State govt at crossroads over Gundia

State govt at crossroads over Gundia

Implementation of the hydro-electric project will help ease power situation in Karnataka

The time has come for power-starved Karnataka to make a tough call on implementing the long-pending 200-MW Gundia Hydro-Electric Project (GHEP) in Hassan and Dakshina Kannada districts.

If the chief minister heeds the opinions of the Forest Department and ecologists, then he will have to shelve the project. In case he goes by the plans of the Energy Department, which is ready to scale down the land usage for the project, then it would become a reality.

The project has been pending implementation for the last 13 years and this explains it is not an easy task for the government to call it off, considering the low cost of hydro electric power. Also, private firms are lobbying hard to bag the project.

On August 31 last year, the Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel (WGEP) had suggested to the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) to not sanction the Gundia project. If the MoEF accepts the recommendation, then the power project is as good as spiked.

The panel headed by environmental scientist Prof Madhav Gadgil has categorically said the project, if implemented, would cause large-scale damage to the rich bio-diversity and ecology of the Western Ghats, especially to the Gundia river basin.

The panel was constituted to suggest ways to go ahead with the demarcation of the boundaries of the Western Ghats. Gundia is among the many subjects dealt with by the Gadgil Committee.

Environment and Forest Minister Jayanthi Natarajan has written to the governments of Karnataka, Goa, Maharashtra, Kerala and Tamil Nadu, across which the Ghats pan over, seeking their comments on the panel report.

The Karnataka chief minister’s office received the communication in September 2010 and the CMO in turn had sought the opinion of the Energy and Forest departments. The State is yet to express its views to the MoEF.

The Forest Department, which is finalising its observation on the recommendations, has made no comments on the Gundia project in its draft letter to the government.

However, Kaushik Mukherjee, Principal Secretary, Forest Department, has said the department was not in favour of the project. “We have not changed our stand. And we have not made any fresh comments on the issue,” he added.

The Energy Department, which pushed the project aggressively, has, however, softened its stand following the Gadgil panel recommendations.

Though Yogendra Tripathi, Managing Director, Karnataka Power Corporation Limited, had opined that the project should be carried forward, the final decision rests with the government.

“We have given our views to the government... we feel this project will not cause much harm to the bio-diversity of the Western Ghats. It is for the government to take the final call,” he said.

The Energy Department despatched the Karnataka Power Corporation Ltd (KPCL) letter to the CMO on December 16, 2011. The KPCL has suggested to the government to not accept the Gadgil panel recommendation.

Officials say the KPCL missive has stated that it has proposed to bring down the land usage for the project from ‘1041 ha to 478 ha’ in the first phase, and that this would have a ‘reduced’ impact on ecology. The land requirement has been scaled down as the KPCL has decided to drop one of the two dams it has proposed to construct.

Plans to construct a dam at Hongadahalla (523.80 ha) were scrapped about a year and a half ago, following discussions with the Expert Appraisal Committee of the MoEF, official sources said.

The KPCL is also keen on going ahead with the implementation of the ‘Bio-diversity Park’ it has proposed to set up within the project premises. The park is said to increase the forest cover and nurture endangered flora and fauna unique to the Gundia basin.

Officials said that if GHEP was dropped, then Karnataka, already grappling with severe power crisis, will have to face tougher times in the coming years. With the Centre not allocating coal linkages to the proposed thermal projects, apart from ‘non-supply’ of coal to the existing thermal stations, the KPCL was feeling restricted in ‘optimising its potential’.

The Gadgil panel  has also said the project will alter the hydrological regime of the Kumaradhara river basin. The river, “a perennial source of water to the important temple-township at Subrahmanya, will lose water due to its diversion to the Bettakumeri Dam. This may have implications on the pilgrims visiting the temple,” it states. The KPCL has, however, told the CMO that the project would have no impact on the temple town.

The project proposes to utilise water from Yettinahole, Kerihole, Hongadahalla and Bettakumeri streams covering a catchment area of 178.5 sq km. The second stage will include Kumaradhara and Lingathhole streams covering 78 sq km of the catchment area. The third stage will involve six streams, including Kumarahole and Abilbiruhole, covering a catchment area of 70 sq km.

KPCL project details

* Total submergence – 744.63 ha
* Access and deviation roads (length 100 km, width 10 m) – 100 ha
* Dams, powerhouse and other structures – 170 ha
* Other uses (including quarry, field office, material stack yard, etc) – 15 ha
* Excavated tunnel muck dump, stock yard – 275 ha
* Submersion through weirs - 184.63 hectare (Yettinahole weir submersion – 11.54 ha; Kerihole weir submersion – 0.09 ha; Hongadahalla weir submersion – 40 ha; Bettakumari weir submersion – 133 hectare)

Note: The submersion areas do not include the Hongadahalla dam (523.80 ha) which has been reportedly cancelled.