Another patch of the Western Ghats has caught the Karnataka Government’s fancy. In a bid to feed a state hungry for power, the Karnataka Power Corporation Ltd (KPCL) has proposed a 400 MW Hydroelectric Power Project in the fertile Malnad region of the Western Ghats.

KPCL’s plan to harvest power from the Gundia river that runs through the Hassan and Dakshin Kannada districts has been criticised by environmentalists, local farmers and even the Union Minister of State for Environment, Jairam Ramesh. The State Government however, insists that this is the only way to meet Karnataka’s power deficit.

THe Expert Appraisal Committee at the project site flanked by local farmers, MJHS members and three memebrs of KPCL.

“Karnataka’s energy situation is one of shortage. The demand far exceeds the supply,” says S M Jaamdar, Managing Director, KPCL. He adds, “The government suddenly woke up (to this) last year. So we have now started four or five huge schemes.” The Gundia Hydroelectric Project (GHEP) is one of the schemes that the end of the government’s slumber seems to have led to. A close look at the project brings to light several discrepancies, suggesting that the KPCL slept through, at least concerns of the environmental impact of the project.

The Gundia River is a tributary of the Kumaradhara River, (which in turn is a tributary of the Nethravathi River) formed by a number of small streams. It is these streams that KPCL would like to utilise for power generation. A Detailed Project Report (DPR) shows two phases to the implementation of the project. The 1st phase consists of weirs across four streams— Yettinahole, Kerihole and Bettakumbri— and a storage dam (90.50m in height)across the Hongadahalla stream and a balancing reservoir (62m in height) across the Bettakumbri. The streams located in the upper reaches of Gundia, are the main source of water for the Kaginahara Reserve Forest and Kempahole Reserve Forest and a number of villages downstream.

Before proceeding, the project must be submitted to the scrutiny of the MoEF’s Expert Appraisal Committee for River Valley and Hydroelectric Projects (EAC), for environmental clearance. As a mega dam, GHEP falls under Category ‘A’ project (greater than 50 MW). According to the EIA Notification (2006) Category ‘A’ projects must be go through scoping; the process by which the EAC will determine detailed terms of reference addressing all relevant environmental concerns that will form the basis of the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) that the project proponents prepare.

The EAC however appears to have had no role in shaping the EIA report produced by the Institute for Catchment Studies and Environment Management (ICSEM), Bangalore for the first phase of the project. “We haven’t come across any documents that list out the terms of reference set by the Expert Committee for the EIA report,” says Niren Jain, Coordinator of the Kudremukh Wildlife Foundation (KWF). The EIA report came out in 2008 , and it first went to the EAC for consideration on the 21st November that year.

In a letter to the Deputy Commissioner of Dakshina Kannada district, and a memorandum to the EAC, Jain contends that this lapse in procedure makes the EIA null and void.

EIA report full of holes

Even if the report is deemed legal, its contents according to Jain cannot be validated. The report states the need for 993.26 ha of land of which 774.26 ha is forestland— 456.04 ha to be submerged and 285 ha for ‘sitting of the construction equipment, storage of construction material, rock disposal, widening of existing roads and construction of new project roads.’ At the 31st meeting of the EAC held in October this year in New Delhi, KPCL’s Jaamdhar claimed that the report had a few errors. He revised the land figures submitted in it.

The required land increased to 1041.64 ha, but inexplicably the total forest area was reduced to 275.56 ha. Of this, according to the amended numbers, only 50.54 ha of forestland would be submerged along with 235.75 ha of private lands and 447.35 ha of revenue land. The minutes of the meeting indicate that KPCL could not explain how the required land for the project was reclassified or the exact state of the revenue lands.

However on a visit to the project site on December 5, 2009, a sub -committee of the EAC, headed by Chairman Devendra Pandey (a former IFS officer) pointed out that private lands, plantations and revenue lands would be considered forests if they comprised thick vegetation (as per the Supreme Court ruling in the Godavarman case) and would therefore come under the purview of the Forest Conservation Act. The EAC further directed KPCL to clarify exact status of the lands that would be submerged.

