Don’t plunder green cover

Western Ghats

Mahatma Gandhi power Station at jog falls & River Sharavathi as seen from the top. DH Photo By N Varadaraj (Info Centre)

On September 26, 2019, the Karnataka State Wildlife Board granted permission for pre-construction works and conducting environmental impact assessment for the 2-GW Sharavathi Pumped Storage Project in Shivamogga and Uttar Kannada districts by the Karnataka Power Corporation Limited.

Such plants are meant to generate additional power required to meet electricity demand for peak hours of the day and to utilise surplus electricity during off-peak hours in the night to pump water from a lower reservoir to a higher reservoir.

Experts have found that a pumped storage power plant would consume 24% more electricity in pumping water from the Gerusoppa reservoir to the Talakalale reservoir as compared to electricity generated by the gravitational flow of the same volume of water.

As the state has not experienced surplus electricity, it is a crime to destroy 200 hectares of pristine forests in wildlife sanctuary for this project.

The forest area in question was earlier included in the Eco-Sensitive Zone (ESZ) of Sharavathi sanctuary by the chief wildlife warden (CWLW) but was removed by the additional chief secretary (ACS), forests, while recommending it to the Ministry of Environment and Forests in early 2017.  

Consequently, the ESZ was notified without this area. In the State Board meeting headed by then chief minister H D Kumaraswamy in January 2019, a decision was made to include it in the Sharavathi Lion Tailed Macaque (LTM) Sanctuary. In the same meeting, even Kappathagudda Sanctuary was approved and both were notified.

The state energy department had sent a feasibility report on the project to the Union Environment Ministry in May 2017. It was approved without running it by the Forest Department. As the government in the state had changed, the approval in the September 26 Wildlife Board meeting made way for the destruction of the LTM Sanctuary. In 2017, the ACS did not support the CWLW.

The country is witnessing higher incidences of climatic catastrophes like floods, droughts, wildfires, cyclones and other calamities. These are also becoming increasingly destructive. All these are on account of climate change. Do we not learn lessons from this?

The researchers of the Indian Institute of Science have pointed out that the state has lost nearly 30% of forest cover in the past 40 years in the Uttara Kannada district alone. The Kasturirangan report which states that such areas of the Western Ghats are `no go’ areas has not been given any heed.

The IAS officers work as ACS (Forests) for a limited period in their service carrier. They spend considerable time in development and infrastructure departments and remain in development syndrome even while working in the Forest Department.

For some of them, conservation is not a priority. They ignore long-term eco-services provided by vast stretches of forests like prevention of floods, droughts and cyclones. Without their support, views of foresters are often bulldozed by politicians. Senior forest officers who attended the September 26 board meeting did not offer resistance.

A few weeks ago, environmental clearance was accorded to install two more power reactors at the Kaiga Nuclear Power Project in the Uttara Kannada district. This involves the clearance of 54 hectares of high-quality tropical rain forests in core Western Ghats and in the ESZ of Anshi National Park.

The power generated will have to be transmitted. A proposal to divert 177 hectares of thick forest land for the construction of the transmission line from Kaiga to Goa through the forests of Uttara Kannada is in the pipeline. There are 20 projects in various stages of planning and implementation in the core of the Western Ghats area of Karnataka. The formulation of development projects in pristine forest areas appears to be continuing.

In UN Convention on Climate Change, Prime Minister Narendra Modi talked of International Solar Alliance and committed to commissioning 175 GW solar power in the country by 2022, which will be further scaled up to 450 GW. Why should we cut down forests just for 2 GW of hydroelectric power, when Karnataka has a vast potential for solar power generation?

Barpole bridge

While I was working in the Central government, the Purulia pump storage project in West Bengal, that intended to sacrifice 258 hectares of pristine forests in Ajodhya hills, was brought to my consideration in 1993. I refused to agree but the Union Environment Ministry headed by Kamal Nath overruled me. The project destroyed forests. Today, it is a complete failure, with no electricity being generated and wild animals becoming homeless.

In the September meeting, the board approved a bridge on Barpole river, demarcating the states of Karnataka and Kerala. Although a small forest area of less than two hectares is to be sacrificed from the Karnataka side, the bigger disaster would be to open Brahmpuri Wildlife Sanctuary for the people of Kerala.

The natural forests in Karnataka have still not degraded much while the landscape in Kerala has undergone a complete change. There are more of coconut, coffee, cardamom farms besides townships. Brahamagiri sanctuary will now be in danger. Even without this bridge, smuggling timber and hunting wild animals is taking place. Culprits are rarely apprehended and court cases hardly move forward.

Sometime in 2011, trees in three acres area in Kutiyala beat in Brahmgiri sanctuary were cleared by miscreants and the land was used to grow marijuana. This happened in monsoon when the forest patrolling staff do not visit interior areas because of inaccessibility and leaches.

The offence came to the forest officers’ notice after two months. Despite sincere attempts, culprits were not apprehended. Wonderful evergreen forests were destroyed. Forest officials did remove marijuana plants but were not successful in regenerating the area. 

The conservation of tropical forests is the most effective and cheapest option to minimise greenhouse gas emissions. We must conserve natural forests for our own survival.

(The writer is former Principal Chief Conservator of Forests, Karnataka)

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