Dr Sudhirendar Sharma

"It is perhaps our last chance to save the river Kali,'' says environmentalist Pandurang Hegde. Announcing the launch of a peoples' campaign to save the severely stressed and widely manipulated river in Bangalore recently, the seasoned campaigner pointed out the need to stop the disposal of liquid effluents of a paper mill and to avoid building of 7th dam on the river.

With alleged abduction of the two local activists by the henchmen of the mill owner and the local politician, the battle lines for the peoples' campaign against further manipulation of the Kali seems to have been drawn. Though the activists were later released, it became apparent that vested interests are hands-in-glove with powers that be.

"No other river in the country has been under as much ecological stress as Kali, " contends Hegde. Rightfully so, as the river is home to six hydel projects and the notorious Kaiga Nuclear Power Project. Thanks to the large obstructions along its course, the Kali flows uninterrupted for just about 18 kilometres along its 184 Km course in the Western Ghats

Once the proposed 7th dam comes up at Mavalangi, downstream of the first reservoir at Supa, the river will cease to flow. Even today, the levels of storage in the reservoir affect the flow in the river. For instance, the water from the Supa reservoir is released only to sustain the desired level of water for peak-hour production of power at the subsequent hydel installations downstream.

With rainfall pattern been erratic in the past few years, such steps have been rather necessitated. In effect, power generation at all the hydel projects along Kali has been severely affected, draining the economy of the state in the process. An official of the Karnataka Power Corporation (KPC) questions government's move at building yet another hydel project under such conditions.

But the government is bent upon impounding the waters of Kali yet again to enhance the installed capacity of 1500 MW, however, by just another 18 MW. Once completed, the joint venture between the KPC and a private player the Murdeshwar Power Corporation, will produce power at an incredible high cost of Rs 11 crore per MW against Rs 0.7 crore per MW by the KPC.

The apparent question about producing power at 15 times the prevailing cost remains unanswered. Clearly, there is a hidden plan to siphon off profits from the proposed investment of Rs 200 crore at the Mavalangi dam. However, villages like Barade will continue to grope in darkness. Says Shaba, a local resident, "If six projects could not get us electricity we doubt if seventh will!" Ironically, the total electricity requirement in Uttar Kanara is a meagre 17 MW.

Originating at Kushavali, on the border of Karnataka and Goa, the Kali drives its name from the dark colour of its managese-rich waters. The river meanders through the unique biodiversity of the Western Ghats along its short course of 184 kilometres in the Uttar Kanara district of Karnataka before joining the Arabian Sea at the strategically important port-town of Karawar.

The river is the lifeline to some 4 crore people in the district and supports livelihoods of tens of thousands of people including fishermen on the coast of Karwar. Among other fauna, the Kali offers a perfect natural corridor for wild elephants and black panthers. Once completed, the proposed dam will not only submerge the corridor but 110 hectares of lush green forest too.

However, the authorities contend that no forest areas will be submerged. Rafting along the course of the river till the proposed site is revelation enough that nothing but rich forest and a unique biodiversity stand to lose existence in the process. Already, the six projects on the river have submerged over 32,000 acres of forests in the region.

In addition to the proposed hydel project, the river is threatened by the continued discharge of untreated effluents from the West Coast Paper Mill at Dandeli. Since the flow in the river has been restrained on account of dams and diversions along its course, the farming and the fishing communities have felt the impact of accumulated pollutants in the river.

Many farms irrigated with the Kali waters near Dandeli get layers of paper pulp upon drying. Farmers have little clue as all attempts at getting an audience from the authorities have gone unnoticed. So agitated are the farmers and people living around the paper mill that they have threatened to block all the pipes that discharge untreated effluents into the river.

Kali might be a lesser-known river than the famous Cauvery and Krishna in Karnataka but is no less significant in terms of the power get generates, the contribution it makes to the livelihoods security of people and the ecosystems it sustains in the Western Ghats. No other river as short as the Kali would have contributed as much.

Researchers have confirmed that this short west flowing river, whose farthest point by crow flight along its course is no more than 32 kilometres from the sea, cannot withstand any more external pressures, both to fulfil its ecological functions as also to ensure livelihoods security to people. However, current developments along the river may eventually choke and dry the annual flow of 9,000 million cubic metres in the Kali. "Only through such misadventures can the mega-project of river interlinking be justified,'' argues Hegde.

Dr Sudhirendar Sharma is a water expert and a development analyst attached to the Delhi-based the Ecological Foundation. He can be reached at sudhirendar@vsnl.net