Another Dam Threat to the Western Ghats

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Graphic: Vikram Nongmaithem
Graphic: Vikram Nongmaithem

Subramanya was probably seven years old when he heard his father talk about a dam that was going to be built on a rivulet that flows through their village nestled among the Western Ghats in Karnataka. Twenty years later, the villagers of Kadegarahalli, near Sakleshpura town in Hassan district, are once again hearing of another dam project in the area — an “engineering marvel” that would bring drinking water to the most arid zones of the state. While that first dam was never built, Subramanya, now a young man with two children, remembers how the plan itself had provided the administration with an excuse not to connect any of the villages in the area with a proper road — after all, the villages were all going to be submerged under the reservoir waters. And now this owner of a 2-acre coffee plantation has reason to be worried by talk of the Yettinahole Diversion Project, recently approved by the Karnataka government.

The project envisions the diversion of 24 TMC (thousand million cubic feet; a measure of volume) of water from the Gundia river to Tumkur, Kolar, Chikballapur and Bangalore Rural districts. Gundia drains into the Kumaradhara river, which is a tributary of the Netravati. Rs 1,000 crore has been set aside in this year’s state budget for the project and the Karnataka Neeravari Nigam Limited, a public sector corporation that will implement the project. The idea is to build dams (weirs) on the eight streams, including Yettinahole, which flow into the Gundia river on the west side of the Western Ghats. Water from these dams will be pumped using electricity via tunnels drilled through the hills of the Western Ghats to three “delivery chambers”, and then to the final delivery chamber, which needs to be at an altitude of at least 1,300 m above sea level. From this chamber, the water will rush down a “gravity canal” for 250 km before reaching a 68-metre-deep reservoir to be built in Devaranyadurga near Tumkur town.

Damned Eight dams will be built in the Sakleshpura stretch of the Western Ghats
Damned Eight dams will be built in the Sakleshpura stretch of the Western Ghats. Photo: Mandeep Shetty

According to government estimates, this reservoir will have a storage capacity of 11 TMC and submerge 1,200 hectares, including two villages and 600 hectares of forestland. Water from the reservoir will be pumped to Chikballapur and Kolar districts through two canals, 80 km and 55 km long, respectively. The scheme entails supplying water to 198 tanks in Chikballapur district and 139 tanks in Kolar district, says a study by the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People, an NGO working on water-related issues.

However, in Mangalore, where the Netravati meets the sea, people fear that their source of drinking water will now go dry much before summer. “Since 2004, we have been protesting against all plans to divert water from the Netravati. We depend on the river for irrigation as well as drinking water, and any diversion of its water will worsen the water scarcity in these parts,” says Dinesh Holla, a Mangalore-based environmental activist.

The project report, accessed by lawyer-activist HA Kishore Kumar of the Malnad Janapara Horata Samiti, notes that the dams will have a catchment area of 176 sq km, without dwelling on the details of displacement or submergence. “Though the report talks of spending Rs 8,323 crore on building the dams, it does not mention the costs of resettlement and rehabilitation, which would exceed Rs 2,000 crore,” says Kumar, who belongs to one of the villages that might be affected by the project. “The report completely overlooks the human and ecological costs of the project. Moreover, by the time the project is completed, the actual cost could well be three times the estimates.”

Kumar points out that the project will not be able to yield more than 8 TMC of water every year. “That becomes clear when you read the report closely. The proponents told the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) that the project is meant for drinking water, but the report talks of providing water for irrigation,” he says. “Not only will this project fail to provide drinking water to central Karnataka, it will deprive the Mangalore region of drinking water and also destroy the Western Ghats in the process. The government is pitting people of one region against those from another.”

According to the project report, 107 hectares of forests in the Western Ghats will have to be burned down to make way for the canals. The delivery chambers and pumping stations will also need to be built in forested areas. The ecological implications are staggering.

The Sakleshpura stretch of the Western Ghats was identified as an ‘Ecologically Sensitive Zone 1’ (a region of the highest sensitivity) by the MoEF-appointed Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel headed by ecologist Madhav Gadgil. According to a study by the Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru, these forests are home to 119 tree species, 63 shrubs and climbers, 57 herbs and 44 species of butterflies, four dragon and damsel flies, 23 species of amphibians (including the threatened Gundia Indian Frog), 32 reptiles and 91 birds, besides the lion-tailed macaque, Slender Loris, Indian Gaur, elephants and even a handful of tigers.

