How a 15 MW project with 55 mts high dam threatens 5 villages and a fish sanctuary
After an analysis of a particularly nasty dam, I felt like going back to flowing rivers. It is monsoon after all. The plan was to visit Kal River in Western Ghats of Raigad District in Maharashtra to understand how a community in a small village called Walen Kondh is protecting the river and Mahseer fish. Mahseer (Deccan Mahseer, Tor tor) is classified as endangered as per IUCN classification and most wild Deccan Mahseer populations have been wiped out in India. And hence a small, out of the way place, protecting these fish as well as the river voluntarily was like a breeze of fresh air.
For centuries, communities around the rocky Kal River from villages like Walen Kondh, Dapoli, Panderi, etc., have worshipped and protected Mahseer fish as babies of Goddess Vardayini (The boon-bestowing one). Kal, arising from the Sahyadri (Western Ghat Ranges) is a major tributary of the west-flowing River Savitri, which originates at Mahabaleshwar. Kal flows mostly through Mahad block of Raigad District, meets Savitri which forms the vast Bankot estuary as it meets the Arabian Sea.
Here in the small Kal Basin, there are several myths of how the River Goddess helped the villagers in myriad ways, even bringing up ornaments and utensils for village weddings. But then, mortals “defaulted” on debt repayments and the gifts stopped brimming over the river. But her Mahseer still congregated in hundreds. A strict ban on fishing is a part of the lore, no desecration of the river is allowed in any way. Drinking alcohol even in vicinity of the river banks is banned, so is tree felling. The code is not to disturb the fish in any way. This led to the villagers refusing an agency which proposed to collect seed from these fish for their hatchery. Economic interests take the back seat when it comes to the river and fish. The picture of Mahseer congregating swiftly in an emerald green river, as the devotees clap and throw puffed rice has an unreal, dream-like quality to it.
To cross the river on a narrow, swinging (and hugely scary) steel bridge, we were asked to remove our shoes and bow to the river banks. Ahead of us was a young couple with their infant who had come to seek blessings of the River goddess for their child.
Dams, dwindling water levels and pollution have wiped out Mahseer from most of peninsular Rivers in India. But here, the river is teeming with the fish, just before it is rendered dead by the Chemical Industries Estate of MIDC (Maharashtra Industries Development Corporation) at Mahad. Walen Kondh is a very special place, deserving all our respect. For me, this is a rare story of hope, of protecting rivers and their magic in the form of divine fish. In an otherwise parched milieu where rivers are routinely rendered water-less, places like Walen Kondh are oases…places to keep returning to.
But the villagers were worried. When I told them about similar fish sanctuaries I studied in Karnataka, the first question was “what do they do when water levels drop?” In Walen Kondh, the Mahseer congregate in last remaining deep pools, directly below the shrine when river levels drop, but cruel summers have meant meager, warm water and increasing fish deaths.
And then they said that they are worried about the dam in the upstream which will further decrease the water flow in the river.
“Dam? What Dam?”
“Oh the Kal Dam in Waghera village, about 5-6 kms from Walen Kondh sanctuary. It is a huge dam and it will divert Kal river into a different river,” said Prashant Kalgude, member of the Vardayini Temple Committee.
It seems you cannot run too far from dams in Maharashtra.
We hiked some 6 kilometers to reach the under construction Dam.
Kal Dam is a massive 55 meters high dam which is all but complete, last part river plugging remains. Skeletons of broken machines, even dumpers lie derelict at the site. The site officers and watchman are bemused but a bit wary to see us. “No one comes here anymore. No officer has visited this place for some years now. But the work is not scrapped,” says the old security guard. The Maharashtra Water Resources Department is still issuing tenders worth crores (more than Rs 7 crores) for completing the projects. He happily told us the way we should follow to go to “see all of the villages in the submergence area. All of them will be gone when the river is plugged.”
We climbed up a steep hill, nearly parallel to the dam crest now to see the valley upstream which will be submerged when water is impounded. We see the scenic valley with several small settlements, mango orchards, freshly planted paddy fields, grazing cattle. It is hard to comprehend that all this will drown.
And this is to generate only 15 MW from Kal hydroelectric project (HEP)! 
Yes, Kal HEP, a part of the Kal-Kumbhe Composite Project, is a mere 15 MW Project. The associated Kumbhe Project which entails one more dam and tunnel is a 10 MW project. This Kumbhe dam is built high up on the mountains of Sahyadri near a village called Kumbhe. The water from here will be tunneled to Powerhouse of 10 MW Kumbe from where water will flow to the Kal Dam. It is composite Kal-Kumbhe Project only because water from Kumbhe powerhouse will be diverted into the Kal Reservoir after power generation. All other project components are separate, including two dams, for both these projects. Kumbhe dam will partially submerge one village.
