The dense, eerie woods that cover the south eastern spurs of the Kolli Hills in Namakkal District in central Tamil Nadu muffle the strong thuds and constant vibrations caused by hectic blasting and drilling. Leave alone the outside world, even the local inhabitants see or hear almost nothing, even as work on a mini hydroelectric power plant inflicts destruction on one of the last remaining evergreen forest patches in the state.
For a negligible quantum of 20 megawatts (MW) of power (as against the state’s demand for more than 1,000 MW) the TN government has revived a project that was stayed by the Madras High Court in 1996. This will not only degrade the most ecologically rich and sensitive part of the Kolli Hills, but also threatens to permanently alter or disturb the natural livelihood systems of local tribal communities. The Rs 338.79 crore project was inaugurated on December 22, 2018 by the State Electricity Minister KV Thangamani almost 75 days after the work had begun, in a classic example of putting the cart before the horse when it comes to project plan and execution. This also implies that the project has largely bypassed crucial development questions and concerns of public accountability. Officials in Namakkal District say they were unaware that the very same project was stayed by the Madras High Court in 1996, after environmentalists and development experts raised serious concerns. While the concerns raised then still remain, the norms for getting mandatory clearances for hydroelectric power projects have changed over the years, enabling the state government to push forward its agenda.
Tribals cultivate paddy on the valleys of Kolli Hills irrigating them from hill streams.
According to the Tamil Nadu Generation and Distribution Corporation Limited’s (TANGEDCO) Detailed Project Report (DPR) the project was conceived under the late Chief Minister Jayalalithaa's Vision 2023 program and funded by loan from the Rural Electrification Corporation (now called REC Limited).
The project proposes to construct five weirs (small dams) across the Ayaru River and its branching streams at Assakadupatti, Kovilur, lliyankadu, Irungullipatti and Kadampallam. Water impounded by these small dams during the rainy seasons will be brought to the one at Irungullipatti. From Irungullipatti dam the water will be transported through a 3.5 km tunnel (yet to be drilled) to the other side of the hills, and from there taken down to the southern foothills at Pulliancholai through a 900-metre pipeline (penstock), where a Pelton turbine power generation house is being set up.
Work on dam construction across the Ayaru river in progress at Valapur Nadia Panchayat in Kolli Hills.
The project will entail acquisition of 5.50 hectares of reserve forest land in Pulliancholai for the power generation plant. For the construction of the small dams, the project proposes to acquire 3.04 hectares of land belonging to the Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments Department (located on the stream side with thick vegetation covering the land), 30.74 acres of government poromboke land (located on the side of the streams and mostly under cultivation by locals) and 15.52 hectares of private patta lands belonging to the local tribal residents.
71.23 million units of power will be generated and distributed to local villages at a rate of Rs. 6.03 per unit. Production is planned to start by 2021-22. Besides the above benefit, the DPR claims, the project will boost tourism and increase ground water levels, which will also benefit wildlife.
How hydroelectric projects impact hill environments
Construction and operation of dams has always been associated with changes in the social, physical and biological environment. Some of the significant negative impacts of hydroelectric projects include loss of vegetation, topographical disturbances, changes in river flow patterns, involuntary resettlement, health problems, loss of cultural values and marginalisation of local communities. It has been frequently pointed out by activists that the construction of dams and barrages across river systems in the hills has severely threatened riverine ecosystems that are considered to be storehouses of floral and faunal wealth.
Dams act as obstructions for fish migration as well. And finally, the use of heavy vehicles for transporting materials and debris and activities such as drilling, tunneling and digging can heighten pollution. All of this activity also impacts on the terrestrial ecosystem causing changes in land use and habitat destruction.
Why the project escapes thorough impact assessment
Given the possibility of such drastic changes, impact assessments of projects like the Kolli Hills hydroelectric project should encompass detailed baseline studies of physiography, hydro-meteorology, soil, geology and seismicity, land use and land cover, floristic and forest types, faunal elements, aquatic ecology and fisheries.
However, none of this is required for micro hydroelectric projects generating less than 25 MW of electricity. Only projects above 50 MW require an environmental clearance from the central Ministry of Environment and Forests. Though micro projects are exempted from central environmental clearance, there is a need to obtain permits from the State Environmental Assessment Authority if the project falls in the B category (that is, if it is located close to notified sanctuaries and eco-sensitive areas). But here too projects below 20 MW are exempted.
