Dharmalingam Venugopal, co-ordinator of the Save Nilgiris Campaign, gives his personal reminiscences of how and why the group fought a proposal for a 6MW hydro plant

THE NILGIRIS (meaning Blue Mountains) rise at the top of the Deccan plateau in South India. An ancient massif of 2478km2 towering 2670m at the pinnacle, its unique characteristics of physical geography and its natural and cultural diversity have been eulogised by scientists and poets. Over a thousand streams and streamlets on the plateau feed four major river basins.

When the hills were colonised around 1820, it did not take long for the ‘inexhaustible’ supply of water power these streams afforded to be recognised. In fact, this year marks the centenary of the first hydro power project set up on the hills, in 1903, to supply power to a munitions factory. The first major step to tap hydro power was taken when a 70MW project was completed in 1932. After Independence in 1947, big hydro projects were initiated in quick succession and between 1952 and 1966, six dams with an installed capacity of 600MW were added. After a lull in the 1970s and 1980s, the focus shifted to small hydro projects in the 1990s.

Kallarpallam project

It was against this background that the state government proposed a hydro project on the untapped eastern slopes of the Nilgiris. Originally, a major hydro project with an installed capacity of 50MW was contemplated, but it was given up on environmental grounds. Later the proposal was modified to a smaller hydro project. Even this project was subsequently revised with a view to ‘minimise the forest land to be acquired and avoid an area susceptible to landslides’. Finally a small hydro project with an installed capacity of 6MW was cleared by the government at Kallarpallam with a watershed extending to 6000ha. The mandatory public notification on the project was published in the newspapers in 1994 after all arrangements were made to start work on the project.

With only days left for the work on the project to start, there was no time for any kind of protest. The author of this article, as co-ordinator of the Save Nilgiris Campaign (SNC), decided to appeal directly to the chief minister of the state, Ms Jayalalitha.

In preparing the appeal against the project, we did not question the competence or the priorities of the Tamil Nadu Electricity Board (TNEB), which has the responsibility for planning and managing power in the state, which includes the administrative district of Nilgiris. Instead, we reassessed the project in the overall environmental and social interest of the Nilgiris in general and that of the project area in particular. For every point made by TNEB to justify the project we raised a counter point justifying its withdrawal.

According to TNEB, Tamil Nadu had no reserves of coal and so it had to tap hydro resources to meet the increasing demand for power. This is true, but it is also true for most other states, as only five have significant coal reserves. Tamil Nadu is in fact in a much better position as it has 94% of India’s total lignite reserves. What is more, Tamil Nadu has one of the lowest power deficits among the states and is one of the leading states in power planning.

TNEB said that as the cost of thermal power was comparatively high, it was the government’s policy to have a reasonable hydro-thermal mix. This is also true, but Tamil Nadu already has a comfortable ratio of 45% hydro power, compared to the national average of 26%. Moreover, Tamil Nadu had almost exhausted its hydro potential. In August 1993, the state’s share of remaining hydro power potential in the country was just 1.4%.

TNEB said that environmental hazards in thermal schemes were more than that of the hydro resources in general and small hydro projects in particular. The Save Nilgiris campaign believes that both options are detrimental to the environment. While the environmental hazards of thermal schemes in the form of atmospheric pollution were easily visible and immediately felt, the environmental hazards of hydro projects affected the ecology of an area.

TNEB noted that the Government of India was insisting on the development of non-conventional energy sources including small and mini hydro projects. The campaign argued that renewables should play a much greater role in the energy sector, but TNEB should get its priorities right. Tamil Nadu had made a huge success of tapping wind energy. The Save Nilgris Campaign believes the state would, therefore, do well to concentrate on areas like wind energy where the scope was larger than on small hydro schemes.

TNEB said the project had already been scaled down from its original capacity on environmental grounds. Campaigners said this was true, but in the intervening period the Nilgiris in general and the project region in particular had suffered serious environmental degradation. The natural habitats of the Nilgiris had been reduced to a few patches with disastrous consequences on biodiversity and tribal life in the hills. The land use pattern had been altered so frequently that the whole district had been rendered unstable, resulting in tremendous loss of natural vegetation, soil and water. Above all, ecological changes had contributed to frightening and frequent landslides.

TNEB said that of the 38ha to be acquired for the project only 5.30ha was under forest cover. However, campaigners cited a report from the Botanical Survey of India, commissioned to study the project area in 1986-87, which was very clear in its view that the area should be left alone. The study said, ‘The area adjacent to the dam site is mostly cleared for coffee plantation, cultivation of Eucalyptus globulus and Acacia mearnsii. However, the remaining patches of forests are of evergreen type inhabiting a large number of indigenous evergreen elements… the river is bounded by very rich riparian vegetation…The very existence of these forests depends greatly on the ecological balance maintained in this region for which the course of Kallarpallam river forms one of the important factors. By diverting the course of this river the whole ecosystem will be disturbed which in turn may lead to the ultimate destruction of this rich natural forest reported to harbour a number of endemic / endangered plants including orchids.’

Campaigners argued that the remains of the region’s moist evergreen forests must be protected at all cost. No compensatory reforestation, as offered by the TNEB, could replace the natural forest that had evolved over thousands of years.

Though campaigners were confident their reassessment would substantially weaken TNEB’s case, they had added evidence from a geologist who had directed the geological investigations of the Kallarpallam.

The Geological Survey of India (GSI), which resurveyed the project site in 1995, said that no adverse geological effect was anticipated at the proposed site. But campaigners said that since 1978, the whole of Nilgiris had suffered landslides and after 1990 the slides had become frequent. The underlying factors conducive to landslides – frequent changes in land use, overloading hill tops, diversion or blockage of natural drainage etc – had increased many times.

The GSI had classified the district into five zones on the basis of a Landslide Susceptibility Index (LSI). The project area was one of the highest risk areas for landslides. In the circumstances, the argument that the area where the physical structures of the project were going to be installed was stable could not carry conviction. If the whole region was unstable a few stable pockets here and there could not escape the cascading effects of landslides. There was also a geological fault near the project site.

TNEB had obtained the views of experts from the Geological Survey of India and others regarding the stability of the reservoir rim. It was claimed to be stable, but campaigners believed there were serious doubts. In the Nilgiris, as in other areas, landslides could be reactivated and hence the presence of a slide scar rendered an area susceptible to future slides. Two villages located 2km from the reservoir rim had all the potential for a major slide. Another village, again located at the reservoir rim, had evidence of at least five old slides.

Further, since the reservoir was for hydro generation and the water level in the reservoir was dictated by the power demand, rapid lowering of the water level in the reservoir could lead to a sudden release pressure, removing toe support and initiating a slide of the mass above the reservoir. Campaigners said the project should be reconsidered ‘in light of the strong possibilities of geological surprises in the project area which could have catastrophic consequences’.

The appeal to drop the Kallarpallam small hydro project was flashed in leading newspapers on 21 February 1995. A copy of the report was sent to the chief minister on 26 February and the project was dropped the next day.

Dams, big or small, must make economic as well as environmental sense, but at the same time environmental priorities should have a wider perspective. But the campaigners learned that a civil society or NGO need not always take the path of agitation to protest unwanted dam projects. They can have dialogue with the authorities and mobilise public opinion to modify or withdraw dam projects. What is important is that such objections should be well informed, sincere and truly in the public interest; and, preferably, raised before the project work is begun.