Another dam, another row

Published : May 19, 2006 00:00 IST

A private company makes a third bid for a mini-hydel project in an ecologically sensitive area on the Kali river.

BY RAVI SHARMA recently in Dandeli

AFTER two unsuccessful attempts to set up a mini-hydel project on the Kali river between Dandeli town, 480 kilometres from Bangalore, and the Supa dam upstream, the Murdeshwar Power Corporation Limited (MPCL) has submitted another proposal for the generation of 18 megawatt (MW) of power. The earlier proposals were found to contravene the provisions of the Forest (Conservation) Act (FCA).

The latest proposal is likely to submerge 57.51 hectares (ha) of moist deciduous forest in the Western Ghats. The five existing dams on the Kali, which originates in Uttara Kannada district, have submerged 20,513 ha of virgin forest and collectively help generate 1,225 MW through four State-owned power stations. The proposed MPCL project is a stone's throw from the Anashi National Park and the Dandeli Wildlife Sanctuary and its submergence zone is a natural corridor to animals such as the panther, the elephant, the tiger, the sloth bear, the bison and the scaly anteater. The dam would be just 2 km from the Supa dam and powerhouse, which is a prohibited place under a government order issued in 1977. The project will also submerge the Kali's rapids and with it the only place for white-water rafting in southern India.

The MPCL is confident of getting the required clearances this time. Both the Deputy Conservator of Forests (Haliyal division) and the Conservator of Forests (Kanara circle), under whose jurisdiction the project falls, have given favourable reports on the company's request, under the provisions of the FCA, to divert forest land and impound the waters of the river less than 3 km from the Supa reservoir. The company plans to construct a three-metre-high weir for the purpose 5 km upstream of Maulingi, where it planned to build a dam in its earlier proposal, and direct the water through a 2 km horseshoe-shaped tunnel cut through the rock face to the penstocks and turbines.

Principal Chief Conservator of Forests (PCCF) R.M. Ray has, on the basis of the forest officials' report, called the parties concerned for a discussion and asked for a resurvey of the project area to determine, among other things, the water spread and the extent of submersion of private land.

In January 2002 and again in February 2004, the then PCCF, S.N. Rai, had rejected MPCL's proposals for a mini-hydel project from the forestry point of view. He held that the project would lead to the submergence of valuable flora and fauna; that it was against the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests' (MoEF) stipulation, imposed in May 1987 in the context of the Kodisalli power project, that "no further projects involving diversion of forest land would be undertaken on Kali nadi or its tributaries"; that it could be a frightening proposition from the seismic point of view since the area had several major reservoirs and an atomic thermal power plant in a radius of less than 20 km; and that it would not be prudent for the government "to grant access and hold of land and a prime water body to a private company".

Rai concluded that according permission may "amount to demolition of a national monument of heritage value to sell its bricks, and [be accompanied by] ecological and aesthetic impairment". Incidentally, MPCL is fighting a case in the Karnataka High Court for the alleged encroachment of an island off the Karnataka coast, which is shown as forest land in government records. The company faces charges of the violation of the FCA and the Coastal Regulation Zone notification.

The Deputy Conservator of Forests (Haliyal division) had in his report of February 2003 held that the project was "undesirable from the forestry point of view", citing, among other things, the submergence and destruction of "very good thickly wooded forest land" and "very rich wildlife"; the stopping of elephants' movement on the tiny islands; the killing of aquatic life unique to the river; and the end of white water rafting.

The same officer, in his report dated November 24, 2005, while stating that "a bare minimum" of 57.51 ha of forest land was required, recommended "diversion of forest land for the purpose of [the] mini hydel project". Under MPCL's second proposal 210 ha would have been affected.

Records show that the Conservator of Forests also had a change of mind. The incumbent in 2003 stated in a letter, dated February 26, to the PCCF that the "project may be rejected from the forestry point of view". The present incumbent, G. Satish, in a letter dated December 12, 2005, stated that "technically it appears to be a viable project". Under "specific recommendations", Satish cites the fact that the extent of forest land has been reduced considerably by MPCL and includes the line "the conditions imposed by the [Karnataka] government vide G.O. No. FFD/242/FGL/83 dated 19-5-1987 need to be considered".