According to discussions with several villagers and the Raigad Irrigation Office, Kal reservoir will submerge 5 villages: Chatri Nizampur: which is at the foothills of the historically important Raigad (where Shivaji Maharaj’s coronation ceremony in the 17th Century), Kawle, Bawle, Chandoshi and Saavarat. More than 1,500 people will be evicted from their homes and homesteads. Maharashtra State Data Bank says that affected villages will be 8 for Kal and 1 for Kumbhe.
But that is not all. Powerhouse of Kal HEP (Hydroelectric Project) is not in the downstream of Kal Dam, but in a different sub-basin of Savitri across a mountain range. A huge tunnel has been blasted into this mountain. This tunneling work remains half done. On the other side, paltry work on the powerhouse goes on. This place is village Konzar where most people are clueless about the cause for all this blasting and tunneling. All water of Kal River will be diverted into a different river called Gandhari (which eventually meets Savitri).
SANDRP has worked on impacts of Small Hydel Projects on ecosystems and livelihoods and has been advocating for inclusion of these projects in the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) Notification 2006 so that environmental appraisal, Environment Impacts Assessment, Public Hearing and Environment Management Plan will be conducted for these projects. Projects which generate below 25 MW of electricity are currently exempt from all these steps, which is entirely unacceptable. Many projects highlight the fact that scale of impacts are not directly related to installed capacity.
Kal HEP is possibly the best illustration this.
I have visited several SHP dam sites to look at the impacts, but I have never seen a 55 meters high dam, set to submerge at least 5 villages only for a 15 MW installed capacity. To put things in perspective, height of one of the biggest dam in Bhima Basin: Ujani Dam is 56.4 meters, just one meter higher than Kal Dam and Khadakwasla dam which supplies drinking water to Pune is 32.9 meters high. Official agencies many time deny that Small Hydro Power has anything to do with dams, leave aside Large Dams! The Draft Mission Statement of Small Hydel Projects brought out by the Union Ministry of New and Renewable Energy even assumes that Small Hydel Projects do not even entail dams!
Kal HEP will render the Kal River downstream from the dam effectively waterless at least in most non monsoon months, like the Kumbhe River. The fact that Kal will not have water most of the year was confirmed to me by the Engineer of Raigad Irrigation Department and also by Hydropower Engineer of Government of Maharashtra. Villagers from Walen Kondh have no idea of the extent of the trouble ahead. They say that dam builders have promised water for the fish will be released. But Irrigation Engineers are not even aware of the unique fish sanctuary just 5-6 kms downstream from their dam site. The promises to which the villagers hang on to are empty words only.
Work on Kal dam has been halted for the past 4 years. Although work on the project started in 2004 and the dam is complete except river plugging, rehabilitation and resettlement of affected villagers has still not happened. No resettlement colonies are visible. I talked with affected people from villages like Chatri Nizampur, Kawle, Bawle and Chandoshi. The villagers vow that they will not allow any work to proceed in the absence of rehabilitation, which is also what the law says.
All of the villages affected by Kal Dam and Kumbhe Dam fall in Ecologically Sensitive Zone I as per the Western Ghats expert Ecology Panel Report (WGEEP Report, done under the Chairpersonship of Prof. Madhav Gadgil). These villages also feature in Ecologically Sensitive Area (ESA) as per the High Level Working Group Report (HWLG, under the Chairpersonship of Dr. Kasturirangan) on the Western Ghats. The villages which would be submerged also feature in the MoEF’s ESA Notification dated March 2014. The WGEEP prohibits any large dams (Kal Dam is large Dam) in ESZ 1 and also prohibits transfer of water from one river to another. HLWG Report lays downs strict norms for Environment Flows. None of these are followed by the Kal-Kumbhe Projects. So this project cannot be allowed under any of these norms and reports.
Shockingly, the contractor building Kal Dam is none other than the FA Constructions. FA Enterprises and FA Constructions,both essentially one firm with two name plates, were in the eye of the storm during the dam scam of 2012-13. Most dams of Konkan Irrigation Development Corporation (KIDC) are being built by FA when as per the rules set by the WRD itself, one contractor can build a maximum of 2 dams in a region like Konkan!
