The Karnataka Governor, T N Chaturvedi, has asked the Karnataka government for an explanation on why the state wants the central government to review the rejection of the forest clearance to the Dandeli dam on the river Kali. This is significant as the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) had earlier rejected the forest clearance to the dam and then shortly afterwards, had sought to reverse its rejectionapparently on the basis of fresh evidence produced by Karnataka government to promote the dam. The Governor has asked for an explanation in response to a representation made by the Environment Support Group (ESG), a Bangalore-based NGO. ESG is engaged in research, advocacy, training and campaign support on environmental and social justice issues.
Within a couple of weeks of rejecting the proposal, the Ministry sought to reverse this decision.
A 19-year-long undisturbed Karnataka government order categorically states that since the Kali river is so heavily dammed (five major dams on this short 186 kilometre long river), no more dams, big or small, shall be allowed.
Rejection of forest clearance
On 21 June 2006, the MoEF, on recommendation of the Forest Advisory Committee, rejected the forest clearance to the Dandeli Mini-Hydel Project proposed by M/s Murdeshwar Power Corporation Ltd on the following grounds:
- Earlier, while according the approval for the Kodasalli Hydroelectric Project on the river Kali, the Ministry had imposed the condition that no more hydroelectric projects shall be allowed on the river and its tributaries. The state government had endorsed this decision.
- The project will have adverse impacts on tourism of the surrounding areas.
- Major stakeholders including the state-owned Jungle Lodges & Resorts Limited, Trans-Oriental Holidays Private Limited, Bison Resort, Department of Tourism of the state government, adjoining private land owners, etc. have raised objections against the proposal. The decision thus had the backing of key departments of the state.
Most importantly, a 19-year-long undisturbed Karnataka government order categorically states that since the Kali river is so heavily dammed (five major dams on this short 186 kilometre long river, destroying most of its forests and displacing thousands of tribal and forest dwelling communities), no more dams, big or small, shall be allowed. Protected by this order, the forest department has ensured that the forest stretches along the 15 kilometre stretch of the river downstream of Supa Dam and leading to Dandeli is protected as it forms a critical wildlife corridor between the neighbouring Anshi National Park and Dandeli Wildlife Sanctuary.
MPCL's history to obtain clearance
The R N Shetty Group led M/s Murdeshwar Power Corporation Ltd., however, thinks otherwise. Since 2000, MPCL has repeatedly attempted to seek forest and environmental clearances for this project. Its first attempt at clearancebased on a Rapid Environmental Impact Assessment (REIA) produced by the international consultant Ernst & Young (now owned by Cap Gemini) fell through after ESG exposed the assessment itself to have been plagiarised.
Within a month of this expose', MPCL presented another REIA, this time by Tata Energy Research Institute (now The Energy Research Institute, TERI). This was once more exposed as based on secondary and spurious data. Accepting ESG's deposition on legal affidavit during the Environmental Public Hearing held in January 2001, the Deputy Commissioner of Uttara Kannada district Nilaya Mitash (currently Secretary, Municipal Reforms, GOK) had recommended to the Karnataka State Pollution Control Board to review what legal action could be taken against the company.
However, no criminal proceedings were undertaken against MPCL, as required per the Environment Protection Act, for attempting to secure environmental and forest clearances on the basis of fraudulent information. In fact, R V Deshpande, then Minister for Industries (MLA, Haliyal constituency) who was a keen supporter of the project, admitted to a delegation of the Kali Bachao Andolan on 20 September 2003 that the dam proposal was rejected as it had failed to get the forest and environmental clearances.
The state's forest department has also take a strong view against mini-hydel projects in the Western Ghats. The Principal Chief Conservator of Forests, S N Rai, had strongly recommended in 2004 that not just the Dandeli dam, but no mini-hydel project should be allowed in the Western Ghats. In his letter of 13 February 2004 to the Principal Secretary of the Karnataka Department of Ecology, Environment and Forests, he wrote that mini-hydel projects degrade the wilderness and ecosystem of the Ghats, cause disturbance with the entry of large number of men, material and machinery, and scar the landscape with its transmission lines required to evacuate power. Migratory routes for various animals are obstructed and as a result, the wildlife population is drastically reduced.
