Twenty kilometres southwest of Mysore city is Chamalapura, a small village with about 80 households. The verdant landscape, rich agricultural lands and the nearby Nagahole and Bandipur National Parks combine to form such an enchanting picture that this area is called Kanasugarana Kanive (dreamers valley).
But this thriving ecosystem is being threatened by the possibility of the Karnataka government locating a coal-fired thermal plant here a move that is being vehemently opposed by the local farmer populace, environmentalists and the gram panchayat of Chamalapura.
These protests seem to have yielded some success at least for the moment. In a significant development that can impact the future of the Chamalapura project, the Karnataka Udyog Mitra in its letter dated 6 June 2008 confirmed that the State High Level Clearance Committee in its 13th meeting on the project "took note of the agitations of the farmers, activists of progressive organisations, intellectuals (and) decided to defer decision on the project proposal."
In a related development, the Karnataka Industrial Area Development Board has also confirmed that it has not moved ahead with acquisition of the land as the Power Company of Karnataka Limited (PCKL) a state utility enterprise meant to promote the development of new power projects in the state has not evinced any interest in pursuing the 2007 demand for 1000 acres of land at Chamalapura.
In light of these recent developments, the Bangalore-based Environment Support Group (ESG), which is campaigning against the Chamalapura project, has demanded that the Government of Karnataka drop its proposal to locate a thermal power station at Chamalapura. Such a move will send a strong positive signal to the farmers who are fearing dispossession of their lands. In addition it will also indicate that the government is sensitive to environmental and social concerns and such a decision can also act as precedent for future power projects.
Chamalapura forms the epicentre of a group of villages chosen by the Karnataka state government as the site for a 1000 MW coal-fired thermal power plant. The plant and its related facilities will require about 3000 acres of land, out of which about 600 acres are forest land. Independent social impact assessments conducted by Environment Support Group (due to be published), found that the acquisition of the 2400 odd acres of agricultural lands will displace more than 13,000 people.
Most households in the region are marginal farmers, predominantly Dalit. Land for most farmers is the only source of livelihood and also their only asset. Most of them eke their living from unirrigated lands of one to five acres. A significant proportion of this Dalit population has acquired their land only after the implementation of the Land Reform legislation. Many have not studied beyond high school and agricultural work is the only skill set that they possess.
Displacement will wipe out the tiny hope of livelihood security that they presently have and push them back to square one. In such a context displacement is disastrous and is thus being stiffly resisted. Right from the early months of 2007 when the state governments plans became public, the people of Chamalapura have resisted the move to locate the power plant in their vicinity.
The local leaders organised roadblocks and protest marches in Mysore and Bangalore, and the Gram Panchayat passed a resolution opposing the setting up of the thermal power plant. The Government has dealt with such resistance with enormous force. Farmers protesting in Mysore have been brutally attacked by police contingents in a vain attempt to contain the resistance.
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Rush to invite bids
Projects requiring an investment of more than Rs.50 crores require an in-principle clearance from the High Level Clearance Committee headed by the chief minister, under the Karnataka Industries (Facilitation Act), 2002. One would expect that a 1000 MW power plant being set up under the BOO (Build, Own and Operate) model, as a public-private partnership and mooted by agencies of the Karnataka government, would comply with procedure laid down by the state law.
Instead, the State Power Procurement Coordination Centre (SPPCC), a subsidiary agency of the state coordinating the project, invited by intentional advertisements, Expression of Interest (EOI) in the project during February 2007. Subsequently, it sent out a global invitation for Request for Qualification inviting bids for setting up a 1000 MW power plant at Chamalapura in August 2007. All such actions were undertaken without seeking clearance from the High Level Clearance Committee headed by the chief minister. This clearance was was secured only on 29 September 2007.
An in-principle clearance is not a mere formality. Granting it should be the outcome of a careful process of deliberation of the pros and cons of a project, and transparent examination of the criteria guiding site selection for the project. In this case, most decisions have been taken by a select bureaucracy without transparency and accountability to the state.
Can the Kabini water this project?
A thermal power plant requires enormous amounts of water. The Chamalapura thermal power plant is to meet its water requirements by lifting water from the Kabini river, which is close by.
The Karnataka Water Resources Department has accorded an in-principle clearance for 3.90 TMC (thousand million cubic feet) of water from the Cauvery Basin (of which the Kabini is a part) for three thermal power plants; Chamalapura power plant has been allocated 1.56 TMC of water annually. However, examination of inflow, outflow and water utilisation data for the Kabini reservoir for the decade 1997-2008, accessed from the Karnataka Water Resources Department and the Cauvery Neeravari Nigama Ltd, presents an alarming picture of water deficit.
