Mini Projects, Mega Disaster

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To evade Central scrutiny, Karnataka splits and dresses up hydel projects as mini units that threaten to sever the only surviving link between the north and south Western Ghats

Jay Mazoomdaar, Independent Journalist

Ground reality The Maruthi project location where a 1.6-km tunnel is being constructed in the midst of pristine evergreen forests of the Western Ghats without permission
Ground reality The Maruthi project location where a 1.6-km tunnel is being constructed in the midst of pristine evergreen forests of the Western Ghats without permission
Photo: Sanjay Gubbi

INDIAN LAWS give the best protection to wilderness, on paper. Under the Forest Conservation Act (FCA), no forestland can be used for non-forestry purpose, such as roads, railways, dams or industries, without the State’s permission. Applications for land diversion are examined by the Forest Advisory Committee (FAC) of the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MOEF) and, if the region harbours wildlife, National Board for Wildlife (NBWL).

But if a project requires less than 5 hectares of forestland, the states have the power to decide. When it comes to generating hydro-electricity, no clearance is required under the Environment Protection Act (EPA) if the installed capacity is less than 25 MW. So in Karnataka, projects are being broken down by all possible means till the components appear small enough to escape the legal filter.

Nearly two-thirds of the lush Western Ghats rainforests lie in Karnataka, which hosts 20 percent of India’s elephant population. The state has an enviable record in conservation and supports five national parks and 21 sanctuaries. Ironically, it also suffers possibly the country’s worst man-elephant conflict in Hassan district. Yet, the state decided to come up with a 200 MW hydel power plant at the heart of this conflict zone in 2008.

The Gundia power plant required submergence of 754 hectares of thick evergreen forests and drew flak from all quarters. Then environment minister Jairam Ramesh famously said in 2009 that both Karnataka and the country could ill-afford the project. While the state remained adamant about the mega project, it seemed to have quickly learnt its lessons.

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While envisaging the Gundia plant, the Karnataka Renewable Energy Development Ltd also allotted 72 mini-hydel projects in the Western Ghats. Of these, 27 lie in the Sakleshpur region, which is the only link between Pushpagiri Wildlife Sanctuary in the south and Kudremukh National Park in the north and a hotbed of man-elephant conflict. So far, the Forest Department has cleared six out of these 27 projects.

To avoid scrutiny by the FAC and NBWL at the Centre, the land requirement of each project was kept below 5 hectares and the capacity below 25 MW. But what appear to be mini individual projects on paper are, in fact, parts of bigger projects on the ground. Moreover, to dress up these broken down projects as ‘mini’ — as details of two projects in Kagneri and Kanchanakumari reserved forests show — land required for paving access roads through forests was not factored into the proposals.

The result is potential devastation of the forest landscape with clusters of so-called mini projects coming up nearly in every valley of the Western Ghats in the state. Biodiversity loss apart, such proliferation will ruin the water systems of the rainforests. The elephants of Hassan, already squeezed for space, will be pushed further into conflict with people.

The High Court-appointed Karnataka Elephant Task Force (KETF) cautioned the court against the mini-hydel projects, saying: “From all available evidence, the location of these projects is at critical points of elephant movement, thereby if constructed, they will significantly reduce the quality of elephant habitat.”

THE STAKE 
Spread across six states, from Gujarat to Kerala along the western coast, the rainforests nestle 39 UNESCO World Heritage Sites and over 300 globally endangered species. The 1.6 lakh sq km of the Western Ghats covers around 5 percent of India’s land area but hosts one-fourth of its biodiversity, including at least 1,500 plant, 116 fish, 97 reptile, 94 amphibian, 37 butterfly, 19 bird and 14 mammal species that are not found anywhere else on earth. One of the four watersheds of India, the rainforests are the source of rivers such as Godavari, Krishna, Cauvery and Mandovi.

Once secure in the care of native tribal communities, the lush forests were lopped for timber, tea and coffee plantations since the middle of the 19th century. Ravaged for more than 100 years, a few surviving stretches of this fragmented wilderness have been secured under wildlife and forest laws since the 1970s. But nearly 90 percent of its unprotected territory continues to bear the brunt of development.

Last year, the Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel (WGEEP) designated the entire 160-km forest stretch as an ecologically sensitive area and recommended a three-tier protection mechanism for its different regions. The government sat on the report for nine months and refused to accept it when it was finally made public.

Karnataka has been sceptical about heightened protection of the middle range of the Western Ghats that runs through the state. It has opposed the UNESCO tag to 10 wildlife areas in the state, arguing that it would restrict developmental activities in the coastal districts. Despite objections from the WGEEP, it even went ahead with the construction of the Gundia hydel plant without waiting for statutory clearance from the Union ministry.

THE TRICK
In May 2008, Hassan’s then Deputy Conservator of Forests (DCF) KH Nagaraj sought clearances for two mini-hydel projects in Kagneri and Kanchanakumari reserved forests proposed by Maruthi Power Gen (India) Private Limited. In his recommendation, the DCF claimed that there were no rare, endangered or unique species of flora and fauna in the area.