All this notwithstanding, in 2005, MPCL again began to move papers for seeking clearance. This time it sought clearance for the project on what it claimed to be a proposal that would submerge less forest. Not surprisingly, Karnataka's forest department rejected even this proposal summarily.
State departments urge against clearance
As stated earlier, most state departments did not support granting the forest clearance to the Dandeli dam. One of the primary reasons was the threat to tourism. The only major white water rafting project in south India is carried along the very stretch of the Kali river proposed for submergence. Vinay Luthra, IFS, Managing Director, Jungle Lodges, in his letter dated 18 October 2005 to the forest department, argued that if a dam is constructed across the river and water is diverted to a generation station through a tunnel, then the 14 kilometre stretch of the river where white water rafting is being conducted will become completely dry.
This was strongly supported by Smt. Shanthakumari, Principal Secretary of the Karnataka Department of Tourism, who argued that the tourism prospects of not only Jungle Lodges, but also that of other resorts in the area, will be severely affected. The number of tourists in Dandeli in 1998 was about 1,500 including 300 foreign visitors. Since the introduction of river rafting in 1999, the inflow of tourists had jumped to 15,000 a year, including 4,000 foreign visitors. This had also increased work opportunities for the local community.
Clearly, there was no support from any of the state departments for the project. And on 21 June 2006, the MoEF also rejected the forest clearance for the dam.
A U-turn: New Delhi pushes for clearance
Surprisingly, within a couple of weeks of rejecting the proposal, MoEF sought to reverse this decision. It claimed that the Karnataka government had produced fresh evidence in a letter dated 30 May 2006 originating from the office of the Principal Secretary of the Department of Forests, Ecology and Environment. According special consideration to this letter promoting the MPCL dam, an attempt to reverse the rejection decision was initiated by MoEF in a review meeting held by the Ministry's Forest Advisory Committee at New Delhi on 21 July 2006.
Given the very short notice, no state official could participate. Only the project proponent and one adversely affected owner of a private resort resisting the dam participated.
The review claimed the support of the office of the Principal Secretary of the Karnataka Department of Ecology, Environment and Forests, whose express mandate it is to protect forests. For reasons best known to the then Principal Secretary, he chose to write on 30 May 2006 to MoEF arguing for the project, when every one else in the government had argued against the dam.
Following this turn of events, ESG submitted a detailed representation to Sandeep Kumar, IFS, Asst. Inspector General of Forests, MoEF, questioning the necessity and legality of the review. In this representation (available online at: http://www.esgindia.org/campaigns/dandeli/dandeli.html), ESG highlighted that any reconsideration of the rejection order would be in blatant violation of the Forest Conservation Act, as it expressly prohibits overturning a well considered decision, especially when the rationale has been sustained all through the decision making processin this case to reject the dam proposal.
ESG also pointed out that this also raises critical issues of the exchequer being burdened when decisions to reverse recently taken decisions become a pattern.
When MoEF went ahead with the review, the ESG made a representation to the Karnataka Governor, T N Chaturvedi. Responding, the Secretary Gauri S Trivedi wrote to ESG on 3 August (a copy of this letter is with India Together) saying that the Governor had asked for the views of the state government on the matter and would take action accordingly. "We hope that this will bring to light the fact that extraneous circumstances have compelled the state to request a review of MoEF decision rejecting forest clearance for the dam," says Saldanha.
Noting that the highly controversial and questionable promotion of the Dandeli dam is being reviewed by the Governor, ESG says, "We urge the Chief Minister to order an immediate enquiry as to why this project is being repeatedly pushed for clearance, by some officials, when most officials and departments have advocated against the dam."