This data reveals that there has been a gradual decrease in the level of inflows into the Kabini reservoir over the past decade. In addition there has been decreasing availability of water for irrigation of summer crops. The data demonstrates that the actual utilisation of water for summer crops has been less than the planned utilisation in almost all years. In fact there have been no releases into the canal for irrigation during the months of January to May in the years 2003 and 2004.
While estimating the water requirements of a power plant, it is necessary to consider additional water demands due to potential expansion of the power plants installed capacity and that of downstream industrialisation in surrounding areas. This means that the future demand for water will be much higher than the 1.56 TMC currently provided for. Presently water is being allocated to a power plant even though there is inadequate water for planned irrigation.
The allocation of 1.56 TMC of water by the state water resources department is thereby a case of diversion of water from agricultural to industrial use. Natural justice principles require that water should first be allocated for drinking, then for agriculture, and only the surplus should be made available to industry or infrastructure development. Evidently, the state water resources department has considered none of such determinants in deciding the use of Kabini waters in terms of the principles of natural justice.
Such diversion of water close to the origins of the river will also have detrimental effects on drinking water provision in several downstream cities. Several urban areas, including Nanjangud, Mandya and the massive metropolitan area of Bangalore, rely on Kabini waters for their drinking water needs. To tackle the increasing water shortage in Mysore city, the state has proposed a drinking water supply scheme from the Kabini. In this situation where urban areas are reeling under a serious shortage of water, the allocation of Kabini waters to Chamalapura and three other power plants is only likely to exacerbate the situation.
Site selection without adherence to central and state guidelines
Coal-fired thermal power plants are considered highly polluting and hazardous facilities with serious long term consequences. It is for this reason that they are categorised under the Red Category of Pollution Index by the State Pollution Control Board. The Ministry of Environment and Forests also recognises the polluting nature of coal-fired thermal power plants and has prescribed Guidelines for Siting Thermal Power Plants in 1987.
Details of how the Chamalapura coal-fired thermal power plant does not meet the siting criteria are shown in the table below.
Guidelines for Siting Thermal Power Plants, 1987 (MoEF)
Siting Standard (KSPCB)
Location of thermal power plants should be avoided within 25 kms of the outer peripheries of national parks and sanctuaries.
Power plants have to be located at least 25 kms from ecologically and/or otherwise sensitive areas, depending on the geo-climatic conditions with the rider that the requisite distance shall have to be increased by the appropriate agency. Ecologically sensitive areas include national parks and sanctuaries and tribal settlements.
The southern extent of the proposed site around Chamalapura is well within 20 kms of Nagarhole National Park. Bandipur National Park is also located close to Chamalapura.
No forest or prime agricultural land should be utilised for setting up TPPs or for ash disposal.
No forest land shall be converted into non-forest activity for the sustenance of the industry.
From most estimates, between 300-800 acres of forest land will have to be diverted to non-forest use at this site. The Chamalapura region also has extensively cultivated agricultural lands.
The state governments decision to site the thermal power plant in close proximity of ecologically sensitive areas such as Nagerhole and Bandipur National Parks is clearly discordant with scientific evidence of the extensive impact of power plants on surrounding areas. The site has been chosen without any assessment of the long term (or even short term) ecological and environmental impacts. This was confirmed by the Principal Chief Conservator of Forests and the Conservator of Forests (Mysore Circle), according to information sourced through the Right to Information (RTI) Act. This means that the impact of a power plant's operations on wildlife habitats has not been considered important enough to influence the state governments siting decisions.
Furthermore, the SPPCC admits that site selection has not been guided by geo-technical or topographical studies of the region, according to information sourced using RTI Act. Ash disposal in coal-fired power plants is amongst the most serious environmental issues to be considered during siting.
A comprehensive understanding of geo-technical and topographic issues of the region is a critical consideration in the decision to site power plants. A good site will ensure minimal contamination of surface and ground water aquifers. Conversely, if the soil porosity is very high, the cost of containing leachates from reaching aquifers will be extraordinarily high.
Admittedly, studies that would bring us closer to appreciating if Chamalapura meets these standards have not been conducted. In the lack of such understanding the fact that the government rushed into inviting bids for the project exposes its perilous approach in developing such critical energy infrastructure.