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PROTECTING THE SACRED JEWELS
OF KODAGU

The people of Kodagu district should be congratulated and applauded for their determination and commitment to protect the forests and wildlife of Kodagu from those who threaten to destroy them. Their determination to uphold the traditions of their forefathers in preserving our forests should be commended—not ridiculed with disparaging remarks, like those made by proponents for the dams in recent newspaper articles.

The residents of Kodagu have recognized and embraced the wisdom their forefathers knew: that the true wealth of this area lies in the lush green canopy of forests that surround our plantations and villages. For it is from our forests that our life-sustaining water flows forth; it is from our forests that cool, fresh unpolluted air is generated; it is from our forests that our agricultural lands have been made fertile and our crops protected by such animal ‘friends’ as drongos, woodpeckers and other birds—the best pest controllers any agriculturalist can have; it is our forests that have given us all of our wealth—individually and collectively. And it is these same forests that will once again give us our wealth through Eco-Tourism, Tree Supports, and grants from the Karnataka State Biodiversity Project, as discussed in earlier articles.

These then are the ‘Sacred Jewels of Kodagu’—our forests and our wildlife. Recognizing this truth, our forefathers were careful not to abuse or over-exploit the natural resources found in the forest and flowing forth from it. Indeed, they even perceived the spiritual connection they had with the forest and set up the series of Sacred Groves—Devara Kadu—that run throughout the Coorg district—lands to be left in their pristine form, untouched by human hands. These Sacred Groves helped to retain the Balance of Nature so that Coorg was assured of healthy forests, timely and abundant rainfall, fertile soil and good crops, and pleasant temperatures year-round.

What is the Balance of Nature? Simply put, it is the Balance of Life-cycles of the various species of flora and fauna that make up the forest. It is the balance of predator and prey, of life and death in Nature’s timing—not Man’s. When man interferes with this Balance of Life-cycles through poaching, logging, building of dams, starting forest fires, mining, etc., this balance is disturbed and all of Nature, including mankind, suffers as a result.

This is what is happening today and the people of Coorg are already starting to suffer from this imbalance. The rainfall pattern all over the district is changing, with droughts affecting some areas and excessive rain harming crops in others. So many trees have been chopped down all over the district—not just in our forests but on private lands as well—that higher temperatures during the dry summer months are evident everywhere, as we all ‘feel the heat’ of the blazing sun beating down on us. Could anyone in Karnataka have imagined that the Tunga, Bhadra and sacred Cauvery Rivers that have their origin here in Coorg could have gone dry as they have over the past two years due to this deforestation?

The Balance of Nature has been disturbed. The challenge and duty of this generation is to re-establish that Natural Balance by preserving the forests we have left, reviving our Sacred Groves, and refusing to let anyone ‘steal’ any more from our Sacred Jewels. For those who want to ‘steal’ from our forests, using them for non-forests purposes—like the building of dams, mining for ore, and chopping down trees to draw electricity cables through them—while claiming to be ‘voices of development’ and ‘leaders of the people,’ clearly are not acting in the best interests of the people of Coorg, nor of the state or nation.

Preserving the Tapestry of Life

Forests are like a brilliantly woven carpet or tapestry, with each species of plant and animal, flora and fauna being a thread in this tapestry. Over recent years these ‘threads’ have been pulled out through over-exploitation, poaching, logging, deforestation and the use of forestlands for non-forest purposes such as dams, mining, etc. With each instance of non-forest use and the deforestation and imbalance that occurs as a result, a ‘hole’ is created in this Tapestry of Life. As the holes multiply, the Tapestry begins to fall apart, with disastrous results not only for the denizens of the forest, but for mankind as well, as we are witnessing today right here in Coorg as well as throughout the country and the whole world.

This is the reason that National Parks and Wildlife Sanctuaries were first set aside by those with vision and foresight—in order to keep this Tapestry of Life whole and alive. And this is exactly the reason why they must be kept that way: areas of wilderness so that the Balance of Nature may remain intact. Our Ministries of Environment & Forests (MoEF) are the agencies entrusted with the safeguarding of our forests in which our vital water sources are located. They are not meant to be lumber mills or mining consortiums. Nor are they meant to be extensions of electricity companies.