The G.O. pertains to the Karnataka government's own orders (relating to the clearance of the Kodisalli project) that "no further projects involving diversion of forest land will be undertaken on Kali nadi and its tributaries". MPCL maintained that since less than 100 ha of land would be submerged, the above G.O. would not apply.

Interestingly, R.M. Ray, when he was the Chief Wildlife Warden in February 2004, had, in response to a question from the government, proposed that mini-hydel projects "as a matter of policy should not be permitted in the Western Ghats" since they accentuated the fragmentation (honey combing) and shrinking of the wilderness, causing obstruction to their migratory routes and pathways, thereby drastically reducing animal and bird populations even to the state of extinction.

But communications sent by the State government to the Forest Department seemed to indicate its keenness for clearance to the project. In a letter dated April 9, 2001, the then Deputy Conservator of Forests (Haliyal) asked the joint managing director, MPCL, to submit at the earliest a proposal for the Dandeli mini-hydel project since his office was "receiving pressing reminders from the government and higher authorities". The Principal Secretary (Forests, Environment and Ecology) also wrote to the PCCF, reminding him that the government had promised to help investors secure clearances for the project.

The Rs.180-crore mini-hydel project was cleared "in principle" as part of a bunch of proposals that had been put on the fast track during the much-touted June 2000 Global Investors Meet (GIM). The government had specified that Karnataka Power Transmission Company Limited, the State-owned electricity supply and distribution company, would enter into an agreement with MPCL to purchase power and/or wheeling and banking of power, subject to the condition that the company obtained the necessary environmental clearance from the MoEF. The Forest Department's go-ahead is the first step for obtaining MoEF clearance.

But MPCL's proposal was shot down in December 2001 itself when the Conservator of Forests noted in his report to the PCCF that since the MoEF had directed that "no more proposals should be approved on the Kali" and also in the light of the depletion of flora and fauna "the mini-hydel proposal may kindly be rejected from the forestry point of view". The Deputy Conservator had also held this view.

From the company's point of view, the "run of the river" project is a veritable cash cow as water will always be available thanks to the Supa dam. (Costs have come down as the size of the dam has been reduced considerably since the project was first envisaged.) It contends that the spread of water after the construction of the dam would hardly exceed the flood level of the Supa dam.

It also disagrees with the Forest Department's contention that 57.51 ha of land would be submerged by the construction of the diversion structure and claims that the department refuses to take into account the river-course submergence and the extent of land in the islands on the river's course. The company's stand is that after the construction of the Supa dam the islands have shrunk to only 5 ha and only 24 ha of forest land will be effected.

Critics of the project say that permitting a mini-hydel project in the forests goes against the Karnataka government's wilderness tourism policy, which seeks to encourage non-consumptive use of forests. The project would also affect the handful of private ecotourism resorts on the shoreline and a few agriculturalists. More than the land they stand to lose, resort owners are worried about the consequences the dam will have on the 14-km stretch of river where white-water rafting is possible. Since its introduction in 1999, rafting has become highly popular with both domestic and international tourists. Last year alone, nearly 4,000 tourists went river rafting on the Kali. Without rafting, these resorts could end up as just another resort. The diversion of the river would mean that the river's rapids would end up at best in a lake or at worst the river bed would dry up.

It is not just private resort owners who are worried. Vinay Luthra, Managing Director of the State government-owned Jungle Lodges and Resorts, is also worried. Vinay Luthra, Managing Director, said that without white-water rafting, his organisation's units at Dandeli, Karwar and Anshi would become unviable. He said that if the proposal came through, it would "severely retard the nascent ecotourism industry in Uttara Kannada".

Similar views were expressed by L. Shanthakumari, Principal Secretary, Information, Tourism and Youth Services. In a letter to the Chief Secretary, Shanthakumari said the ecotourism industry located in and around the Kali river at Dandeli provided jobs to 1,500 members of the local community, a substantially larger number of jobs than the 60 that MPCL's mini-hydel project promised to create.

Meanwhile, the company claims that the rapids will not be affected since water will be let off for rafting. It also says that the normal flows of the Kali will not be affected. Says a company engineer: "We shall utilise the water for our power house only when power generation is undertaken at Supa." But not many are convinced.

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