It is feared that the Sarambale Irrigation Project in Maharashtra’s Sindhudurga district could destroy the fragile biodiversity of the region, apart from submerging villages

On January 3, 2013, the tiny village of Dabhil in Maharashtra’s Sindhudurga district — faced with the threat of submergence by the Sarambale dam — was celebrating its annual festival in a dense sacred grove next to a perennial spring. The villagers worshipped with devotion but did not seek personal prosperity. Ironically, they asked the deity to protect her temple, her sacred grove and her village from the impending destruction. Three such groves in Dabhil as well as water harvesting structures will be drowned.

With its bio-diverse forests and ancient relics, Dabhil should be a site of interest to anthropologists and naturalists. However, the Sarambale Irrigation Project changed the scenario. In 2007, the State’s Water Resources Department felled thousands of trees in this eco-sensitive area and dumped mounds of mud in the Dabhil river course. The villagers allege that they were never consulted about the said project even though it is supposed to be built for their benefit.

According to the White Paper published by the Water Resources Department, Sarambale is envisaged as an earthen dam across Dabhil river, a tributary of the west flowing Terekhol river. It will store 96.25 MCM (Million Cubic Meters) of water: 5.82 MCM for industries, 8.72 MCM for drinking and the remaining for agriculture. It will have a 34.47 km-long canal to irrigate the Sawantwadi and Vengurla districts. The area affected by this project is 753 hectares, including 152 hectares of forest and 569 hectares of private land, mostly covered with forest.

After two revised sanctions and no work, the estimated cost stood at Rs. 211.5 crore in 2006 from Rs. 54 crore in 1993. The White Paper says Rs. 54 crore have already been spent on construction though the only evidence of it is the mud dumping.

Balakrsihna Gawas from Dabhil village, who is leading the protests against the project, says that the news of the dam was a shock to them. A voluntary organisation, Vanashakti, found out under the RTI Act that the villagers had never demanded such a project While the Irrigation Department claims that 22 villages will benefit from the dam, in reality, there are only 15 villages, rest are settlements. Again, of these 15 villages, seven are already shown in the command area of the Tillari and Talamba irrigation projects.

This region falls under the Dodamarg tehsil that faces tremendous pressure from the iron ore mining lobby. The Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) report of one such proposed mine states the Sarambale dam to be its source of water supply. There are 32 such proposals awaiting clearance in 10 villages near Dabhil.

The region is a part of the 35 km-long and 10 km-wide Sawantwadi-Dodamarg wildlife corridor, connecting the Koyna, Radhanagri and Chandoli Protected Areas in Maharashtra with Mhadei, Bondla, Bhagwan Mahavir, Netravali, Cotigao and Molem in Goa, and Anshi and Dandeli in Karnataka. This strip of land has over 303 species of plants, several with crucial medicinal values and 18 species of mammals, including tigers, leopards, bears and several species of birds. It is also an elephant corridor. Any so-called development activities like mining and road construction would spell doom for this fragile biodiversity.

Nevertheless, the Konkan Irrigation Development Corporation claims this region has no wildlife while the Forest Department claims that there are no religious, cultural or archaeological sites here. The EIA of the project has not been made public. Several letters to the Maharashtra Forest Secretary about eco-sensitivity of the region have gone unanswered.

Though the project is yet to receive environmental clearance and a final forest clearance, the Water Resources Department issued a work order in 2005. Neither community and individual forest rights as per the Forest Rights Act, 2006 have been settled nor have rehabilitation proposals been prepared. The White Paper, however, has pushed for the project claiming that it has spent over 25 per cent of its budget and 35 per cent work has been completed. The nearby Tillari Interstate Project, built at Rs. 937 crore, has a created irrigation potential of 7,295 hectares of which farmers are utilising just 162 hectares, according to the White Paper. Similar situations prevail for most major irrigation projects in the Konkan region underlining the redundancy of large dams though the authorities refuse to admit it.

While showing a percolation tank built by the villagers, Balakrishna asks, “This region receives 4,000 mm rainfall. If we villagers can build water harvesting structures for our water security at a fraction of the dam’s cost and with no ecological impacts, can’t the Water Resources Department do so? Is drowning forests and our villages the only way forward they know?”

(The writer is a member of South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers & People)