Not many Bengaluru citizens are aware of the damage that mini hydel projects are causing to the city’s water supply. A string of projects cleared by the Karnataka Renewable Energy Development Ltd (KREDL) has not only ruined the ecology of some of the most sensitive areas in the state, but also threatens to undermine the water supply from the Cauvery river to the city. Now, armed with the recent Karnataka High Court judgment on the ban of mini hydel projects in the Western Ghats, activists want to challenge KREDL’s decision to allot 74 such projects in the Cauvery basin.
It was recently reported that “following the drastic fall in the water level in the Shiva Balancing Reservoir, the Bangalore Water Supply and Sewerage Board has asked the Karnataka Power Transmission Corporation Ltd (KPTCL) and Karnataka Power Corporation Ltd (KPCL) to stop power generation from four mini hydel projects in the Cauvery basin at least till May”. These are located at Madhavamantri, Satyagala, Shiva Anicut and Shimsha.
However, KREDL has allotted 74 mini hydel projects in the Cauvery basin, apart from the 24 projects that have already been commissioned, most of them downstream Krishnaraja Sagar Dam. Some of them are downstream from the Shiva Anicut from where water supply is routed to the capital city.
“Besides the decrease in water availability, water stored by several mini hydel projects also increases the evapo-transpiration rate of water, particularly in the summer,” says Parineeta Deshpande-Dandekar of the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People, an informal collective of organisations and individuals working on water-related issues. “These projects also hold back water, critically affecting water supply cycles to Bengaluru and other towns and villages. Last year, similar conditions had occurred in Mangalore where water levels in the Thumbe Dam fell to alarming levels due to mini hydel projects hoarding up water in the upstream.”
Apart from the issue of drinking water, several of these projects are located close to the Cauvery Wildlife Sanctuary. In fact, the 24.75 MW Pioneer Genco project shares a border with the sanctuary. Many of the mini hydel projects are inside reserve forests, and some of them, such as Satyagala and Limbavalli, are known to be impeding the movement of elephants; leading to more human-elephant conflicts. Activists are a puzzled lot, wondering how the Forest Department gave the nod for the projects.
Due to their cumulative impact on ecology, the HC has halted construction of any such projects in the Western Ghats. Responding to a PIL filed by Prashant Yavagal and Western Ghats Environment Forums on 27 February, the HC cancelled 12 such projects, as they were located in the ecologically sensitive zones. And the HC has asked the state not to allot any more projects in the Western Ghats.
Under the law, private players are allowed to build and operate mini hydel projects that have a capacity of less than 25 MW. In order to circumvent the stringent law, private firms split one big project into different mini ones. By doing this, they also escape the mandatory Environmental Clearance, Environment Impact Assessment or Public Hearing, which are compulsory for large power projects.
There is also an added economic benefit for the private players in splitting the projects. Under the subsidies granted to mini hydel projects, the government purchases power at the rate of Rs 3.40; however, if it is a mega project, then it is bought at just Rs 2.30. Many mini hydel projects have been purposefully split to show them as below 25 MW to get a higher power tariff. “The difference is causing a loss of Rs 300-400 crore to the state government every year,” says Sanjay Gubbi, a wildlife scientist with the Nature Conservation Foundation. “Consumers also end up paying higher tariffs due to this scam.”
“While permitting mini hydel projects in the ecologically sensitive Western Ghats, officials hid the fact that there are rare and endangered species in the area,” he adds.
Many of the officers TEHELKA spoke to refused to speak on this subject. After initially avoiding our calls, KREDL Managing Director MB Dyaberi said, he doesn’t want to comment on the issue.