The uber costs of EIA 2020: Green clearance to 239 dams will inundate an estimated 900 hectares of forest land

Himanshu N | Down to Earth

This story was updated September 24, 2020 to reflect changes in quotations by Suman Jumani and Siddarth Machado. It was first published August 28, 2020

The new Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) draft, if approved, would cause catastrophic impacts on the environment as many dams and hydroelectric projects would escape environmental clearances due to proposed amendments, scientists have claimed. 

Experts at South Asia Network of Dams, River and People (SANDRP), in collaboration with ATREE (Ashoka Trust for Research In Ecology and the Environment), estimate that about 900 hectares of forest would submerge with the 240 dams proposed for hydroelectric and drinking water purpose across the country. The ecological impact of submerging these forests will remain unassessed. 

“A list of 239 dams has been identified out of which, works at some dams has already started while others are awaiting approval. But with the proposed draft of EIA notification, these approvals would no longer be needed,” Amruta Pradhan, a PhD scholar at ATREE, said. 

Pradhan said thousands of people were about to lose their lands without being able to fight against it and this was clearly unjust. 

She cited a clause from the draft:

If the public agency or authority nominated under the sub-clause (7) above reports to the Regulatory Authority concerned that owing to the local situation, it is not possible to conduct the public hearing in a manner which will enable the views of the concerned local persons to be freely expressed, it shall report the facts in detail to the concerned Regulatory Authority, which may, after due consideration of the report and other reliable information that it may have, decide that the public consultation in the case need not include the public hearing

Pradhan said the words ‘owing to the local situation’ were fuzzy and unclear.

“The construction of dams is often commenced hastily and without obtaining free, informed and prior consent of the local people. So, there is usually opposition or protests from the local population at the proposal stage or even pre-preparation works,” she said.

“The phrase gives a free hand to the authorities to simply ignore the protests and take away their lands,” she added.

Small Hydropower Projects (SHPs) comprise of dams generating electricity up to 25 watts, according to the draft.

“The EIA 2020 draft may encourage the proponents to show on paper that the bigger hydroelectric projects are a cluster of SHPs so that each of them could be considered as an individual project and could escape environmental scrutiny altogether. In such a scenario, the cumulative loss to the environment would be significant,” Pradhan said.

Suman Jumani, a researcher who is a part of the study on Big concerns with small projects: Evaluating the socio-ecological impacts of small hydropower projects in India, said:

EIA 2006 also exempted SHPs from obtaining environmental clearances and conducting public hearings, except for when they fell within protected areas or eco-sensitive zones. This lack of oversight and regulation has led to the proliferation of thousands of small dams across the country

Jumani said the new draft will allow industries and corporates to get exempted, something that will allow free exploitation of rivers.

“Rivers are large complex ecosystems that serve a range of ecosystem services and functions from their head waters to estuary. Dams and other river infrastructure projects impact the ecological integrity of rivers by altering natural flow regimes and fragmenting riverine connectivity, which in turn lead to adverse ecological and social consequences,” she added. 

The group studied the impacts of SHPs in the basin of the Gundia river, an important tributary of the west-flowing Nethravathi River in Karnataka. 

Siddarth Machado, a plant researcher from the study group, said there were startling revelations about the effects of dams.

“Dammed streams had fewer numbers of fish species with the impact being most apparent in the dewatered stretches of the river. In terms of social impact, little to no local employment was generated contrary to what was assured by the dam developers,” he said.

Machado said building a dam causes the disruption of a river’s natural water flow. “The river is fragmented, thus disturbing the habitat of fish and fauna which becomes absent due to lack of water or depth required for fish to move,” he added.

Machado noted that while SHPs were said to be a clean source of energy, development of infrastructure like roads and the deforestation caused by it, damaged the environment. “An SHP on a big river may look like a small impact, however, the same-sized project on a smaller river will have devastating effects,” he said.

Current government policies did not address such issues, he added. 

Experts feel that such examples are already present and have shown detrimental impacts on the environment.

Parineeta Dandekar, a researcher with SANDRP, said, “Many big dam projects may get split like in the case of Mouneswar and Basavanna hydel projects and Greenko’s 24.75 megawatt (MW) Perla Mini Hydel Project at Perla village near Bantwal, Mangalore.”

On her visit to the site, Dandekar found two different hydroelectric projects on a single dam built on the Nethravathi, hiding under the guise of mini-hydel projects.

“The one at Perla was 24.75 MW, while the other was the 49.50 MW Shemburi project. The cumulative impact on the environment is huge. The move exempted the company to undergo environmental impact assessments and also getting the necessary clearances,” she said.

Dandekar said the 18.4-meter high dam caused the upstream areas to flood, with villages, including coconut and areca nut plantations, getting submerged. The residents could not even fight for their rights in a court of law, she added.

There is a similar case from Gulbarga district in north Karnataka. “During the inspection of the project, it was found that though having different names — 24.75 MW Mouneswar Small Hydel Project and 24.75 MW Basavanna Hydro Project, both entities operate from a single dam / diversion weir across the Krishna river. The dams are downstream of the Narayanpur Dam,” Dandekar said.

“In actual terms, the project should be considered as a single 49.50 MW Hydel project and require environmental, social and legal scrutiny and further assessment,” she added. 

Dandekar also learnt that people were misinformed about the project being for irrigation purposes. “The locals saw their homes getting submerged and water supply getting disrupted after assurances of development were given,” she said.

Pradhan said other examples included the Kalu Dam from Maharashtra, that has escaped EC requirement even though it is a ‘big’ dam, with over 5,000 hectares forest land submergence as it is proposed for drinking water purposes. Thus, no EIA has been required. 

“Damanganga Pinjal River Link and Yettinhole project in coastal Karnataka are some other projects that have similarly escaped the need for EC,” Pradhan said. 

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