Environmental activists in Karnataka's Shivamogga district have criticised the state forest department for continuing with the survey and geotechnical investigation for an underground pumped storage project in the limits of the Sharavathi Valley Lion Tailed Macaque (LTM) Sanctuary despite the onset of the monsoon season.
Environmentalists demanded that the work be stopped immediately since there could be landslides during the monsoon.
The Sharavathi River, which originates in the central Western Ghats region, flows westward through Shivamogga and Uttara Kannada districts of Karnataka before joining the Arabian Sea. The Linganamakki Dam (located close to Jog Falls) and the Gerusoppa Dam have been built on the river. The Sharavathi Project is a 2000 MW hydroelectric project and aims to pump water from downstream reservoirs - Talakalale and Gerusoppa - to generate electricity.
"One of our group members found that drilling work was being conducted in a protected area. This is in violation of the conditions laid down by the Department of Forest and Wildlife," Akhilesh Chipli, an environmentalist from Sagar in Karnataka told TNM.
The survey is being conducted for the Sharavathi Underground Pumped Storage Project and it was approved in the meeting of the Standing Committee of the National Board for Wildlife held on April 7. The project has been proposed by the Karnataka Power Corporation Ltd (KPCL) and in May, the Karnataka Forest Department gave permission for the survey and geotechnical investigation which allows for drilling inside the sanctuary's protected area.
One of the conditions for the survey process laid down by the Chief of Wildlife details is that the drilling had to be halted during the south-west monsoon, which began at the start of June. Subsequently, after a week of drilling work was completed, it was stopped when the monsoon season began earlier this month.
“But we were doubtful when the officials did not remove the drilling equipment even though it is happening in a remote area in the heart of the forest,” Akhilesh added. Akhilesh and a group of environmentalists visited the spot and found that drilling work was continuing even during the monsoon.
When asked about the development, R Ravishankar, Conservator of Forests, Shivamogga Circle said that the forest department will ask KPCL to stop the work. “I was informed about this on Monday. We will inform KPCL and all concerned authorities and get them to stop this," he said.
The forests in the Sharavathi valley are also known for Myristica swamps, an ancient evergreen forest system. It is a freshwater swamp forest which is home to a range of species of reptiles, birds and amphibians. They are located in just two areas in India — in Karnataka's Uttara Kannada district and in southern Kerala — and in Uttara Kannada, more than 50 such swamps have been recorded.
The monsoon period is also considered the rejuvenation time for the swamps and Akhilesh says drilling work, especially in this time, could upset the ecological balance of the forest area.
While the work will be stopped temporarily during the monsoon, Akhilesh and other environmentalists in Shivamogga are fighting for the project to be scrapped.
Akhilesh is a member of a non-governmental organisation SWAN and Man (Save-Wild-Atmosphere-Nature and Man) and he says that the project is endangering a protected area. "It is a pristine forest and is an area with high biodiversity and is also an LTM sanctuary,” he said.
KPCL argues that the project does not require much construction since the two reservoirs, Talakalale and Gerusoppa, that would be used to transport water to generate power are already in place. The power corporation wants 360 acres to be diverted for the project.
But Akhilesh says that the power plant is envisaged in a pristine forest area and earth-movers will be needed to establish transmission lines, access roads and staff quarters for the plant.
The Sharavathi valley is also home to the Deccan Mahseer, a fish endemic to the Western Ghats. “Most importantly it is home to endangered and endemic Lion-Tailed Macaque and vulnerable Great Indian Hornbill apart from many other endangered species,” says Shankar Sharma, another activist and policy analyst from Sagar.
Activists have urged the state government to explore other avenues to generate power. “The Linganamakki project is not using maximum water to generate electricity. Renewable energy sources were not explored,” says Akhilesh.