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Hotspot As Trouble Spot

By K A Shaji

05 June, 2007

The Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve, one of the world's top bio-diversity hotspots which hosts several endemic species of plants and animals, might just fall off the world biosphere map altogether if the proposed multi-dam Pandiar Punnapuzha Hydro-electric Project comes up at Gudalur near Udhagamandalam, better known as Ootty.

The controversial project could not only result in large swathes of forests being submerged but also in displacing about 2,000 families of Tamil repatriates and refugees from Sri Lanka, who already have enough to tell on the tyranny of displacment . What's more, the tunnels planned for the project at strategic positions would result in the loss of elephant corridors and a further depletion of bio-diversity in the highly vulnerable area. The disposal of the debris caused by the construction activity would come as an additional threat to the already fragile forest environment. Both human beings and wild would not have any benefit out of the project, which promised to be the answer to electricity and water needs of Coimbatore region.

When completed, the Pandiyar-Ponnupuzha Hydro-electricity Project is expected to generate 442 MU of power with an installed capacity of 3 X 50 MW. It involves four major dams, two diversion weirs, a 36.3 km long subterranean tunnel, penstock laying and two major power houses. Numerous roads and housing quarters would also have to be built as part of the project. It was conceived to utilise the west-flowing rivers which originate in Kerala. In 1965 an interstate agreement between Kerala and Tamil Nadu on the project was arrived at. The plant was to be built in Kezh Nadukani on the banks of Karakottupuzha, close to the interstate boundary of Tamil Nadu.

The Planning Commission cleared the project in 1968. In 1969, a new modified proposal was submitted to increase the installed capacity from 3 X 50 MW to 4 X 50 MW. But with the requests to study the feasibility of diverting the Pandiyar-Punnapuzha waters for irrigation in Tamil Nadu, the project was stopped. Tamil Nadu wanted the diversion of entire 14 TMC of water here into its region so that it could set up a power house at Sirgur on banks of Moyar River, instead of the Kezh Nadukani plant. Kerala objected to this. On its part, it proposed an additional power house in its territory which would not entail major construction.

This lack of unanimity on the location and use of the project led to it being stalled. Now, following a series of discussions between the chief ministers of the two states, the project is once again being actively considered. Indeed, it has gained considerable momentum of late, with expert panels visiting the sites recently.

As often happens in situations like this, the local people have been kept in the dark about the various implications the proposed dams would have on their lives. According to the People's Action Committee, their disadvantages far outweigh the gains. The group is opposing the implementation of the proposed project and has already staged a series of protests in Kerala. It believes the project would hit the state badly as the entire water balance in the Chaliar basin would be disturbed. The Chaliar river could even dry up if the river's course is diverted, it fears.

It also claims that since the project site lies bang in the Nilgiris biosphere reserve (which was established in 1984) and at the crucial junction of the Eastern and the Western Ghats, it poses a threat to all the four forest ranges of the Nilgiris.

The forest areas which would be submerged lie in the Mudumalai Wildlife Sanctuary; Gudalur division and the Nilgiri north division. At the same time, the proposed 27.2 km diversion tunnel connecting the two stages of the project lie underneath the pristine reserved forest areas.

According to the Tamil Nadu Electricity Board report, 160 hectares of reservoir area would be submerged under the Segur Forebay Dam and the actual area that would meet a watery grave would be twice the reservoir area which is about 320-350 hectares (ha). Out of this, 160-175 ha would fall within the Avarahalla Reserve Forest of the Mudumalai Wildlife Sanctuary. Another 16 ha of the Avarahalla forest would be required for the construction of roads, dam, and power house.

The impact of the project will also be felt on the wildlife of the region. Karnataka's Bandipur national park, which is a declared tiger reserve, would be seriously affected as the Segur power house falls within a few meters from the park. A technical report done by Surendra Verma of the Asian Elephant Conservation Centre highlights the adverse impact that the project would have on elephant life in the region.

According to this report, the 13-km-long Punnapuzha reservoir, with an average width of 0.8 km lies right across the migratory path of the Asian elephant. This path lies between the Mukurthy National Park, Gudal division, and the Nilambur forest division on the southern edge of Mudumalai wildlife sanctuary. The project could result in segregating the elephant population, and confining them to non-viable patches. This, Varma points out, would also increase human-animal conflicts in and around the forested areas.

The Asian elephant migrates annually from the Wynad and Moyar plateaux to the Eastern Ghats (Moyar valley and its surrounding hills) following the monsoon. In other words, they pass through the very area that has been earmarked for this project. Incidentally, the Project Elephant Action Plan has identified the Nilgiri Eastern Ghats population as one of the most viable in Asia. The elephants here number over 6,300 and they are spread over a habitat of 12,000 sq km.

The dam site of Pandiar-Punnapuzha power house, Pentstock and Surge Shaft which lie in the prime elephant habitat also supports panthers, tigers and the sloth bear. Segur also supports a very good population of the four-horned antelope, sambar, chital, striped hyenas, sloth bears and wild dogs, panthers, civets and pangolins. The submergence of forest in this area would lead to the loss of habitat for these species. The riverine forest which connects a lot of habitats would be affected by the submergence and this would take a toll on frugivorous species like monkeys, squirrels, sloth bears and various in the region. Many of the animals here find mention in Schedule 1 of Wildlife Protection Act.

The last word on the project should then go to Krupakar, a wildlife enthusiast and photographer. ``It is a `damned project', anyway you see it,'' he says.

(This article is part of a media fellowship awarded by National Foundation for India)

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