Wrong shades of green in Karnataka's Green projects


Fast depleting resources, rampant use of fossil fuels and a looming energy crisis has led to a panic situation, where alternative answers are being hurriedly sought. The recent years have seen a consequent boom in the use of seemingly more ecologically friendly sources of energy, such as wind and water. With increasing pressure by the developed countries on the developing economies, nations like India are becoming a magnet for such ‘green energy’ initiatives manifesting as a boom and bang of small and micro hydroelectric projects and wind power projects.

But hold the best wishes and good will. Not everything is clean about these much hyped sources of clean energy. There exists today a situation of tenuous conflict between establishment of hydel plants and windmills and the preservation of the forest lands that house the rivers of potential fortune. Why so? This is because many of these projects are located in areas that are of very high ecological value. The state of Karnataka provides a cogent case study of the ramifications, implications and economic intricacies of clean energy ventures.

Havoc in the Western Ghats

There has been, in Karnataka, a burst in the implementation of small and mini hydroelectric power projects. However, of the 307 such projects proposed, 77 of them fall within the forests of the Western Ghats. These ecologically sensitive mountain ranges have a variety of vegetation types, with contiguous tropical evergreen, semi-evergreen and moist deciduous forests, including the unique climatic climax high altitude grassland and shola forests.

Known as one of the hottest of the world’s 34 biodiversity hotspots, these forests harbour an incredible wealth of wildlife and biodiversity. Most importantly, these mountains are the sources and catchments of the rivers of peninsular India, irrigating millions of hectares of farmland downstream.

Construction of a small or mini hydel plant in such a forested landscape involves massive destruction. On paper, the extent of forest cleared is shown to be a few meagre hectares, oftentimes less than five. These figures are deceptive, for, not included in these numbers is the collateral destruction caused by the ancillary activities that hack and gouge the river banks and adjacent mountains, leaving irreparable scars where trees and rocks once stood.

The loosened soil of these eroded slopes flows into the river, sullying the flow and depositing volumes of silt downstream, destroying the riverine ecosystem. Access to these remote areas is facilitated by cutting new roads through pristine landscapes, compounding the destruction and fragmentation. The extent of forest lost to make way for the power transmission lines are conveniently excluded in the official figures of forest land required for the operation.

The sudden business popularity of these ventures is interesting. Green energy projects enjoy 100 per cent tax subsidy from the Indian government acting as a natural channel for diverting questionable funds. Further, all corporations that generate green energy are entitled to an equal wattage of free energy for their needs in another area, usually in cities.

Thus, the green entrepreneurs pay nothing to set up a mini hydel or a wind farm, but gain much in areas where power is expensive. Most such projects generate a mere 4 to 5 MW of power and are unsustainable in the long run. The corporations, however, are responsible neither for dismantling the structures nor for any science based restoration activities, yet earning convenient epithets of being ‘green.’

False impact assessments

The Environmental Impact Assessments for the projects, conducted by organisations hired by the developers themselves, have shown a dismal track record of objective scientific analysis. Most studies are not based on existing peer reviewed scientific literature for information on ecological implications. The data does not consider vital aspects of hydrology and ecosystem functioning, with information on the forest cover and regional ecology being grossly inaccurate.

The solution to the energy crisis needs to be based on a holistic perspective of ecological impacts also. The feasibility of small and micro hydel projects ought to be evaluated based on its long term functionality and the costs of losing forests. Multiple such projects are puncturing, swiss cheese style, the ecologically fragile landscape of the Western Ghats. These forests harbour some of the best biodiversity in the world and are home to charismatic mega fauna like the tiger and the elephant. Although the existing sanctuaries and national parks accord some protection to the wildlife, every acre of forest land in a fast depleting landscape is essential as corridors that maintain contiguity between populations.

Notwithstanding the energy demands of a rising economy and its associated lifestyles growing apace, India also has a responsibility to preserve the forests that are home to her biodiversity riches. The myopia of short-term stop gap measures should not compromise the long-term ecological security of the country, an asset beyond par.

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