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Proposed hydel project in Karnataka Western Ghats 'not sustainable or green in nature'

By Shankar Sharma*  

A recent article in Down To Earth draws attention to rushed tender process for Rs 8,005 crore Sharavathi pumped storage project (PSP) in Karnataka. It is a disastrous proposal in a core area of the Western Ghats of the State.
The article has focused on the fact that Karnataka Power Corporation Ltd has rushed through the tender process without obtaining approval from crucial environmental authorities. However, there are many core issues, which are not covered in this article, and which can highlight the disastrous nature of the project proposal.  A detailed representation of 12th October, 2019, to the Chairperson and Members, Karnataka State Board for Wildlife, Bengaluru; and another one on the same date to the Chairperson and Members National Board for Wildlife (NBWL), New Delhi, have highlighted numerous issues in this regard.  
It should be a matter of great concern to our society that the concerned authorities, including NBWL, seem to have consciously ignored these representations with credible facts and arguments.
Core issues of enormous concerns to our society are:
The proposed project location will be within the core area of the LTM Wildlife Sanctuary, which was gazetted only a few years earlier for protection under Wildlife Protection Act, under which the Section 29 clearly prohibits any kind of destruction of wildlife including its habitat inside a wildlife sanctuary unless the destruction is unambiguously for the betterment of wildlife and its habitat. 
The proposed pumped storage hydel power project is not essential for the demand/supply of power in the state of Karnataka, and it is not sustainable or green in nature. Since there are much benign and less costly options to meet the peak hour electricity demand, the costs and benefits analysis of this proposal will establish beyond doubts that it is the least attractive option.
At a time when the planet is staring at a sort of climate emergency, and when protecting the tropical rain forests and biodiversity is being considered as critical in reducing the impacts of Climate Change, losing the rich biodiversity of a wildlife sanctuary for a low priority (or may even be termed as irrelevant) hydel power plant can only be termed as a disastrous and insensitive policy, especially when there are many better options in place of such a hydel power plant.
At a time when the forest and tree cover in the state and as well as in the country is only about 21% of the total land area, as compared to the national forest policy target of 33%, the loss of about 360 acres of pristine evergreen, rain forest of very high ecological value in a wild life sanctuary will be completely against the Constitutional mandate to protect our environment, and also clearly against the global necessity to address calamitous threats of climate emergency.
As per the pre-feasibility report this 2,000 MW capacity power project is estimated to generate about 12,000 MWH per year of electricity, whereas about 14,833 MWH of energy is estimated to be consumed in the process of pumping water from the lower reservoir to the upper reservoir.  In effect, this proposed pumped storage power plant scheme will consume about 24% more electrical energy from the grid than it can generate in a year.  
Pumped storage projects in river valleys will lead to the destruction of seveal thousand hectares of original tropical forest cover
Such a scenario will not be in the true interest of the State, when it has been known that the state is facing chronic annual energy shortage for many decades. 
In view of the ongoing preference of the policy makers in the country to implement several such pumped storage projects in river valleys of Karnataka as well as many other states, leading to the destruction of several thousand hectares of original tropical forest cover, there is a critical need for civil society to critically question the very need for such PSPs for the country, especially when there are benign alternative options such as battery energy storage system (BESS) and demand side management (DSM).
The timing of the proposal this year has special significance to the state because of the drought like scenario in many districts of the state, including many places in the catchment area of Sharavathi river valley.  
There is a critical need to highlight to the state authorities, as well as to the authorities in the Union government, that the destruction of hundreds of hectares of thick, tropical rain forests in a rich river valley, can only aggravate the drought like situation in the coming years, since the science has already established that the destruction of forests in the river valleys of the Western Ghats will seriously impact the rainfall amount.
There is a need to highlight all these issues to the people, which have been intentionally ignored in the pre-feasibility report, and which are common to many such PSPs in river valleys, and also send representations to the concerned State governments as well as the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change to undertake a diligent examination of every single PSP proposal in the context of the overall welfare of all sections of our country including flora, fauna and general environment. 
There is a critical need for civil society groups to be actively involved in persuading the Union govt. to act diligently in all the associated decision making processes, since there has been a widespread view that the concerned officials might have been severely compromised with regard to their mandated responsibilities.
---
*Power & Climate Policy Analyst

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