In Tamil Nadu, however, all development projects carried out by a government or private agency in hill areas need to obtain clearance from the Hill Area Conservation Authority (HACA), a body under the Department of Town and Country Planning. Permits are issued on the basis of reports by an advisory body comprising the District Collector, Revenue Officer, Forest Officer and NGOs. Here too the project seems to have bypassed the system. According to the Namakkal District Collector Asya Mariam, the Kolli Hills are exempted from HACA purview. However, Valapur Nadu and other Panchayats in the Kolli Hills, where work on the hydroelectric project is proceeding, are notified areas requiring HACA clearance, according to a government order issued by the Town and Country Planning Department. From the Deputy Director to various district-level officers in the department, there is a lack of clarity on whether the project requires mandatory clearances under HACA.
Ecological storehouse too precious to be lost
The Kolli Hills consist of a range of hills varying in altitude from 300 to 1550 metres. Most of the terrain in the area is steep and rocky, with deciduous forests populating the bases of the hills.
Tribals cultivate paddy on the valleys of Kolli Hills irrigating them from hill streams.
Studies have found that the Kolli Hills are a biogeographical relic having many similarities with the Western Ghats. These hills are home to the last remaining patches of shola forests within which tribal deities are worshiped by indigenous inhabitants. "Judging by the structural resemblance of the sholas to the high elevation and montane forests of the Western Ghats and the floral and faunal affinity, it can be argued that the Kolli Hills is a biogeographical relic which has been transformed by humans, although gradually," note RJ Ranjit Daniels and Jayashree Vencatesan, in a Current Science paper.
The hills also hold a precious and diverse gene pool vital to the region’s biological diversity. An extensive natural herbarium, the area boasts of a richness of medicinal plants. According to an unpublished survey by the Namakkal Forest Department, out of 204 plant species found in the Kolli Hills, 103 are medicinal plants, of which 64 are rare species.
A fragile ecosystem
In their paper, Ranjit and Jayashree argue that the Kolli Hills are a fragile ecosystem that is already facing irreversible changes due to human-induced disturbances. Thus, they observe that human-wildlife conflict have eliminated many of the major animal species of the area, largely due to hunting and habitat loss.
Large mammals such as leopards, sambar and gaur were eliminated or dwindled over over 100 years ago. In the time since, the sloth bear has also suffered a gradual elimination, since it damages fruit crops. The Malabar giant squirrel, bonnet macaque, porcupine, wild boar and anteater have also dwindled in the area.
One of the most significant shifts the authors point to is the emergence of commercial cultivation in the hills with the emergence of tapioca as the single major crop in the 1970s and onward, alongside the introduction of several commercial crops like spices and oil seeds. This transition came when the Kolli Hills were declared an Integrated Tribal Development Programme area. At this point, the authors argue, agriculture in the area became more resource extractive. The period since has also seen declines in rainfall and damage to the landscape due to bauxite mining.
It is in this context of a fragile environment already under threat of irreversible degradation that environmentalists have raised red flags regarding the hydroelectric project’s impacts on the bio-social environment. The construction of the dams and the hydro power project will hasten a major change in the ecosystem, they argue.
How the project came to a halt in 1996
In 1996, a collective of environmental organisations, including the Salem Tree Club, filed a writ petition seeking a stay on the work on the power project that had been started then. The Tree Club, in its submission, argued that areas that were home to natural shola forests and other important vegetation, including 33 rare species of medicinal plants, would be submerged due to the dams, particularly the last one to be built below the Akash Ganga waterfalls – a famous tourist attraction. “The impact of biotic interference was more pronounced in evergreen forests, which are considered to be the banks of a vast and diverse gene pool,” argued the Salem Tree Club in a separate representation to the Tamil Nadu Electricity Board (TNEB).
The writ petitioners had charged that the TNEB was going ahead with the work without obtaining necessary permissions from the central Ministry of Forests and Environment (micro projects were not exempted from this process then). Shola trees were being cut and burnt, and roads were being laid for transporting construction materials. The entire operation was going on in secret, the petitioners had complained. It was also argued that the production of a mere 20 MW of power, against the massive demand faced by the state, was too little benefit at too great a cost. In response, the Madras High Court criticised officials for commencing the work without obtaining mandatory clearances, and ordered immediate stoppage of work.
Since then, the project remained on the back burner till it was revived in 2015. Compared to the project outlay of Rs. 20 crore in 1996, the project is now estimated at a huge cost over-run of Rs 318.79 crore.