The costs of both Kal and Kumbhe projects are unbelievable. According to CAG (Comptroller and Auditor General) Audit of Irrigation Projects in Maharashtra for 2011-12, Kumbhe dam (civil works only) was given to a contractor, in violation of norms, who quoted 26% above the estimated price and even then asked for many cost escalations, which were promptly approved. While the sanctioned cost was about Rs 9 Crores, the project had spent Rs 61 Crores by 2008-09! Engineer from Raigad Irrigation Office told me that there are Forest Clearance issues associated with the projects as well. If the project involves forest land and has not secured Forest Clearance till now, then the whole work is a violation of Forest Conservation Act, a serious offence. There is stiff opposition to this project by the villagers.
Similarly, according to CAG Report, while the sanctioned cost of 55 m high Kal Dam was about Rs 9.8 Crores, a whopping Rs 215.3 Crores were spent on it only till 2008-09. These are civil costs. If we add costs of rehabilitation and resettlement, tunneling, blasting, Powerhouse (which is not complete yet), turbines, transmission lines etc., the cost will be much higher.
Already by now, Kal Dam component of the project has spent about Rs 14.3 Crores per MW and even by conservative estimates, cost will rise to at least Rs 25 Crores per MW by the time the project is completed. According to Central Ministry of New and Renewable Energy (MNRE)  , the average per MW cost of Small Hydro Projects is in the range of 8.5-9.5 Crores. Kal Hydroelectric Project, which costs 3 times the average cost, is prohibitively costly. If we add social, ecological and cultural impacts to this equation, the cost will be so much higher. Clearly, the project should never have been approved. But it seems in Maharashtra, dams approval have no norms to follow.
Following the infamous dam scam and huge public pressure, the current government handed over some projects for further detailed investigations to the Anti-Corruption Bureau. Not surprisingly, Kal-Kumbhe Hydroelectric projects feature as one of the projects to be investigated by the Anti-Corruption Bureau for its irregularities and corruption charges. While corruption should be exposed and responsible officials and contractors should be held accountable, the bigger problem behind pushing such White Elephants needs to be addressed separately.
So what about Walen Kondh? What about one of the most beautiful and unique community conserved fish sanctuaries in Maharashtra and the country? I thought the Raigad Fisheries Department at least would be bothered about this. I called the office and I was told that the Fisheries Department has “No mandate to protect river fish” and that “their only task is to seed reservoirs when they are built”. This is what I was told! This is nonsense. The Maharashtra Fisheries Act 1961 empowers Fisheries Department to take action if riverine fish are affected. Its Section 4.3.3 actually states that State Government may promulgate rules to prohibit dams and weirs to protect fish in selected rivers. The Officials from Raigad Fisheries Department were not even aware of the existence of Walen Kondh Fish Sanctuary in their district which is protecting an endangered fish for centuries now.
Socially, Kal -Kumbhe project will affect 9 villages and more than 1500 people, ecologically it will bring destruction on Western Ghats biodiversity rich area and render a fish sanctuary dry, economically, about 25 Crores for 1 MW is massive loser deal. I am tempted to say that Kal-Kumbhe Composite Hydroelectric Project is a White Elephant of gargantuan proportions. Hundreds of Crores spent so far has been an idle investment for years and a waste of public money. Will a common citizen want to be a part of this project? Officials who started the work without consulting the people, without an acceptable rehabilitation plan and without clearances are responsible for this idle investment. Unfortunately there is no accountability for such decisions in WRD functioning in India.
It seems Kal Project has some competition when comes to in-feasibility. I am told that for the 30 m high Gumti Dam in Tripura, 4,634 ha of land was submerged, displacing some 60,000 tribals! All for 15 MW installed capacity and the project never functioned at that level. More disturbingly, land alienation including by this project was cited as the most important reason for increasing militancy in Tripura as BBC correspondent Subir Bhawmik wrote. (http://www.tripurainfo.com/login/Archives/146.htm)
Nobody would want that to happen in Maharashtra. We urge the Maharashtra Government to scrap Kal-Kumbhe Hydroelectric Project immediately, restore Kal and Kumbhe rivers and hold the decision makers responsible for wastage of public funds.
As I return to Walen Kondh to continue my journey back home, the villagers catch up with me and tell me enthusiastically about the programs they have planned for Vardayini Temple. They give me a small locally-published calendar which shows the all-powerful Vardayini Mata emerging from the river, resplendent on a Mahseer.
As I thank them and wave good bye, I’m left wondering who will save the River Kal, Goddess Vardayini and her Mahseer from dam-builders’ follies.
–Parineeta Dandekar , firstname.lastname@example.org, SANDRP
Map with thanks from Bhim Singh Rawat, SANDRP