These ecological concerns, however, have not deterred successive governments in Karnataka from proposing ambitious dam-based projects in the region. For instance, a plan to set up a hydroelectric project on the Gundia river was on the anvil for three decades before it was finally abandoned in 2009 when the MoEF refused to approve it. But a slew of smaller mini-hydel projects have done considerable damage to the Western Ghats (Mini Scams Dot the Cauvery by Imran Khan, 30 March).

“Go to any village around here. On most of these hills, you will find survey stones of various projects. The people have been living under the shadow of various proposed dams, though most haven’t been built yet,” says Dharme Gowda, 47, of Alehalli, one of the last villages in the area that can be reached by a jeep. From there, it takes a 3-km hike through slushy forest paths to get to Kadegarahalli, where the adverse impact of development projects is more evident.

Hoovamma, 34, points to the plots of agricultural land left fallow by her neighbours out of fear that elephant herds would trample the crops. Indeed, there have been several such incidents in recent months, with the Varahi hydropower project having led to the submergence of forested areas near Chikmagalur, which used to serve as a natural corridor for the elephants. “When the elephants lost the corridor, they started venturing into these low-lying lands with human habitations, which they used to avoid earlier,” explains Devraj, a local coffee plantation owner. “These projects always create more problems than they solve.”

The Yettinahole Diversion Project is a variation of an earlier proposal that had failed to take off. In a controversial report in 2001, GS Paramasivaiah, an engineer who had been appointed by the Karnataka government, had recommended that the entire rainwater that flows through the Netravati river should be diverted to the nine districts of ‘Bayalu Seeme’ — the arid parts of Karnataka, where more than 2 crore people live. His plan envisaged 37 small dams and a 500-km-long network of two “garland canals”, along the west face of the Western Ghats, besides the digging of tanks and reservoirs in several villages of central Karnataka.

Due to widespread opposition by the people of Dakshina Kannada district to the Netravati River Diversion Project, the government shelved that project and later proposed the ‘Yettinahole Diversion Project’. Yettinahole, whose waters flow through the Gundia and then the Kumaradhara rivers into the Netravati, was an unfamiliar name to the people of Dakshina Kannada. Later, as the campaigners tried to bring in public awareness that the project will divert what is Netravati waters, the project name was re-rechristened ‘Scheme for Diversion of Flood Water from Sakleshpura (West) to Kolar/Chikballapur (East)’ to mislead the coastal people that the river diversion project is limited to Sakleshpura taluk.

Engineer Paramasivaiah, who still holds some influence in political circles, believes that the Yettinahole Diversion Project will manage to divert only 8 TMC of water, instead of the proposed 24 TMC. Some local activists fear there is a possibility of Paramasivaiah’s earlier plan being revived. “The Yettinahole Diversion Project, by itself, will fail to deliver what it promises,” says activist Holla. “That will become the perfect excuse for the government to push for a project to divert water from the entire Netravati river.”

Indeed, the CPM in Karnataka has already demanded the implementation of the Paramasivaiah report. “The Yettinahole project is inadequate for solving the drinking water problem in the arid parts of Karnataka,” says CPM state secretary GV Srirama Reddy. “(Union Minister for Oil and Gas) Veerappa Moily is pushing the project despite knowing this.”

Moily is a vocal proponent of the Yettinahole project, as it is one of the promises he made to the people in his constituency of Chikballapur. Former CM and BJP leader Sadananda Gowda also supports the project. “Both the BJP and the Congress are trying to gain political mileage by supporting the Yettinahole project,” says Reddy. “But implementing the Paramasivaiah report will not cause as much environmental damage as is being made out. It does not envisage diversion of the river, but only of the excess rain water that it carries.”

Meanwhile, Hoovamma is trying to bring her land records up to date (the land is currently in her deceased father’s name) before the land survey for the Yettinahole project begins and the people to be displaced are identified. Subramanya, on the other hand, insists that he won’t leave his house, come hell or high water.

vishnu@tehelka.com

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