates: As the northward moving peninsular India presses on, the lesser Himalaya rock assemblages are compressed and are pushed under the huge pile of the Great Himalayan rocks, the latter riding southwards onto and over the lesser Himalaya.
  • The Main Central Thrust: The MCT, running east-west along the Himalaya, is where the Indian and Eurasian plates connect. The result of these geological stresses, scientists say, is weakening of rocks, making the development of large dam projects in the region unwise.
  • Construction of dams:  In an assessment of the proposed 315-metre-high India-Nepal Pancheshwar dam project across the Kali river in the Kumaon region, with a drainage area of 12,000 sq. km, Shubhra Sharma and colleagues wrote in Current Science in 2019 that the chosen site could witness a strong earthquake in the Nepal area from the Rangunkhola Fault, perhaps of a magnitude of 7.4, with a potentially serious fallout.
  • Weak rocks: The geology of mountains in many parts of Uttarakhand is such that the threat of landslides is high. Rocks here have been weakened by natural processes across time and are vulnerable to intense rainfall as well as human interference, in the form of house-building and road construction.

Should Uttarakhand worry about the effects of climate change?

  • The IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate found that in the Himalayan ranges, there could be variations in overall water availability, but floods, avalanches and landslides were all forecast to increase. Changes in monsoonal precipitation could also bring more frequent disasters.
  • Changing the rainfall pattern: In 2013, catastrophic loss of lives was seen in the floods that swept Kedarnath. They were triggered by heavy rainfall over a short period in June, first destroying a river training wall, and then triggering a landslide that led to the breaching of the Chorabari moraine-dammed lake, devastating Kedarnath town.
  • The Indian summer monsoon caused by changes to long-term climate could produce even greater damage, by bringing debris and silt down the river courses, destroying physical structures, reducing dam life, and causing enormous losses.
  • These problems are also aggravated by the erosion of mountain slopes and the instability of glacial lakes in upper elevations. On the other hand, as the IPCC Special Report points out, the retreat of glaciers in the high mountains has produced a different kind of loss — of aesthetic and cultural values, declines in tourism and local agriculture.

Way forward:

  • The International Renewable Energy Agency estimated that in 2019, the average levelised cost of electricity in India was $0.060 per kilowatt-hour (kWh) for small hydropower projects added over the last decade. In comparison, the global cost for solar power was $0.068 per kWh in 2019 for utility-scale projects. Though hydropower has been reliable where suitable dam capacity exists, in places such as Uttarakhand, the net benefit of big dams is controversial because of the collateral and unquantified damage in terms of loss of lives, livelihoods and destruction of ecology.
  • Chipko movement activist Sunderlal Bahuguna argued that large dams with an expected life of about 100 years, that involve deforestation and destruction, massively and permanently alter the character and health of the hills.

Editorial: Fuzzy law, unclear jurisprudence, trampled rights

Context:

  • On February 1, 2021, in the wake of the intensification of the farmers’ protests and reports of violent incidents on January 26 – a number of Twitter accounts became inaccessible in India. These included (among many others) the accounts of The Caravan magazine, the actor Sushant Singh, and the Kisan Ekta Morcha handle, which was chronicling the protests.

Relevance:

  • GS Paper 2: Historical underpinnings & evolution; Features, amendments, significant provisions, basic structure; Comparison of Indian constitutional scheme with other countries’.

Mains Questions

  1. The legal regime that enables the government to block websites needs urgent reform. Discuss. 15 Marks

Dimensions of the Article:

  • Uneasy truce
  • The root lies in the IT Act
  • Violation of rights
  • Way Forward

Uneasy truce

  • Censorship Happy Government:  At present, the online free speech rights of Indian citizens depend entirely upon the extent to which multinational social-media platforms are able to stand up to the government’s censorship requests, how willing they are to risk legal prosecution, and how much confidence they have that their interpretation of Indian free speech law will stand up in court, even over the claims of the government.

The root lies in the IT Act

  • Section 69A IT Act: The root of the problem is Section 69A of the IT Act. Section 69A grants to the government the power to issue directions to intermediaries for blocking access to any information that it considers prejudicial to, among other things, the sovereignty and integrity of India, national security, or public order.
  • Section 69A(3) envisages a jail sentence for up to seven years for intermediaries who fail to comply. In 2009, the government also issued “Blocking Rules”, which set up the procedure for blocking (including regular review by government committees), and also stated that all requests and complaints would remain strictly confidential.

Violation of rights

  • The first is that it makes censorship an easy and almost completely costless option, for the government. Rather than having to go to court and prove a violation even prima facie of law, the government can simply direct intermediaries to block content, and place the burden of going to court upon the users.
  • Second: It stands to reason that the easier it is to censor speech, the more likely it is that a government — any government — will resort to that option. Furthermore, the confidentiality requirement means that the user will not even know why their account has been blocked and, therefore, will be in no position to challenge it.
  • Third, there are no procedural safeguards — no opportunity for a hearing to affected parties, and no need for reasoned orders. This, then, violates both free speech rights, as well as the right to due process.
  • In the famous Shreya Singhal case that is well known for the striking down of Section 66A of the IT Act, the scope of Section 69A and the Blocking Rules were also litigated before the Supreme Court.
    • Unfortunately, however, the Supreme Court missed an opportunity to guide the law in a pro-free speech direction, as it had with Section 66A: without engaging in any detailed analysis, the Court largely endorsed the legal regime, as it stood.
    • The Court only noted that every affected individual would retain the constitutional right to challenge a blocking order, through a writ petition before the High Court.

Way Forward:

  • Legally, the best case scenario would be to prohibit the government from being able to directly order intermediaries to block access to online information, except in narrowly-defined emergency cases, and to require it to go through court to do so, with an adequate opportunity for affected parties to defend themselves.
  • It is vitally important that blocking orders be made public, and that even under the current legal regime, affected parties be given the opportunity of a fair hearing before a blocking order is issued.
  • This process will also ensure that the blocking order is a reasoned one, and can be effectively challenged before a court, if need be. Long term, however, the hard work of contesting governmental impunity in cases of censorship, both in courts and outside, remains to be done.
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