Some hydel projects that claim exemption from environmental clearance on the basis of size provide a misleading picture of their impact

Why would more than four gram panchayats, environmental activists from three States, the presiding swami of the Subramanya Temple, botanists, fisheries scientists, and institutions like the Indian Institute of Science oppose a small hydel project in a remote corner of the Western Ghats in Karnataka? Aren’t small hydel projects environmentally safe and beneficial?

Greenko’s 24-MW Kukke I Hydel Project, proposed in the dense forests of Dakshin Kannada, highlights how misleading labels like ‘green’ and ‘small’ can be in reality.

The Kukke I project is proposed across Kumaradhara after its confluence with Gundia, two remarkably biodiverse rivers in the Western Ghats. Greenko has also proposed 24-MW Kukke II project upstream of Kukke I. Local communities have been opposing Kukke I for more than a year due to its hidden submergence details and impacts.

Greenko went from stating that there is no submergence, to 21 hectares submergence. But, modelling studies by Centre for Ecological Sciences, Indian Institute of Science reveal that this ‘small’ project will submerge 388.71 hectares, including 110.1 hectares of remarkably biodiversity rich forests.

Karnataka Renewable Energy Development Corporation issued a Stop Work notice on Kukke I in February 2012, demanding a detailed study of submergence area. This study is not complete after over a year.

Kumaradhara is exceptionally rich in biodiversity, with several discoveries being made frequently. The river has two rare community fish sanctuaries close to the project, teeming with endangered Deccan Mahseer, which will be severely affected by the project. The river is home to 56 fish species — 23 endemic, 11 vulnerable and eight endangered. Five new species have been discovered just in the last year. Experts have been calling to protect Kumaradhara as a fish sanctuary. However, Kukke I does not envisage a fish pass for fish to migrate, neither does it plan to release environmental flows for sustaining the downstream ecosystem or the river.

When the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People (SANDRP) and local groups raised this issue in our comment to the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) application of the project, Greenko categorically responded: “There are ‘no rare, endangered or threatened fish species’ in the river Kumaradhara and Netravathi or their tributaries.” This is a patent lie. It is unfortunate that Fisheries Director, Karnataka Department of Fisheries, gave No Objection Certificate to this without any justification.

Endangered flora

Riparian and submergence forests of the Kukke I project have some of the most endangered trees in the Western Ghats, including Madhuca insignis, a critically endangered riparian species rediscovered after a 100 years on the banks of Kumaradhara at the project site itself; critically endangered Syzigium tranvarcorium, etc. But the proponent says in the CDM Validation Report, that there are “no endangered tress found.” The lush forests of the Panaja and Kunthur range, threatened by the Kukke I and II projects, are critical links to Malnad Kadagu Wildlife corridor. The region is home to sacred groves and endangered Myristica swamps, of which few survive today. But the proponent says that this forest consists of “dry deciduous trees, shrubs and grasses”! And that these plants “come up again” so there is “no need for apprehension”!

Surreptitious moves

In place of a transparent consultation publicised in local newspapers, the proponent surreptitiously pasted the notice for a meeting in the office of a single gram panchayat, excluding all other affected villages including Dolpadi, which faces severe submergence.

Exempted from environmental governance, small hydel projects can have and are having major impacts on communities and ecosystems. The Netravathi and Kumaradhara rivers have more than 44 small hydel projects planned bumper-to-bumper. But by a questionable omission in the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) Notification (2006), hydel projects less than 25 MW are exempt from environmental clearance. Hence, such projects require no EIA, public hearing or environment management plan, no matter how severe their impacts maybe. SANDRP has been writing to the Ministry of Environment and Forests with evidence of impacts, requesting these projects be brought under EIA Notification. We haven’t received any response.

Ironically, Kukke I is now requesting registration for carbon credits through the Clean Development Mechanism of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. The entirely flawed CDM application process highlights the murky nature of carbon credits in India, with consultants, validators, reviewers and the National CDM Authority forming a cartel. Kukke projects are just one example of the kind of fraud that is routine in small hydel and CDM projects.

Villagers of Dolpadi, on the opposite bank of the Kukke I project office, watch helplessly as the project that will destroy life as they know it takes shape. To call this a clean energy project and give it millions of rupees in carbon credits will be a cruel joke on the farmers, fisher folk and landless labourers who toil in the upstream and downstream. As Karunakar Gogate from Nadolli village says, “What we find difficult to believe is that our lives, our river, our forests are being destroyed in the name of Sustainable Development!”

It’s time to look beyond preconceived labels like ‘green’ and flawed tactics like CDM to truly support our people, forests, rivers and coming generations. Let us hope Karnataka scraps the Kukke I project.

(The writer is with the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People.)

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