Local tribals forced to give up all for too little
Alongside environmental degradation, the lives and livelihoods of the Malaiyali tribals living in the area are also at stake. As Ajit Menon and V Saravanan pointed out in a 1996 article in the Economic and Political Weekly, “What is clear is that no substantial benefits of irrigation and power were ever intended for the inhabitants of the Kolli Hills. Rather, water was to be tapped due to the favorable conditions of the hills, and transported elsewhere.” The same holds true even now. The water from the hill valley is being pumped to the foothills and let back into the plains after generating power. People who have lands in the plains will benefit at the cost of the tribals, say activists.
A panaromic view of the Kolli Hills from the foothills.
One of the main problems with the land acquisition process in the area is the complicated pattern of land use that has developed over the years. So, while the government may promise compensation for patta lands acquired for the project, this does not sufficiently address the livelihoods of the tribal communities. Menon and Saravanan point out that the way in which land revenue came to be collected historically in the area has meant that poromboke or commons land has always been occupied and cultivated by the local tribal communities. However, the legal ownership over such lands is not secure as it is with patta lands, and this raises the question of whether sufficient compensation will be received by affected locals.
Shroud of secrecy
One of the major difficulties with the project is the veil of secrecy that has shrouded it right from when it was begun in 1996. The various rungs of TANGEDCO’s Civil Construction Wing, which is implementing the project, pass the buck on providing any information regarding the project’s status. Officials in the District Administration, meanwhile, claim a lack of comprehensive information as different departments are being approached separately by TANGEDCO officials for day to day interfacing. Thus, the local population only know that dams are being constructed, but are unsure about the details so that they could sense the impacts good or bad.
As in 1996, when local bodies were not functioning, and no democratic mechanism existed for registering dissent, local panchayats still remain dysfunctional in Tamil Nadu as elections have not been held for these bodies since 2016. Officials in the Kolli Malai Panchyat Union say that it is unlikely that a gram sabha resolution has been passed by the panchayats coming under the project area. Speaking to TNM on condition of anonymity, one official says, “If at all a resolution on the subject had been made, it would have been added to the list of resolutions mandated by the government on special occasions like Gandhi Jayanthi.” This clearly means that there has been little to no discussion on the project with the people most directly affected by it.
What is clear, however, is that even as blasting and drilling work has begun on the project, several clearances are yet to be obtained for the project. According sources, TANGEDCO has obtained permit from the District Revenue Officer for conducting blasting work. Also, according to Namakkal District Officer N Archana, TANGEDCO’s request for 5.50 hectares of reserve foothill area of forest land in Pulliancholai for establishing the power generating plant has been approved by the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests. An equal area of compensatory land has been handed over by TANGEDCO in the same district as per the Forest Conservation Act, she adds. However, TANGEDCO’s Executive Engineer Geetha, who is overseeing the project on the ground, acknowledges that the Public Works Department‘s clearance for constructing the weirs on the streams and transfer of river poromboke land is still awaited. Moreover, the state government is yet to pass an order for acquisition of private lands Both Archana and Geetha are quick to add, however, that none of the construction activity will impact the topographical terrain and vegetation in the area. Clearance has been given for laying a pipeline (penstock) through the forests, points out Archana, adding that this will have no impact, as the slopes are covered by semi deciduous vegetation and hence not sensitive. According to her, establishing the power plant would only entail cutting down a few tamarind trees on the acquired area. Geetha asserts that work is being carried out only on acquired lands (which includes 5.5 ha of reserve forests in the foot hills and on the temple lands on the hills), and adds that the three kilometres of tunneling through the mountain will not affect surface vegetation.
However, much of this information is difficult to verify, as the present work is being carried out in distant inaccessible ghat areas and TANGEDCO’s contractors actively deny any entry into the area of their operation. Hence, it cannot be verified how much forest area is being cleared and whether the blasting and drilling work is having an impact on the topography.
A need to reconsider
It has been repeatedly emphasized that before sanctioning any Hydroelectric Project, the recommendations of the World Commission on Dams, which emphasise equity, efficiency, participatory decision making, sustainability and accountability, must be taken into consideration. While large and medium hydroelectric projects have come under scrutiny for their environmental and socio-economic impact, smaller projects often escape attention, particularly under the changed regulatory framework.
However, when a landscape of such ecological importance as the Kolli Hills is at stake, the right to know of the public cannot be denied. Hence, there is a strong need to evolve a participatory model involving local communities, ensuring mechanisms for raising dissent, and incorporating project monitoring mechanisms involving river basin experts, hydrogeologists, geologists, and environmental and socio-economic experts.
G Rajasekaran is a senior journalist with several decades of experience in reporting on several issues from the western districts of Tamil Nadu.