This is a small victory, according to H.A. Kishore Kumar, a lawyer and plantation owner from the Hongadhalla village one of 18 villages along the streams that will be diverted. Kumar is convenor of the Malenadu Janapara Horata Samithi (MJHS), a group from Hassan opposing the project. Members of MJHS allege lack of transparency in the entire project, since its inception in 2004.

The Gundia catchment is also one of only three known spots in Karnataka where the Travancore Flying Squirrel were reported in study by zoologists from the University of Mysore.

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MJHS is group of ‘concerned citizens’ from Hassan, comprising of farmers, teachers, lawyers, members of trade unions, political parties like Congress and CPI and journalists. Their main concern with the project is its environmental impact. They worry that apart from affecting the climate here, loss of forests will result in increased conflict between farmers and elephants.

“Only after the RTI Act was passed in 2005, we managed to get exact details of the project from the District Administration,” explains Kumar. He claims the dates for the Public Hearing for the project, originally scheduled for July 26, 2008 was changed to August 6, 2008 without any notice. He alleges that the minutes of the Public hearing sent to the EAC by the District Commissioner Naveen Raj Singh, were manipulated and did not mention the arguments against the project. “We recorded the entire hearing on video independently; so we have proof of the objections raised. The minutes submitted by the Commissioner have projected that there was only support for the project,” he adds. They were present at the meeting, see quote before this.

The EIA report has also got several facts wrong according to Kumar; a view endorsed not just by conservationists like Niren Jain, but several independent scientists. For instance, a tiny paragraph in the EIA mentions categorically that there are no wildlife sanctuaries or animal corridors in the project site. According to the report the closest sanctuary is the Pushapagiri Wildlife Sanctuary at 30 kms; the Brahmagiri Wildlife Sanctuary is 60 kms and the Kudremukh National Park is 90 kms away. However according to Jain, the topographic measurements of the Survey of India’s maps show that Pushapagiri is within 9.5 kms of the project site. According to the Environment (Protection) Act all protected areas must have a buffer zone of 10 kms, usually to ease movement of wildlife. A big hydel project is a violation of the MoEF’s order prohibiting any such activity within this ecologically sensitive zone.

Furthermore, the EIA report fails to mention Elephant Corridors located within the project area. Hassan and Dakshina Kannnada districts are hotspots of the Human-Elephant conflicts. Hassan district alone has seen the death of 14 wild elephants and 19 people in the past five years. Former Prime Minister H D Deve Gowda (who is an MP from Hassan) has even promised MJHS that he would take up this issue with the Environment Minister in the Parliament. Elephant corridors in this area have already been affected by two 18 MW hydel projects both within the Gundia Catchment — one in Kempehole forest and another under construction upstream in the Kadumane forest. Unfortunately under the current EIA norms, projects only need to be assessed individually; there is no requirement for an assessment of the impact of a new mega dam on existing projects.

The section on the flora and fauna of the Gundia Catchment are just as inadequate. A comparison of this report with an independent survey conducted on 17 and 18th January, 2007 (and published on the 16th of May, 2007) when by the Centre for Ecological Sciences (CES) at the Indian Institute of Sciences (IISc), Bangalore, reveals some glaring differences. The CES survey (Biodiversity & Ecological Significance Of Gundia River Catchment) identifies six different types of forests in the project site, from Tropical wet evergreen forests to vegetation in plantations and abandoned fields.

The CES report lists a total of 184 species of plants during the surveys of which 67 species are endemic to the Western Ghats. Of these 67 species 27 are extremely rare, restricted to the South West Region of India and Sri Lanka. However the EIA report states that ‘the submersible area does not contain any rare, vulnerable, endangered or endemic plant species or suitable niches for mega animals.’

The Faunal diversity of the Gundia Catchment according to the EIA report can be summed up as common birds and animals found all over India. The report lists only 12 species of animals in the entire area and fails to classify the wildlife according to accepted norms of taxonomy. Butterflies (which are insects) and rats (mammals) are classified as reptiles while frogs (amphibians) and Jungle fowl (aves or birds) are classified as animals. The EIA report contradicts itself by mentioning sightings of elephants (in addition to jungles cats and mongooses) but claiming that ‘in the proposed GHEP weir and dam sites area, no mega animals were sighted.’ The CES report identifies 19 species of mammals including mega fauna like tigers and elephants.

