Dakshina Kannada, Karnataka: In the mountains of the Western Ghats, the chirping of birds, buzz of insects and swish of tree branches blends with other unrecognizable sounds, a reminder of the life that thrives in this UNESCO world biodiversity hotspot.
But this chorus of life has been widely disrupted and devastated (here, here and here) over the years by human activity, even by projects that were supposed to be benign and friendly to this environment, such as small hydropower projects, hundreds of which have been installed in the once pristine forests of the Western Ghats over the past two decades.
Since each state maintains separate data and the mountain range sprawls over half a dozen states, there are no consolidated data on the exact number of hydel projects in the Western Ghats, a chain of mountains older than the Himalayas, dating back 150 million years to the Jurassic age, inscribed in 2012 on a World Heritage List and one of the world’s eight “hottest hotspots” of biological diversity.
Running over 1,600 km along India’s western coast, the Western Ghats influence the south-west monsoon, and feed three of India’s seven biggest rivers, supplying water to much of the Indian peninsula, home to about a fourth of the country's population.
Small hydropower projects, typically between 0.5 and 24.5 mega watts (MW), enough to light up a village on the lower end and a city on the higher, have increased human-elephant conflict, led to the loss of thousands of trees, disrupted riverine life and the lives of local communities.
Yet, the electricity generated is sold to urban communities and factories outside the forest, and those living around the dam gain little or nothing, according to a 2017 study led by Suman Jumani, a researcher studying freshwater ecosystems, currently pursuing her PhD at the University of Florida.
In the Western Ghats, South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People (SANDRP), an advocacy, documented in 2013 how small hydropower projects in the Western Ghats fraudulently used regulatory loopholes to evade environmental scrutiny.
‘The Darkness Under The Lamp’
“Deepa da buda kattale,” said Vasudha Gogate, 65, speaking in the local Tulu language, as she spoke to Article 14 sitting in her spacious home with tiled roof surrounded by lush forests. Roughly translated: “the darkness under the lamp”.
Vasudha’s husband Karunakar, 68, is the president of a protest group called the Kumaradhara Samrakshana Parisara Samiti, or Committee to Protect Kumaradhara and the Environment, formed to protest a proposed 24 MW Kukke small hydropower project to be built by the Greenko group from Hyderabad.
Its name borrowed from the famous Kukke Subrahmanya temple in the region, the Greenko project, which consists of a proposed dam and power plant, would come up across the Kumaradhara, a tributary of river Netravati.
“They think if they name the project after God, there will be more support for it,” said Vasudha. Her husband said he would like to see official confirmation that the project would be dropped in his lifetime.
Most people in the area own land or work in the fields as labourers, mobilising support from within and outside to scientifically prove the damage the project would cause. They have managed to halt any progress beyond identification of the proposed project site.
The Kumaradhara river basin is home to rare endangered fish and plant species, according to a 2013 study by the Indian Institute of Science in Bengaluru. On the whole, small hydropower projects are quick to lose efficiency due to sedimentation and create dry water stretches that fragment the river and cause riverine species to go locally extinct, said Jumani.
Little Or No Regulatory Oversight
If completed, the Kukke project would not just submerge an estimated 297 acres of forest land and 400 acres of agricultural land—the size of 224 and 302 football fields respectively—it would also submerge another smaller hydel project downstream, an aspect highlighted by independent investigators.
How something like this could have been missed can be attributed, experts said, to little or no regulatory oversight for small hydropower projects.
“There is no governance mechanism surrounding small hydel projects in India, that is the main problem,” said Parineeta Dandekar, associate coordinator of the SANDRP. “They are exempt from the EIA (environment impact assessment) notification of 2006 and entire environment clearance procedures.”
Being exempt from the EIA notification implies there is no need for a public hearing before a project moves forward, which means local communities affected by it have no way to voice their concerns.
Typically, the adverse fallout of renewable sources of energy, which is what small hydropower projects are, receives little attention in India, said Dandekar.
As world leaders at COP26, the global climate-change conference, meet in Glasgow between October 31 and 12 November to discuss ways to limit global temperature rise to 1.5 deg C, the social and environmental costs of small hydropower projects are relevant to India and the pledges it has made.
The Push For Renewables
The world’s fourth largest emitter of carbon, behind China, the US and the EU, India is turning to renewable energy to reduce its dependence on the highly polluting coal.
With some of the world’s worst air turning the Indo-Gangetic plain into a gas chamber, finding cleaner ways of meeting its energy needs will also pay public health dividends for Indians.
Currently a fourth of India’s installed power capacity comes from renewables. Energy from solar, wind and hydropower are a part of this mix. In July 2021 India had 96.96 GW of renewable energy capacity, and the government hopes to increase this by five times to 523 GW by 2030.
Of this, the plan is hydro power plants will supply 73 GW, nearly double of the current 46.3 GW. Small hydropower projects, currently at 4.8 GW, are a relatively small component in this mix.
This masks the sheer number of such projects and their outsize impact on forests and local communities. In Karnataka alone there are over 112 projects planned, according to data from the ministry of new and renewable energy.
Along with the Himalayan state of Himachal Pradesh and Maharashtra, also a state that hosts the Western Ghats, these states occupy the top three spots in installed small hydropower capacity nationwide, with hundreds of projects.
“So there is no doubt that the destination is clear,” said Bharath Jairaj, who leads the energy programme at the World Resources Institute-India, a think tank, referring to India’s plan for its energy sector. “It is going to be a predominantly renewable-energy looking (sic) sector.”
