By Shankar Sharma, Power Policy Analyst
Sagara, Oct 7, 2019: If certain sections of our society believe that our political leaders, forest & environment department and bureaucrats will not rest until every sq. kM of the forests in the state are destroyed, and until we can see only desert like landscape even in Malenadu and Karavali regions, they may be easily be forgiven, because the recent developments in the state may indicate such a scenario to them. Is there a political expediency to allow/encourage the destruction of the rich biodiversity in Sharavathy and Kali river valleys?
Few weeks ago the Environmental Clearance was given to divert more than 54 hectares of very high quality tropical rain forests in the core area of Western Ghats in Karnataka in the ESZ of Anshi National Park along with permission to use more than 6,600 Cubic meter per hour of water from the adjacent Kali river to install two more power reactors in Kaiga Nuclear Power Project (Uttara Kannada district). This act can be seen as the beginning of the end of both the national park as well as the adjacent Kali Tiger reserve.
There is another application pending before the environment ministry for diverting about 177 hectares of thick forest lands, again within the core Western Ghats of Karnataka, to build a power line between Karnataka and Goa. This project proposal is even more disturbing/ damning because it is sent to environment ministry with a ridiculous statement that the economic benefits to our country of constructing this line is 715 times as compared to the cost of destroying 177 Hectares of forests. This particular conclusion about the humongous benefits as compared to the overall cost of destroying the thick forest cover seems to be a clear indicative of how our bureaucrats view the forest with disgust/indifference/ignorance.
In a meeting of Karnataka State WIldlife Board on 26.9.2019, a decision has been taken to allow some pre-constructions works in the core area of the recently notified Sharavathy Valley LTM sanctuary to set up a 2,000 MW pumped storage power plant, which may ultimately destroy more than 500 acres of pristine forest.
What can we say about the continuing approval formalities to scores of such destructive projects even in protected areas, such as National Parks and Wild Life Sanctuaries, at a time when the tropical forests in India are considered as the most effective and cheapest options to minimise the GHG emissions? To set the record straight, the forest and tree cover in the state and the country is only about 21% of the land are as against the national forest policy target of 33% for the whole country.
There are also more than 20 linear projects in various stages of planning and implementation within the core Western Ghats of Karnataka, with the definitive prospect of felling about 2 million mature trees.
It is also reported in the media that a large number of such ’development’ projects in the ecologically sensitive forests of other states too, such as in the Himalayas, central India and North-Eastern India are going on unabated only to benefit the timber mafia, contractors and corrupt political leaders. A diligent analysis of these projects may reveal that most of them are ill-conceived and hence not required, OR there are many benign alternatives to achieve the project objective/s.
It should also be highlighted that each of these project proposals may have many credible alternatives with much less societal costs, but the same have not been diligently looked into. Sadly and deplorably, the civil society views/ concerns / recommendations in all such cases are never diligently considered with the result that a once rich biodiversity of our country is experiencing alarming levels of degradation with devastating and irreversible damages.
In the case of the proposed pumped storage hydel project in Sharavathy valley, it can be safely said that the total cost to our state / country /planet is vastly more as compared to the meager benefits.
A pumped storage power plant is meant to generate additional power required to meet electricity demand for the peak hours of the day only; it is supposed to utilise any surplus electricity in the state during the night off-peak hours to pump water from a lower reservoir to the higher level reservoir. In effect, a pumped storage power plant will consume about 25% more electricity in pumping water from the lower reservoir to the upper reservoir as compared to the electricity it can generate from the same volume of water. Since the state has not experienced surplus electricity for many decades, it is ridiculous and may even be termed as a crime to destroy about 500 acres of pristine forest in a wild life sanctuary for a project which will only increase the total energy deficit in the state.
Whereas a pumped storage power plant scheme is planned on the basis that there will be excess electricity during the late night hours (say between 10.00 PM and 05.00 AM), Karnataka may not have excess electricity in the night during all months of the year. It may certainly be so during the summer months, say between Feb. and June. Since the site of the proposed plant requires about 500 acres of pristine forest land within the core area of Sharavathy Valley LTM Wild Life sanctuary, the very need for this plant should be diligently considered. The project will be of relevance to the state for only 4 to 8 hours in a day, that too during only peak hours to meet the additional load. When we diligently consider the overall electricity scenario in the state, it becomes evident that the project is not essential, and that it will cost much more to the state than the benefit it can provide.
The very need for the project can be questioned because of many reasons: the peak demand of the state can be reduced by making the lighting systems in the state, including that of the street lights and public lighting, very efficient. Another option is to make use of the vast solar power potential in the state to generate excess electricity during the day time, store the same in energy storage batteries, and make use of these batteries during peak hours. Another option is to take suitable demand side management measures to reduce the overall need for electricity during the peak hours. Reducing the transmission & distribution losses in the state from the present level of about 18% to about 8%, which is feasible, sustainable and most economical can also reduce the peak demand power. Time of the day metering with suitable tariff, which can record the energy/power consumed for every 15 minutes, should be considered for implementation to reduce the peak loads.
Hence, there is a serious case for the people of the state to challenge the energy department and forest department with the very concept of the project, when it is well known that the costs are very high and that there are much better alternatives. It will not be a surprise if a massive agitation is seen very soon in the districts falling within the Western Ghats to oppose this and many other destructive projects. Let us hope that the wisdom will prevail on the state govt. and the project proposal is stopped for all times to come.
It is an irony, and can even be termed as cruel joke, that whereas the honorable PM has announced that India would raise its ambition of the total area that would be restored from its land degradation status, from 21 million hectares to 26 million hectares between now and 2030, thousands of hectares of original forest lands are being destroyed in the name of various developmental projects. It is deplorable that our bureaucrats/forest department are not raising the issue that the diversion of thousands of hectares of natural forests is the first step towards desertification.
Are the diligent considerations of the criticality of forests and biodiversity from the perspective of Climate Change not of any relevance to our bureaucrats and ministers? The other day the Union Minister for EF&CC was reported as having said that since the green area around the Aarey Forest in Mumbai is not considered as a forest, there should be no opposition to the felling of more than 2,700 trees there to facilitate a work of Metro rail. The ridiculous nature of such statements from the Union environment minister may become apparent when we consider that the same minister seem to have no qualms to approve the diversion of more than 54 hectares of very thick and high value forests in the core of Western Ghats in Karnataka to build two more nuclear reactors, and more than 170,000 hectares of thick forests at Hasdeo-Arand area of Chattisgarh for open cast coal mining. Hasdeo Arand is one of the largest contiguous stretches of very dense forest in central India.
It is credibly reported in the media that over 500 projects in India’s protected areas and eco-sensitive zones were cleared by the National Board of Wildlife over the first four years of the NDA government between June 2014 and May 2018. In comparison, the preceding United Progressive Alliance government had cleared 260 projects between 2009 and 2013. In the eyes of many responsible observers the state wild life boards and the National Board of Wildlife seem to have abrogated their Constitutional mandate, and have become simply the clearing houses for all project proposals. The continuing loss of original forests in the country should be an enormous concern for the long term welfare of our communities.
It is reported that Karnataka has lost 10,000 hectares of forest in the last 3 years, whereas for the country as a whole, the loss of primary forest in the last five years was more than 120,000 ha, which is nearly 36% more than such losses seen between 2009 and 2013."
Hence, the onus is on the present govt. both at the centre and the state to either become saviors of our future OR the destroyers. Are the state and Union govt. truly interested in the legitimate interests of all sections of our society as against the business interests of few corporate houses?