Perhaps in the wake of the tragedy in Sariska Tiger Reserve—with the CBI confirming the loss of the entire tiger population there—and the threat of the loss of tigers in other reserves as well, this truth is finally dawning, at least at the Union Government level. For on the 6th of February 2005, a new Directive came forth from the MoEF stating that National Parks and Wildlife Sanctuaries (known as ‘Protected Areas’ or PAs) are strictly off-limits when it comes to projects with a non-forest purpose. Even in other forested areas like Reserve and Revenue Forests any non-forest project must follow strict guidelines that include: (1) a total of less than one hectare of land to be diverted for the entire project, (2) a compensation of at least 4 times the project’s land area to be added to the forests from other areas to make up for the loss of the land diverted for the project, and (3) no more than 50 trees to be felled in the area where the project is to come up.

With these guidelines/orders in mind, it is clear that no dams whatsoever can be built within the Brahmagiri Wilderness Sanctuary since it is a Protected Area and off-limits for such projects. Even the plan to draw electricity cables through the Kodagu forests to Kerala is now impossible since far more than 50 trees would have to be felled in order to complete that project.

This has been one of the main objections that opponents of the dams have raised time and time again—a fact which both Mr. Harish Uthappa has failed to convey in his meetings, and Mr. M.S. Uthappa has conveniently left out of his articles: namely, that the area in question for the dams’ sites lies within a Wilderness Sanctuary—a Protected Area.

More Directives to Protect our Forests

The 6th February Directive from the Union MoEF is only the latest in a series of Directives from the Union Government that prohibits projects like these dams in National Parks and Wilderness Sanctuaries. On 21st January 2002, the Indian Board for Wildlife (IBWL), whose chairperson is the Prime Minister of India himself, passed 18 Resolutions which included the following: “No diversion of forestland for non-forest purposes from critical and ecologically fragile wildlife habitat shall be allowed.” This includes all National Parks and Wilderness Areas. A second resolution states: “Lands falling within 10 kilometres of the boundaries of National Parks and Wilderness Sanctuaries should be notified as eco-fragile zones under Section 3 (v) of the Environment (Protection) act and Rule 5 Sub-rule 5 (viii) and (x) of the Environment (Protection) Rules.” So once again, Brahmagiri Wilderness Sanctuary is off-limits to projects such as the proposed dams.

The Resolutions of 2002 were followed by another set in 2004, which are found in the ‘Policy and Procedure Guidelines for Considering Proposals affecting National Parks and Sanctuaries’ as issued by the National Board for Wildlife (NBWL—the reorganized IBWL), again with the Prime Minister presiding as Chairperson. Under the heading of ‘General Policy’ the document states:

“Areas set aside as National Parks or Wilderness Sanctuaries have been so set-aside as a valuable gene pool not only for the present generation but to be preserved for all future generations. Every such area belongs to every citizen of the country. The Wildlife Protection Act and Rules as amended from time to time are a recognition of this inter-generational right and the obligation to preserve and enhance this wealth. The National Board has been statutorily mandated to be an important instrument for such protection. Section 5-C (1) of the Wildlife Protection Act states that, ‘It shall be the duty of the National Board to promote the conservation and development of wildlife and forests by such measures as it thinks fit.’

“In the event that any proposed activity in a National Park or Wilderness Sanctuary (PA) does not clearly and directly contribute to promote ‘the conservation and development of wildlife and forests,’ the Board, and ipso facto its Standing Committee, has necessarily and prima facie the statutory obligation to reject it, unless it is able to create such conditions, in a cast-iron manner, which will have a demonstrably greater benefit to the conservation and development of wildlife and forests than the detriment caused by the proposed activity.”

Clearly the building of dams in Protected Areas like a Wilderness Sanctuary does not benefit the conservation and development of wildlife or forests. It does just the opposite. And in this case, the dams’ proponents want to build not one but FOUR DAMS. (Don’t let the word ‘weir’ fool you, even if the article did appear on April 1st—April Fool’s Day—‘weir’ is just another name for ‘dam.’)

Not One Dam but FOUR

So there would be not one but FOUR areas along the river that would be disturbed, not one but FOUR areas where pipes and walls would be built and installed adversely affecting the movement of wildlife and raising the problem of silting and water temperature changes, not one but FOUR areas where water would be diverted through tunnels to be forced through turbines where fish and other aquatic life could be killed, not one but FOUR chances for oil, grease and other chemicals to leak into the water and poison it, and in keeping with these sets of FOUR, not one but FOUR full-time workers living on a year-round basis within the Wilderness Sanctuary in the newly-constructed farmhouse to service the newly-constructed powerhouse, thereby becoming a permanent human intrusion within these eco-fragile forests.

