I recently read about Shyam Benegal’s acclaimed film, Well Done, Abba! The film is about a village well that was ‘stolen’ and how a father-daughter duo challenged the corrupt government machinery. However, such incidents are not rare in India. Take for example the mini-hydel project that is being built in the reserved forests of Kenchanakumari and Yedakumeri in Hassan district of Karnataka.
These reserved forests are a perfect rainforest habitat and home to tigers, elephants, hornbills, Travancore flying squirrel, Nilgiri marten and many other wildlife species protected under the country’s premier conservation law, the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972. The area even boasts of two frog species that are found nowhere else in the world: Gundia Indian frog and Kottigehara bush frog. The proponents of the hydel power project — Maruthi Power Gen (India) Limited — have been permitted to build two projects at the same location with the same survey numbers. They also claim to be constructing two projects. However, one project is ‘missing’. Inspired by Benegal’s film, I am tempted to file a police complaint since the power-starved state will be denied at least 20 MW of electricity if the second project is not built. Forest department records state that the company has been allowed to construct two power generation projects of 18.9 and 19.0 MW in survey numbers one and 16 of Yedakumeri Village in the Kenchanakumari and Kagneri Reserved Forests. The forestlands diverted for the projects are 4.18 hectares and 4.20 hectares respectively. However, there is only one weir, one power house and all other components required for a single power generation unit.
A detailed scrutiny of the project tells us the real story. According to the law, if a project needs above five hectares of forestland, then it’s referred to the Forest Advisory Committee (FAC), a legal setup of the ministry of forests and environment that scrutinises forestland diversions. This mini-hydel project requires about nine hectares of forestland and, so, to conveniently bypass the FAC inspection, it was split into ‘two projects’. Similarly, according to the law, any unit that will eventually produce more than 25 MW power has to undergo Environmental Impact Assessment and public hearing. In order to avoid this twin evaluation, the project investors divided the project into two parts: one of 18.9 MW and the other of 19 MW. Moreover, if a project goes above the 25 MW limit, then it is ineligible for all financial incentives provided by the State and the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change given to renewable energy initiatives. So to ensure that it gets the State subsidies, the proponents divided it into two on paper.
However, the truth is that these ‘green-energy’ projects are located in some of the most critical wildlife corridors, which are extremely fragile. The local authorities have also misled the central authorities by stating that no wildlife exists in this area and it is not an ecologically sensitive area. Ironically, the same authorities are now claiming that land from farmers should be acquired as they face severe conflict with elephants living in this area.
In a bizarre step, the Karnataka Rene-wable Energy Department has permitted 44 mini-hydel projects on the Nethravathi river in the Western Ghats of Karnataka. The river will not remain a river if its water is dammed and stored at 44 locations. A total of 72 similar run-of-the-river power generation projects have been sanctioned in the ecologically sensitive areas of Western Ghats of Karnataka.
There is no doubt that we need renewable energy. But if it comes at the cost of the ecology, we are staring at a disaster.
( Sanjay Gubbi is a wildlife biologist working in the Western Ghats of Karnataka )
The view expressed by the author are personal