On the contrary, the reserve forests host the tiger, elephant, leopard, lion-tailed macaque, Travancore flying squirrel, slender loris and Ceylon frogmouth among other endangered species. They are also home to critically endangered frog species, including the Gundia Indian Frog, which is found nowhere else in the world.

Moreover, the two projects — 18.90 MW Hongadahalla (4.18 hectares) and 19 MW Yedakumari (4.20 hectares) — were, in fact, parts of the same hydel plant on ground with a common powerhouse. “The central clearance process,” observed the KETF report submitted to the court earlier this month, “was avoided by disingenuously representing the two turbines as two independent projects so as to slip in below the 25 MW threshold for clearance.”

The Deputy Conservator of Forests, Hassan district, contradicts himself in two reports in two months, to support the power firm

However, based on the claims made by the project proponent and the DCF, the regional office of the MOEF cleared the projects in March 2009 as the land requirement in each was below 5 hectares and the capacity under 25 MW.

By November 2010, environmental NGOs and activists moved the Karnataka High Court against the development rush in the Western Ghats and sought quashing of 20 hydel projects coming up in the ecologically sensitive areas.

In April 2011, the HC stopped construction of all mini-hydel projects listed in the PIL, except the two Maruthi projects as the company falsely claimed that 70 percent of work was already completed. In July, the state government assured the court that it will not permit any more mini-hydel projects in the Western Ghats.

THE PLOT 
The two Maruthi projects continued till November 2011 when the Forest Department filed a case for 13 violations and the Hassan DCF recommended cancellation of the lease of forestland to the company. This February, the court stopped work after an inquiry by top forest officials confirmed a slew of irregularities:

• It was one project and not two as permitted
• The capacity of the project was over 25 MW, requiring approval under the EPA
• The area required was above 5 hectares, requiring clearance from New Delhi
• Deviations from the original plan submitted for approval
• Presence of endangered species, such as elephants, in the project site
• Construction of a 1.6-km tunnel without forest clearance

In March, the vigilance wing of the Forest Department pointed out further violations such as encroachment on forestland, construction of bridges and roads without clearance, and blocking natural streams with debris. The company, however, argued in the court that existing forest roads should not be calculated as part of the total land diversion required for the projects. Curiously, the state government counsel agreed that use of forest roads did not require any clearance even though all nonforestry activities need permission under Section 2 of the FCA as per orders in Working Plan 202/1995.

On the back foot, Maruthi was ready to dump the Yedakumari project. The Forest Department conducted yet another survey only to confirm that the Hongadahalla project could not be implemented within the proposed 4.18 hectares and the roads additionally accounted for more than 4 hectares of forestland. So, the Principal Secretary (Forests, Ecology and Environment) wrote to the Forest Department, permitting it to cancel Maruthi’s lease.

Instead, the Forest Department conducted yet another inspection in July and top forest officials of Hassan district reiterated the violations for the fourth time. The officials said that the forestland requirement for the Hongadahalla project alone was 10.6897 hectares, including 4.488 hectares for roads, and that the company had already encroached 6.5166 hectares of rich, evergreen forestland. Also, no permission was sought for putting up power transmission lines.

But when the company lawyers repeated their argument on excluding existing forest roads from the project plan, the government counsel, without any permission from the Forest Department, agreed to submit a report without taking into account the road area. If this contravention of the FCA was not enough, the Hassan DCF — a signatory of the July report — made another submission in August stating that the Hongadahalla project required only 4.18 hectares of forestland as originally proposed. It did not mention the roads, the encroachments, the dumping of debris, nothing.

THE TWIST 
On 4 September, Karnataka’s Principal Chief Conservator of Forests (PCCF) AK Varma wrote to the principal secretary, confirming the previously mentioned violations and some more. Yet, in the last hearing on 17 October, the government did not place the facts in court.

In his letter, the PCCF referred to a joint site inspection by the forest staff and the company on 18 August, 10 days before the Hassan DCF supported Maruthi’s claims in his submission before the court. Besides already noted violations, the inspection found that the company had expanded the existing 1-metre wide roads to 6 metres. The letter concluded that “a minimum area of 6.1239 hectares (excluding the area of already existing coupe roads) is required for establishment of 18.90 MW Hongadahalla Mini Hydel Project”.

Hassan DCF RN Lakshmana claimed that he was not aware of the PCCF’s letter. “The views of my seniors will supersede mine. I did not know the PCCF wrote such a letter,” he said, explaining that his August submission deviated from the July report because “the court has asked us not to consider the roads”. State PCCF Varma did not comment as he was on leave.

In its submission to the HC this month, the KETF has categorically pointed out that “the forest clearances granted to several mini-hydel projects were inappropriate” and recommended their immediate withdrawal and prosecution of the officers involved in providing such clearance “on the basis of misrepresentation”.

“The outcome of this case will impact all projects on forestland across the country. If use of existing coupe roads or digging tunnels don’t need permission anymore, the governments will lose several hundred crores annually and may have to return all the revenue collected as Net Present Value for diversion of forestland for such purposes in the past,” says Guruprasad Timmapur, wildlife conservationist, who has been following the case closely.

All eyes are on the state now for the stand it will take when the case comes up for hearing again on 7 November.

Jay Mazoomdaar is an Independent Journalist.
jaymazoomdaar@gmail.com

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