Roaring round the year

Print edition : October 28, 2016

Jog Falls is a majestic sight when there is sufficient rainfall in the catchment areas or when the sluice gates of the Linganamakki dam are opened upstream. Photo: Vaidya

The Karnataka government has given the go-ahead to a project that aims to make Jog Falls perennial by pumping water back upstream. But the move has met with resistance from environmentalists.

EVERY year, more than 10 lakh tourists visit Jog Falls in the Western Ghats. The waterfall is on the Sharavathi river, which originates in Ambutheertha, a hill about 100 kilometres away. The river flows north through thick forests before taking a westward turn at Jog Falls, eventually joining the Arabian Sea after flowing for 128 km. At Jog, the river channels into four segments that plunge from a height of 253 metres, forming the waterfall. When Jog Falls is in its full splendour, that is, when a large amount of water is released from the Linganmakki dam upstream, the segments merge into one broad waterfall, inviting comparisons to Niagara Falls on the border between the United States and Canada.

For most of the year, the four separate segments, named Raja, Rani, Rocket and Roarer, can be discerned clearly. During the summer and winter months, Jog Falls reduces to a trickle. It is in its true splendour during the monsoon, particularly a bountiful one. This year, for instance, with a deficient monsoon, the volume of water released has been limited, but it is still a picturesque sight to behold as the waterfall cascades down the sheer cliff surrounded by the evergreen forests of the Western Ghats.

Tourists come from all parts of Karnataka and India to visit Jog Falls and get busy taking pictures and soaking in the sights since it is an ideal destination for a family getaway. Some daredevils sneak under a fence to crawl right up to the precipice from where the waterfall plunges to risk all for that one selfie that would sum up their visit. On the day that this correspondent was visiting, a group of tourists from Bijapur had laid out a mat near the entrance and were having mandakki, a north Karnataka snack made from puffed rice. A bunch of boys from a madrasa excitedly ran up to the railing from where the picture postcard sight of the waterfall greets them. A family from Goa that is on its way out grumbled among itself that the waterfall is “disappointing” and that they were expecting something akin to Niagara Falls.

Recirculation project

If the Karnataka government has its way, the waterfall may soon become perennial so that it can attract tourists through the year. The State government has given its nod to a foreign company for an ambitious water recirculation project that will pump water back up the falls so that Jog Falls can be seen in all its glory around the year. The move has not gone down well with environmentalists in the Western Ghats, who claim that this will harm the sensitive ecosystem of the region, which the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) has declared a World Heritage Site.

Sharing the details of the project with Frontline, Minister for Tourism, Information Technology and Bio-Technology Priyank Kharge said that the Karnataka Cabinet had given approval to NMC Healthcare, a United Arab Emirates (UAE)-based health care business group headed by B.R. Shetty, a businessman from coastal Karnataka, to go ahead with the project, subject to its getting approval from the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change and the National Green Tribunal.

“There has been a proposal for a project like this for more than 10 years now, but nobody had come forward earlier. At the Invest Karnataka Meet held in February, there was an expression of interest from B.R. Shetty. In a Cabinet meeting on May 4, it was decided that this project could be implemented,” Kharge said. “According to the detailed project report, the lease period will be 60 years, and the estimated cost is Rs.450 crore. It is not a commercial model, although there will be a small entry fee. The annual maintenance fee will also be met by the developer,” added the Minister. At the moment, there is only an entrance fee for vehicles that enter the Jog Falls viewing point.

Various departments of the government such as Energy, Revenue, Tourism, Panchayati Raj, Forest, and Law were subsequently consulted. “Each department has given its go-ahead with certain riders. The Forest Department, for instance, has expressed concern about the project’s proximity to the Sharavathi Wildlife Sanctuary and its possible impact,” said Kharge. Jog Falls is surrounded by the sanctuary which is home to the lion-tailed macaque.

There are also questions about the source of power to pump millions of litres of water up the Jog Falls through the year when Karnataka has a power shortage every year. That this move may garner support for the unscientific diversion of the perennial rivers in the Western Ghats is also a concern that has been raised by environmentalists.

Anup B. Prakash, a wildlife biologist based in Agumbe, a small town located on the fringes of the evergreen forests of the Western Ghats, is strongly opposed to idea of making Jog Falls perennial. He said: “Development is needed and with infrastructure development comes the inevitable destruction of ecology, but this is justified only in development projects that are pragmatic, useful, legal and those that try to minimise damage to ecology. The Jog Falls project seems impractical, utterly useless in many ways, is in a legal grey area and [might lead to] a wanton destruction of the sensitive ecology of the Western Ghats.”

Environmental questions

Prakash said there were certain species of flora and fauna that were endemic to the Western Ghats, particularly the area around Jog Falls, that would be threatened if the project were to go ahead. “The reproductive cycle of frogs like the Nyctibatrachus jog, also known as the Jog night frog, will also be affected. Myristica swamps, which are tropical freshwater swamps [found only in northern Karnataka and southern Kerala], will also be affected,” he added.

Parineeta Dandekar, Associate Coordinator, South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People, who has worked extensively on rivers in the Western Ghats, said: “It is hugely ironical that a dam [the Linganmakki dam] was built to stop the flow of a perennial river [for electricity generation] and now they want to build something to make Jog Falls perennial.”

A senior member of the Karnataka government who did not wish to be named expressed apprehensions over the real aim behind B.R. Shetty wanting to undertake this project. “It is still unclear as to why he wants to undertake this project at such a massive cost. While he says that he is motivated by patriotism, he is a businessman at the end of the day, so we need to be careful,” he said.

Questions have been raised about the Karnataka government’s decision to hand over a government hospital in Udupi to B.R. Shetty’s company so that it can be developed into a 400-bed multi-specialty hospital. Writing in, Akhila Vasan and Vijayakumar S. are harsh in their criticism of the government’s move. They write: “Despite evidence of the detrimental effects of this health care model, the Karnataka government seems determined to pursue public-private partnerships. Further, the proposed handing over of the Udupi government hospital does not fit the government’s prescription for such an arrangement. It is not located in a ‘backward’, ‘remote’ or ‘difficult to access’ region of the State, nor is it part of a poorly performing public health system.”

Earlier this year, there was also severe opposition to the handing over of a government art gallery in Bengaluru, the Venkatappa Art Gallery, to a private art foundation. With many government projects that involve the private sector running into severe opposition, there is a sense that the State government is not thinking through its policies clearly regarding the involvement of the private sector.