Mini hydel projects, initially considered by environmentalists as green alternatives for power generation, have become threat to fragile ecosystems. The lure of high returns on investment, in addition to various incentives, created a mad rush among private players leading to destruction of natural forests.
Site of a hydel project in Karnataka (photo courtesy: The Hindu)
The growth of economy as well as maintaining high GDP growth rate is directly linked to the availability of power. So, successive governments give a push to increase power production. However, setting up of captive thermal or hydel projects is being opposed on social and ecological grounds. In order to meet the high energy needs, soft energy options like solar, small hydro dams and wind power are recommended as green projects with least impact on environment.
The governments encouraged mini hydel projects across Himalayas and Western Ghats and the sudden boom was received with apprehensions by local people. They realized that while implementing such green projects, the fragile areas are getting destroyed. Alarmed by the mushrooming mini hydel projects in the interior regions of Malenadu, the hill region of Karnataka, the local people as well as concerned organizations approached the High court to seek intervention and halt the process of destruction.
The Karnataka High Court has issued orders to stop construction of mini hydel projects in Western Ghats. This is a historic verdict towards conservation of the fragile ecology of the region.
The private construction companies, who have the requisite permissions from the government, will definitely approach the apex court to seek justice. Will this reprieve for the forests be short lived? What are the larger issues at stake? What are the apprehensions of the local people against such benign green technologies?
Sites for most mini hydel projects are located in the interior regions, where the natural forests exist, and they are the catchment areas of rivers and streams. Though called as mini, most of them do require storage of water, through construction of a small reservoir.
The green projects like mini hydel projects and wind mills have become the fad of the day as they are supposed to be environment friendly and have the potential to generate power without damaging the environment. The recent events at Fukushima have exposed the risks of nuclear energy. The large hydel dams built to generate power have submerged virgin forests and villages, causing ecological destruction and disrupting social harmony. The thermal power plants that emit pollution have been opposed in Western Ghats. In this grim power scenario, mini hydel projects remained the best alternative option to generate eco friendly power.
Madhav Gadgil, the Chairaman of Western Ghat Expert Panel on Ecology, has said "What we need is less ecologically damaging power plants, and tap mini and micro hydro-electricity potential in this area." In fact most of the environmental activists who opposed Kaiga nuclear power plant as well as large hydro dams in Western Ghat during the eighties had categorically demanded that the government should go in for small mini hydel projects.
Why are the same people now opposing the mini hydel projects and wind mills when they are being implemented by the state government?
In order to understand the deeper causes behind their apprehensions, it is essential to put the entire ‘green projects’ into a macro perspective.
The technology may be benign and eco-friendly, but the people and the companies who are implementing the project envisage a windfall profit for their investments. The financial benefits as well as high returns are assured due to the multiple sops provided by the government as well as financial institutions. The government provides tax concessions for several years on the investment. The international agencies under CDM (clean development mechanism) provide carbon credits as they are supposed to reduce the carbon emission. Over and above this, the final product, the power has assured buyer in the market for which they get high price. Attracted by multiple benefits and high return on their investment, almost all the mini hydel project out of 166 that are given license by government of Karnataka are in the private sector.
Armed with such subsidies the private companies have targeted the most remote regions in Western Ghats. Invariably, the sites for such mini hydel projects are located in the interior regions, where the natural forests exist, and they are the catchment areas of rivers and streams. Though called as mini, most of them do require storage of water, through construction of a small reservoir. This has to be followed with tunnels to channelise the water, and construction of small power plants. Most of these activities take place in the natural forest areas, leading to destruction of the existing forest cover.
The eco system in Western Ghats is more precarious due the existence of tropical forests and the tag of biodiversity hotspot. Considering the importance of these fragile ecosystems, the government needs to evolve a sound strategy to strike a balance between conservation and power generation.
The Kaveri Sene have successfully rescued the Abbey falls near Madikeri, Coorg from being decimated by the mini hydel project there. But it was a long drawn struggle, as the state government does not realize the negative impact of the mini hydel projects in the dense forest areas. These projects lead to fragmentation of the compact block of forests, adversely affecting the movements of wild life in the region. It also leads to destruction of the biodiversity of the region.
Like mini hydel projects, wind mills are encroaching on the Sahyadri Tiger Reserve in Koyna, Maharashtra. Over 200 windmills are now operating illegally inside the vital Tiger Reserve. The big question is, will the MOEF step in to save this tiger reserve? Or will it allow the windmill company to operate?
In Chandragiri forests in Davangere district, Karntaka, the local people have launched agitation against setting up of the wind mill which destroys the shrub forests and medicinal plants in the dry regions. Quite a few wind mills have been opposed as roads are built to carry the heavy windmill machinery to remote areas.
A study conducted by Ministry of Non Conventional Energy has categorically stated that the wind mills installed have outdated technology and are not able to produce 30 per cent of the projected capacities. They are installed by private firms to avail tax benefits and act as dumping ground for the obsolete technology of developed nations.
It is high time that the government should set up a committee comprising of scientists, engineers and the local people to study the long term impact of the mini hydel projects as well as the installation of huge wind farms that are causing damage to the local environment.
There are successful initiatives like the decentralized micro hydel systems that have been installed in numerous places in Western Ghats that is supplying regular power supply to the villages. The builder of such systems, Ratnakar, a hydro engineer form Teerthalli in Western Ghats says, “The need is to carefully identify the location and work harmony with nature to install the turbines causing least damage to environment. We work for society and villagers, and not for the private companies that have commercial interest in installing the projects.”
The mini hydel projects in Himalayas are under scanner for having destroyed the fragile Himalayan ecosystem. The eco system in Western Ghats is more precarious due the existence of tropical forests and the tag of biodiversity hotspot. Considering the importance of these fragile ecosystems, the government needs to evolve a sound strategy to strike a balance between conservation and power generation.
If this precautionary principle is ignored, the green projects will continue to produce red results.
Disclaimer: The views expressed above are
personal and do not necessarily reflect the
views of d-sector editorial team.
Pandurang Hegde is a farmer, environmentalist and writer based in Sirsi town in Karnataka. He is well known for launching the Appiko movement which played a key role in protecting many forests from the axe in the Western Ghats region.
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