The contentious Mekedatu Balancing Reservoir project, which aims to augment Cauvery water supply to Bengaluru much to the opposition of Tamil Nadu, has not been granted clearance by the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF).
Apart from voicing environmental concerns over the submergence of 52.5 sq.km. of forest land, including core areas of the Cauvery Wildlife Sanctuary, the Expert Appraisal Committee (EAC) on River Valley and Hydroelectric Projects constituted by the MoEF has effectively said that the proposal can be reconsidered only after Tamil Nadu and Karnataka reach an “amicable solution”.
While the EAC meeting was conducted on July 19, the minutes of the meeting were released recently.
Karnataka had sought granting of Terms of Reference (ToR), which is the first stage of the environmental clearance process, for the Rs. 9,000-crore project. The project intends to divert 4.75 tmcft of drinking water towards Bengaluru Metropolitan Region and for the generation of 400 MW of hydro-electric energy.
The Tamil Nadu government has sought scrapping of the project through multiple legal and political fora while Karnataka Chief Minister B.S. Yediyurappa on Tuesday requested Prime Minister Narendra Modi to grant permission to build the balancing reservoir.
The EAC has noted that it had received representations from Tamil Nadu against granting ToR for the proposal. Considering the difference in opinion, the committee opined that “an amicable solution be arrived at between the two States and put up for reconsideration for grant of ToR.”
A committee member explained that while EAC is mandated to focus on environmental aspects of projects, it becomes ‘inevitable’ to consider the political-legal aspects of high-profile projects as well.
“Usually, inter-State water dispute peters out after the final award is delivered by the tribunal. But in the case of Cauvery, issues have continued after the award. The situation is not stable. There is no mechanism to deal with projects such as this. Even the CWC hasn’t decided on the project,” said the member.
In this situation, the EAC’s verdict based solely on environmental impact could then be construed to favour a particular State’s stance on the utilisation of allocations by the Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal, he added.
Earlier in January, the Centre had told the Supreme Court, which was hearing TN’s challenge to the project, that the conditional clearance given to Karnataka to prepare a Detailed Project Report was conditional and does not convey the Centre’s or Cauvery Water Commission’s clearance for construction.
“We did not expect this. The political-legal angle is out of our hands,” said a senior official of Cauvery Neeravari Nigam Limited (CNNL), which is implementing the project. “We can address environmental concerns. But, it seems like the project can proceed only through political negotiations. We are aware it has been difficult to convince TN so far about the merits of the project,” said the officer.
Apart from Tamil Nadu’s objections, the EAC has found two major environmental issues associated with the project.
In its pre-feasibility report submitted to the MoEF as part of its application on June 22, CNNL states that construction of concrete dam, intake structures, pump houses and the subsequent submergence will require 52.52 sq. km. of land cumulatively. Of this, 31.81 sq. km. is in the core areas of the Cauvery Wildlife Sanctuary while another 18.69 sq. km is adjacent forest land. Just 2.01 sq. km is revenue or private land.
“A total of 4,996 ha (49.96 sq.km.) will be involved, and this seems to be very high. Once again, optimisation of the land required to be attempted,” stated the EAC.
In particular, the EAC has flagged off the lack of alternatives explored for the project. In the pre-feasibility report, CNNL looked only at two options: a dam of a height of 139 metres, which will submerge 10,000 hectares (100 sq.km.) and another of 99 metres. Both are at the same location, with CNNL choosing the latter.
“...there is no consideration of alternate sites...It requires to be revisited and the best alternative be decided after a detailed study,” said the EAC.
The CNNL officer claimed that there were no alternatives to the chosen location. “Constructing dams upstream of Cauvery is either technically feasible or every expensive, as water has to be pumped to a greater height towards Bengaluru. This is our only option,” he said.