Frontline Volume 20 - Issue 12, June 07 - 20, 2003
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ENVIRONMENT

Dam vs forest in Dandeli

RAVI SHARMA
in Dandeli

An unspoilt stretch of forest in Karnataka faces the danger of being laid waste by skewed development.

RAVI SHARMA

An area near the proposed hydel project, which will be submerged by the backwaters of the dam.

THE district of Uttara Kannada is home to some of the most pristine forests in Karnataka and all of the Western Ghats. But if the independent power producer Murdeshwar Power Corporation (MPC) has its way, an area of 210 hectares, including evergreen and semi-evergreen forests, will be submerged for the sake of the Rs.180-crore Dandeli Mini Hydel Power Project. Granted to the MPC by the S.M. Krishna government in 2000 during a Global Investors' Meet, the project involves damming by means of a 19-metre-high dam the last free-flowing stretch of the Kali river at Moulangi to generate 18 MW of power.

The dam will spell the end of the floss and rapids that once marked the fast-flowing Kali. Over the years, the river has been dammed for the sake of power projects at four points - at Supa, Bommanahalli, Kodsalli and Kadra. Dams have come up also on two of its tributaries, namely, the Upper Kaneri and the Tattihalla. In all these instances, the backwaters have killed most of the rapids. The latest project, proposed between Ganeshgudi and Dandeli, will wipe out the remaining rapids.

The MPC, which has been pushing for Forest Department, environmental and pollution control clearances, has found an ally in the State government, which is set to clear the project, overruling the Forest Department's reservations. According to sources in the Department, the Haliyal Deputy Conservator of Forests (DCF), the Conservator of Forests (Kanara Circle) under whose jurisdiction the project area falls, and the Principal Chief Conservator of Forests (PCCF), have opposed the project. The Department feels that the ecological damage that will be caused to the biodiversity-rich forests and its ecosystems by the project will outstrip the benefits.

The government is not bound to heed the Forest Department's advice, but the text will have to be sent in the original form to the Government of India, in order to enable it to look into all the questions before issuing a no objection certificate. Only then can the State government sanction the project.

A Karnataka Government Order (No. FFD 242 FGL 83, Bangalore, dated May 19, 1987) relating to the release of forest land for the Kodsalli dam, another one on the Kali, had stated that "no further projects involving diversion of forests will be undertaken on Kali or its tributaries". The construction of the Kodsalli dam and powerhouse in the late 1980s left 1,293 ha of forest land submerged.

According to statements from environmentalists and reports prepared by the Forest Department, the project will leave submerged 210 ha of virgin forest land where teak, sissum, honne, heddi, nandi, dhaman, kalam, jamba, nelli, bamboo and matti grow. The location of the project within a 10-km radius of the Dandeli Wildlife Sanctuary and the Anashi National Park will have a serious impact on fauna, mainly the species of black panther, bear, bison, elephant, deer, scaly anteater and tiger. It will also restrict the extent of the established elephant corridors. The aquatic biodiversity of the Kali will be seriously affected.

In December 2001, the Conservator of Forests (Kanara Circle) wrote to the government thus: "In view of the Government of India direction that no more proposals [are] to be approved on the Kali river and its tributaries and in [the] light of the DCF's report regarding depletion of valuable flora and fauna, I have personally inspected the area and agree with the DCF's report. The proposal may kindly be rejected from the forestry point of view."


According to the latest report submitted in February 2003 by the DCF after surveying the area, elephants frequent the islands along the course of the river. The pachyderms stay there for lengthy periods, feeding on reeds. The report added: "These elephants cross the river from Karwar Division forests into the Haliyal Division forests. The movement is basically [in] search [of] good quality food and water. The submergence of this area would cause a barrier to animals, in particular elephants' migration, leading to man-animal conflicts. Already the area is experiencing a very high level of man-animal conflicts." A forest official pointed out that the area in question constitutes the last remaining elephant corridor in the Kali basin.

Besides discussing the loss of evergreen and semi-green trees, shrubs and climbers, some of medicinal value, the report talks of the reservoir raising the level of the water table, which could prove detrimental to dry deciduous forests. A forest officer said: "Valuable deciduous timber species such as teak, sissum, nandi, honne, matti and heddi are vulnerable to a high water table. These will perish, in the process changing the nature of the vegetation."