Here’s another set of FOUR that Mr. Uthappa failed to mention in his article, namely that electricity is likely to be generated for only FOUR months of the year—only during heavy monsoon season—since the Barapole River will not have enough water in it to turn the turbines the other eight months of the year.

So should Rs. 300 crores or even the supposedly downscaled cost of Rs. 100 crores be wasted on a project that is only going to produce a maximum of 20 Megawatts of power for four months of the year? Or should this money be invested instead into a proven eco-friendly alternative like Solar energy! This is what the three villages in Mundgesar Gram of Sirsi taluk have done. These villages were without any electricity at all until solar panels were installed on the roofs of their homes. Now they will enjoy electricity year-round.

Even here in Coorg where rainfall is heavier than in Sirsi, solar panels will provide electricity for a minimum of 8 months of the year—at least twice the amount of time realistically projected for the proposed dams on the Barapole River. So it is clear that investment in solar is far wiser by any score for the people of Coorg than in hydel—large or small.

As for the proposed hydel project in Kerala near the Coorg border, a major difference between it and the proposed dams in Coorg exists: namely, the site for the Kerala dam is on private property—not in the middle of a Wilderness Sanctuary or Protected Area. Again, Mr. Uthappa conveniently failed to mention this fact in his article. But even the proposal for this dam admits there will be no electricity generated during ‘the lean flow period’ of the dry season.

In addition, though the engineer at the Kerala dam site claims the dam’s specifications have been altered, lowering the height of the dam so that no part of Coorg or forest area is inundated by water, the people of Coorg must continue to be vigilant and diligent in monitoring the final approvals for and construction of this dam if indeed it does proceed. Remember the lesson of both the Tehri and Narmada dams: according to the original proposals, neither one of these dams was initially planned to be located in Protected Areas, nor were they to inundate large areas of forestland or drown scores of villages. Indeed, the original height specification for the Narmada Dam (which is still available on the Internet) was only 30 metres. So the villagers near the dam sites were lulled into a false sense of security.

But once approval was secured and construction of the dams began with large amounts of money being spent, the height of both dams was raised higher and higher and higher. Currently, the Narmada Dam stands at 90 metres, with a projected finished height of 140 metres—almost five times the original specifications given, upon which approval for the dam was secured! Now village after village is sinking under the waters of the dams. We must not allow that to happen here! Hence, monitoring of the situation in Kerala will continue in earnest in order to protect the residents of Coorg and the forests in both Kerala and Coorg.

 

Biodiversity, Soil Fertility & Water: The Three Legs of Agriculture

Finally, the question still exists about whether small hydro projects are as benign or harmless as proponents have said. Since Mr. Uthappa has questioned our use of foreign studies with regard to the environmental impact of dams, we will use those compiled by an Indian—Mr. S.A. Abbasi—in his book “Water Resources Projects and their Environmental Impacts.”

In his book, Mr. Abbasi examines both the environmental and social impacts dam projects have had right here in India. He concludes that the construction of dams across India has had severe negative impacts in all areas, with even unexpected negative consequences, like the undermining of traditional water harvesting and storing practices that truly were both beneficial and benign to village and forest alike.

His assessments are shared by noted conservationist and environmental scientist Dr. Vandana Shiva (another Indian) of the Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology in Dehra Doon. Dr. Shiva explains that the three legs of agriculture are biodiversity, soil fertility and water. For 10,000 years Nature has fed the Indian people when they practiced traditional methods of agriculture, where water harvesting and crop rotation were combined with natural organic fertilizers and pesticides (like extracts from Neem and other locally grown plants,) and biodiversity of crops was emphasized. But today, as a direct result of the use of dams, over 20% of India’s best agricultural land has already been lost due to continuous cultivation, chemical fertilizers, water-logging and salinity (excess salt.)

In addition, today’s detrimental use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, and dangerous practice of ‘monoculture’ (growing only one variety of one crop) have left Indian agriculture in a perilous position, vulnerable to complete loss from crop disease. The traditional method of growing a number of crops and having diverse varieties of species within the same crop, including the periodic addition of newly-discovered ‘wild’ species from the forest, helped to ensure an abundant harvest even if some crops and/or varieties suffered due to pests or disease.