Chief Minister B S Yeddyurappa laying the foundation for the project on May 26, 2009.

The Gundia catchment is also one of only three known spots in Karnataka where the Travancore Flying Squirrel were reported in study by zoologists from the University of Mysore.

In addition to this the scientists from IISc also identified 29 species of birds including the elusive (and endemic) Malabar Pied Hornbill. The Kempahole region is recognised by the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) and the International Bird Conservation Network as one of the top 25 ‘Important Bird Areas’ (IBA) of India. Students of Wildlife Biology, at the National Centre for Biological Sciences, Bangalore also identified 49 species of birds in three days in the region including protected species (Schedule I of Wildlife Protection Act) like the Ceylon Frogmouth. The CES report also lists 44 species of butterflies (two on Schedule I of the Wildlife Protection Act), 12 species of snakes and 23 amphibians, including a rare and critically endangered frog called Indirana Gundia—named after Indira Gandhi and Gundia, the only region it is found in.

Local biodiversity committee powers unclear

As the project will divert water from four streams of the Gundia River, the aquatic ecosystem of the region could be directly affected. The EIA report claims that the Hongadhalla and Yettinahole streams comprise very few fish species. The report adds that ‘None of the species of fishes reported from the area, shows migratory behavior and none of the species are rare, threatened or endangered.’ Not surprisingly the scientists of IISc beg to differ. The CES report identifies 14 species of the freshwater fish, two of them endemic and 3 endangered.

However it must be noted that the EIA has something that the CES report doesn't. Perhaps in bid to make up for animals that ICSEM missed, the EIA mentions sighting hogs in the region. The glitch— hogs are found only in the North and Northeast India!

With all this biodiversity at stake, the gram panchayats of five villages - Hongadhalla, Hethur, Valalahalli, Vanagoru and Subramanya - in the Hassan district passed a resolution against GHEP. The Biodiversity Management Committee (BMC) of the Hongadhalla village formed under the Biological Diversity Act (2002) raised objections to the project. Kishore Kumar, who is also the chairman of the Hongadhalla BMC, asserts that the project can only take off if they acquire a no objection certificate from the local Biodiversity Management Committees; a procedure he says the KPCL has overlooked. But Karnataka Biodiversity Board (KBB) member secretary R C Prajapathi says the BMC does not need to be intimated. The BMC can complain to the KBB if they feel a project will adversely affect the biodiversity, says Prajapathi, but he is not clear on what powers the KBB have in preventing damaging projects.

KPCL’s reactions to these allegations seem to vary. The group escorting the EAC on their visit to the project site last week appeared eager to assure the three member committee that environmental damage would be minimal.

Dr Jaamdar at the KPCL office in Bangalore, however rejected environmental concerns as ‘absolutist arguments.’ “All hydroelectric dams in Karnataka are located in the Western Ghats. It is inevitable that some forest will go,” he said. Jaamdar also dismissed the possibility of not getting environmental clearance. “I have got all clearances but one, from the EAC. We will get it after this visit,” he adds. Chief Minister B S Yeddyurappa appears to share his confidence, as he laid a foundation stone for the project on the 26th May 2009, even before they had environmental clearance, amidst tight security arrangements, that included arresting the MJHS protestors to prevent them from reaching the project site.

Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh, however took exception to this act. In a letter to Yeddyurappa, dated 20 June 2009, Ramesh said the 400 MW project drowning 1900 acres of thick forest in the Western Ghats region, was “something that both Karnataka and our country can ill-afford." He further adds, "I do not think that environmental clearance should be taken for granted any longer." Since then the minister has repeatedly made statements in the press, refusing to give the GHEP a green signal.

KPCL's Jaamdar brushes aside queries relating to these statements, referring to the Environment Minister as a spokesperson for the Centre and not the final authority. “There are people above him. The project will happen,” he says. On questions regarding the veracity of the EIA report, he alleges that certain corrupt environmentalists had bribed two or three journalists to report falsehoods. When asked to name them, he declines adding, “I will reveal their names when the time comes.”