But the terms small and large are deceptive, when used with hydropower projects.
An Arbitrary Threshold–25 MW
There is no internationally accepted definition of small hydro power projects.
“SHP (small hydropower projects) are often defined based on their installed hydropower capacity, and most countries adopt 10 MW as the cut-off,” said Jumani. “In India, we define SHP projects as those that produce less than 25 MW.”
That the threshold takes into account the power capacity of a project can be misleading.
“A 5 MW dam can cause more submergence or adverse environmental impact than a 25 MW dam based on dam location and characteristics,” said Jumani. “Instead, dam size definitions based on dam height and reservoir area are likely to be better indicators of impact.”
Article 14 sought comment over email on 12 October 12 from Indu Shekhar Chaturvedi, secretary, ministry of new and renewable energy (MNRE) and from G Upadhyay, scientist, (MNRE) on17 October. We sent a reminder to both on 1 November. We will update this story if and when we receive a response.
Small hydropower projects are built across rivers and need the water to flow from a certain altitude, making them ideal for rivers originating in the Himalayas and Western Ghats. But with climate change and human intervention likely increasing landslides and floods, experts point to the potential damage small hydropower projects could cause.
Small Dams, Big Damage: A Himalayan Lesson
In February 2021, a flash flood in Uttarakhand washed away a 13.2 MW small hydropower project, damaged a larger project downstream and killed 12 people.
“That is when we came to know that even the smaller dams can wreak havoc,” said Kavita Upadhyay, a hydropower researcher based in Uttarakhand. The methods of construction for both small and large dams can be similar.
“You’re obstructing a river, that’s problematic,” said Upadhyay. “Explosives can be used (the areas are fragile and this could cause damage and could cause landslides). You are dumping the muck that is excavated into the river—elevating the river bed. If a flood comes, the river can’t contain the water the next time.”
Those in Kukke have witnessed this happen to communities nearby. They spoke of cracks in homes due to blasting during construction and inundation of land.
Then there are those who do not have official titles to their land and stand to lose all of it.
“Many of those who come to work in our lands also own small pockets of land but might not have the proper documentation,” said Kiran Gogate, also a member of the Kumaradhara Samrakshana Parisara Samiti. “When that land is submerged they can’t do anything about it.”
Fraud In The Name Of Renewables
Green-energy projects in developing countries can be used to earn emission reduction credits under an international programme called the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM).
These credits can then be sold to industrialised countries so they can meet a part of their targets.
In Kukke, SANDRP helped the locals write to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which runs the CDM programme, to complain that they were not told about the possibility of their land being submerged if the project went ahead.
Dandekar, the researcher with SANDRP, discussed the case of another project less than half an hour drive from Kukke on the Netravati, also by the Greenko group, where there are two 24.5 MW projects on the same dam, a fact she uncovered during a site visit.
“On one side of the river they call it the Perla project, on another they call it the Shamburi project,” said Dandekar, who alleged a large dam was being passed off as a small dam to circumvent the need for environmental clearance. “It's a classic fraud.”
Article 14 visited both sides of the river but couldn’t independently verify the size of the project, locally called the AMR project, after AMR Power Pvt Ltd, a subsidiary of the Greenko group. Both the Perla and Shamburi projects have applied for credits under CDM.
Article 14 sought comment over email on 20 October from the corporate office of the Greenko group, but there was no response. We followed up with another email on 1 November 1 to M M Rao, a vice president (procurement) for the Kukke project and J Ravi Prakash, another vice president (risk management).
We also called the Greenko corporate office who redirected us to the Hyderabad office where there was no response to the phone call.
The Ideal Small Hydropower Project
Small hydropower projects initially had the support of movements that were against large dams, said Manju Menon, a senior fellow at the Centre for Policy Research, a public policy think tank.
But these projects were supposed to be designed around the needs of the local communities, in a way that doesn’t disrupt livelihoods.
Menon said these projects were regarded not just as technologies but as “decentralised institutional interventions”. “But governments have taken these projects from local discourses and put them into the hands of contractors and dam builders,” she added.
In Nagaland, for instance, localised hydro projects reach electricity to remote areas. Experts said instead of a small-versus-big debate, each project deserved to be assessed on environmental parameters, such as location, how it would change the flow of a river, what the benefits and impact would be.
As India scales up renewables, said experts, there is also a need to have conversations that involve local communities and assess the social costs.
Our understanding of environmental and social impacts of infrastructure projects is minimal, said Jairaj of the WRI India, who clarified that this lack of understanding isn’t restricted to just the energy sector.
“If we were to spend a little more time understanding what the impacts are going to be, we could plan to mitigate and avoid them,” said Jairaj. “But instead of using this opportunity to do this right, we are continuing in many ways to ignore the social and environmental impacts.”
Those fighting the Greenko project in Kukke are conscious of what other hydropower projects have wrought and what they stand to lose. “All the similar projects in Dakshina Kannada generate less electricity than initially proposed. When it comes to issues (such as floods during the monsoons season, local houses developing cracks during construction of the project and loss of forests) there were a lot more than the villagers were told of,” said Karunakar.
“We think if such projects go ahead they only create problems,” said Karunakar. There are no benefits.”
This story was produced with the support of Internews’ Earth Journalism Network.
(Disha Shetty is an independent science journalist writing on public health, environment and gender.)