Furthermore, traditional water harvesting methods were generally small in scale and gentle on Mother Earth, whether they were small tanks and ponds or underground ‘surangams’ (derived from the Kannada word for ‘tunnel’) that are still in use today in some parts of the Western Ghats. Nutrient-laden waters from the forests would recharge these small tanks and ponds on a seasonal basis, thereby helping to increase soil fertility as well.

It takes 1000 tons of water to produce just 1 ton of grain. Only 1% of the Earth’s water is useable, since 99% of this most precious resource is locked up in the world’s oceans and polar icecaps. Of this 1%, only a small fraction is surface water; the rest is stored in underground reservoirs or lakes called ‘aquifers.’ Hence, it is obvious that conservation, preservation and protection of our forests, which are the origin of not only our vital water sources, but also the source of all biodiversity and soil fertility as well, is critical and crucial to our very survival.

China versus India

Returning to Mr. Abbasi’s observations and conclusions, in his chapter on small dam projects (also called ‘mini hydel or hydro projects’,) he points out that after Independence, the government spent huge sums of money building large dams for irrigation and electricity-generation with the belief that they were totally benign/harmless and only beneficial. The disastrous environmental impacts of large-scale dams have only been recognized and acknowledged during the last couple of decades.

Giving us a timely warning, he urges us all not to repeat the same mistake with regard to small dam projects because the environmental impacts of small hydro plants will only be known and felt after extensive use over a period of time. Hence, he cautions us not to rush blindly down the tunnel—literally—building small dams and installing small hydro projects in vast numbers. Otherwise, ‘the sad boon-to-doom history of large hydro,’ as he puts it, may end up being repeated with its smaller version.

Here is where patience and observation will pay off in the end. While Mr. Uthappa seems to question the use of foreign studies and examples in our articles, he is quick to use them in his own when he thinks it serves his purpose. China, as he points out, has indeed gone into small hydel projects in a big way, although they most certainly have not abandoned the monstrously huge Three Gorges Dam Project at all. Hence, we here in India are in the advantageous position of sitting back patiently and observing the results of these dams over time without having to invest in them ourselves, or of being saddled with any possible negative consequences as a result.

If the dams do truly turn out to be eco-friendly, we can always build our own in the future. If, however, problems arise that are hitherto unforeseen, we will not be the losers—China will be. For once a dam is built and the damage to the environment is done, there is no turning back the clock to set things right again. In the meantime, we can continue to invest in proven eco-friendly energy projects such as solar power.

There is another major difference between the people of China and the people of India, and that is that we here in India live in a democracy, not a dictatorship like China. Therefore, the people of this nation not only have the right but even a duty and obligation to be involved in the decision-making process on projects affecting the future of this country, and especially its environmental future. For the decisions we make today will have repercussions that last generations to come. It is our children and our children’s children that will reap the fruits of the seeds we sow today, whether they are ‘seeds’ that produce a sound ecologically-enhanced environment or ones of devastation, drought and disaster.

India—a Nation based on the Rule of Law

In addition, India has been and is supposed to be a nation based on the ‘Rule of Law.’ And these proposed projects—both the dams in the Wilderness Sanctuary and the drawing of electricity cables through our forests—are against the law, i.e., they violate several Directives and Orders from various government agencies and departments, including the highest court in the country—the Supreme Court of India.
We have already discussed the recent directives that have come from the Indian Board for Wildlife (IBWL) and reorganized National Board for Wildlife (NBWL), as well as the latest directive to come from the Union Ministry of Environment & Forests (MoEF), all of which ban projects such as these in both Protected Areas (PAs) like National Parks & Wilderness Sanctuaries, and Reserve and Revenue Forests. But even before these agencies and departments had passed their directives the Supreme Court had already prohibited such non-forest activities in PAs.

Indeed, the Supreme Court’s Order dated 14/2/2000 in IA No. 548 in Civil Writ Petition No. 202/95 goes even further, prohibiting even the cutting of grass in Protected Areas. This was followed by Directive No. 1-26/CEC/2003 from the Central Empowered Committee (CEC) dated 2nd July 2004, which was issued to all state and union territory Chief Secretaries, Principal Chief Conservators of Forests, and Chief Wildlife Wardens, with a copy issued to the Secretary of the Union MoEF.