Many environmentalists say that contrary to the MPC's claims, it is not a run-of-the-river project and that the damming will create a backwater of around 8 km upstream. An irrigation engineer said: "While it is true that even a run-of-the-river project needs a pick-up dam and there will be some submersion along the course of the river, here the MPC has proposed a sizable dam. Its size will ensure the creation of a backwater. The river will not run."

The creation of such a backwater will overwhelm south India's only regular rapids, which facilitate white-water rafting. The State has been trying to promote the adventure and eco-tourism potential of the area. Some 16,000 tourists (many of them specifically seeking to ride the rapids) visited the handful of resorts located around the area of the proposed dam in 2002-2003. Tens of thousands of other eco-tourists also come calling.

Environmental experts question the rationale behind the plan to set up a project to generate a meagre 18 MW from a river that already supports a generating capacity of 1,225 MW, involving power projects established and operated by the state-run Karnataka Power Corporation (KPC). With the submergence area pegged at 210 ha by the Forest Department, 11.67 ha will be exploited for each MW that is to be generated.

The Karnataka State Pollution Control Board (KSPCB), which has followed the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) reports and conducted what some environmental groups call largely farcical public hearings, is yet to give a `consent for establishment' / `no objection certificate'. The KSPCB is reported to be concerned with the issues of solid waste contamination, waste water (water quality), air and noise pollution.

According to an official of the board, the issue was discussed by the technical advisory committee (TAC) on May 17. The MPC was given the opportunity to clarify issues. The board's NOC is a prerequisite for the MPC to seek Central clearance. The TAC will have to look into any objection relating to pollution and environment norms that are raised during public hearings. B. Ramaiah, member-secretary of the KSPCB, said that the TAC had asked for more details from the MPC.

Besides the Forest Department and the KSPCB, the project will need clearance at the State and Central levels from authorities concerned with the environment. They are looking into issues of damage to soil, flora and fauna, and so on.

The Dandeli Project has generated controversy right from the time it was mooted. The project was originally a part of Stage II of the Kali Hydro-Electric Project. But it could not be implemented by the KPC owing to paucity of funds. Proposals made later were rejected under forest conservation laws, which had come into force by then. The MPC finally convinced the government to allow it to make a proposal, with the assurance that the project would be downsized to minimise environmental effects.

In 2000, the MPC had an EIA done by the international consulting firm Ernst and Young. But some environmentalists alleged that the EIA report was a mere adaptation of the Rapid Environment Impact Assessment relating to the Tattihalla Augmentation Scheme (TAS) prepared by the Institute for Catchment Studies and Environmental Management, Bangalore. However, the KSPCB conducted the statutory environmental public hearing in August 2000 based on the Ernst and Young report. Ultimately, the MPC was asked to get another EIA done.

Another EIA report that was prepared in October 2000 by the Tata Energy Research Institute (TERI) was also found to be defective. It did not stand the scrutiny of environmentalists at a public meeting that was called at Dandeli. Leo Saldhana of the Environment Support Group said: "TERI claimed that their study was carried out over a period of one month utilising 375 mandays (September to October 2000), thus suggesting that 15 people had worked for a period of 25 days. EIAs of projects in biodiversity-rich and inaccessible forests require detailed and repeated observations over different seasons so that reasonably accurate predictions of the adverse impacts of the project can be arrived at. Considering that the period was September to October, when rain lashes this high- rainfall region, it is difficult to access the region, let alone do any study."

TERI was asked to do another study, and this was submitted in 2002. The MPC has made a few modifications in its latest proposal. These include reducing the dam's full reservoir level by one metre and the pegging of power generation at 18 MW. Raviraj Hegde, Chief Engineer (Electrical), MPC explained: "The total area that will be submerged is around 100 ha. Partly forest (around 85 ha), partly revenue land."

In a letter (dated May 8, 2002) addressed to the State Minister for Forests and Environment, the MPC discounted the Forest Department's calculation of the total area of the course of the river and of the islands that will be submerged. The letter said: "The islands in the river course itself have been indicated as 34 ha based on the previous topo sheet prepared in the year 1908, whereas in reality the area of islands in the river course after implementation of Supa project is only around 5 ha." But while it is true that the larger islands have eroded because of the controlled release of water from Supa, the total river course that will be submerged remains unchanged; it has expanded by an extent of 2 ha owing to reduced water levels in the river in December and January. A forest officer said: "Since the Kali runs through the reserve forest, the river course is also a forest area. It is not one river but many channels moving between the forests. All this will be submerged."

According to the Haliyal DCF's latest report, the total area of the river's course that will be submerged is 123.71 ha. The area under various islands is 12.31 ha.

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