In this directive, the CEC repeats the Court’s prohibition of any non-forest activity whatsoever in Protected Areas like National Parks and Wilderness Sanctuaries—activities ranging from the felling of trees/bamboo to digging of canals, underground mining, laying of cables or pipelines, or any type of construction, including the widening of roads, not to mention the construction of dams and powerhouses—without first obtaining approval from the Supreme Court.

Further Tightening of Guidelines

In light of this ruling, in 2004 the National Board for Wildlife (NBWL) furthered tightened its guidelines and procedures for considering exceptions from the prohibition of such activities in Protected Areas, stating that, “The Board’s approach should be to reject all such requests and only the exceptional should even be brought to the Board for consideration.”

Detailing further, under the section entitled ‘General Principles for Exceptional Consideration,’ where an area is biodiversity rich, its guidelines specify that, “unless it is a project of over-riding national importance such as the defence of the nation,” no non-forest projects can be allowed.

Clearly the building of 4 small dams that will produce electricity for only 4 months of the year is not a project of ‘over-riding national importance such as the defence of the nation.’ Nor is the drawing of high-tension electricity cables. Further, there is no doubt about the richness of the biodiversity found in the Brahmagiri Wilderness Sanctuary since it has already been designated by the UN as one of the 8 ‘hottest Hot Spots’ of biodiversity in the world.

With regard to the proposed dam in Kerala, its sole purpose, as stated in the project’s proposal papers, is to provide electricity for Travancore Chemical Mills of Cochin. If this dam impacts on a Protected Area (like any Wilderness Sanctuary or National Park) either in Karnataka or in Kerala in any way, it too will be violating not only the aforementioned clause, but also the one following it, which states that where the beneficiary of such a project is either an individual or a corporate body, no approval shall be given.

Finally, the guidelines outline detailed procedures for the project’s promoters to follow in order to even have their request considered. These include maps not only of the proposed project site within the Protected Area (PA), but also a detailed bio-diversity survey of the desired site, covering all known animals, along with distribution maps for the species within and adjacent to the PA, detailed maps of all water sources within the PA along with their flow patterns, vegetation and habitat maps not only of the site, but also of the PA, and a 5 to 10 km. band surrounding the PA on all sides, and information on the pattern of wildlife movements and corridors, not to mention a hefty fee to be paid to the NBWL for even considering their proposal, plus maps showing at least 3 alternate sites outside the Protected Area. This is followed by mandatory posting of the proposed project on the website of the Union MoEF along with public meetings so that the general public can give their input. On-site inspections must also be carried out by members of the NBWL before approval can be given.

Have the promoters of the Barapole dams project complied with these procedures? We think not, perhaps because they feel that they have the backing of individuals in the State government. But we would remind state officials like Mr. H.D. Revanna (state minister for PWD) and Mr. G. Nagmarapalli (state minister for forests) that the decision about these dams is not in their hands. It has already been made for them by the agencies and departments of the Union Government, not to mention the Supreme Court. In addition, state officials should be forewarned that failure to comply with these directives and orders and/or any action in contradiction to them warrants ‘contempt,’ and that show of contempt is punishable under the laws of this nation.

In Conclusion

In conclusion, the trustees of SAI Sanctuary Trust would like the general public to know that our sole reason for speaking out on this issue is our concern for the people of Kodagu District. SAI Sanctuary Trust was formed with one purpose in mind: to promote the welfare of the people of Kodagu through protection of the forests and environment from which we have reaped innumerable benefits.

Our mission is to preserve these Sacred Jewels of Kodagu—the forests and wildlife—in order to ensure a bright future for the next generation that will follow us, in the same manner that our forefathers preserved and protected our future by protecting the forests from which our water, our fresh air, our soil fertility, and all the rest of our wealth has come.

Our commitment to this mission includes sharing vital information with the residents of Kodagu so that we all are able to make informed decisions about critical issues affecting our district, our state and our nation, and we will continue to speak out on such issues in the future.

Each of us has a role to play in protecting our forests for the sake of future generations, and each of us shares in the responsibility of decisions made by us and on our behalf by our elected officials.

Therefore, let us THINK before we pick up the axe to cut down another native tree; let us THINK before we cut into our remaining forests, thereby cutting short our own future; let us THINK before we pick up a rifle to kill another wild animal, for it may be one of the last of its kind; and let us THINK before we allow anyone to come into our lands and put them and our future at risk.


From the Trustees of SAI Sanctuary Trust

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