Another Silent Valley ? The Pooyamkutty Project

Pooyankutty: The dam site on the Pooyamkutty river, a tributary of the Periyar, is submerged in one of the most dense forests in the country.  Rich verdant trees reach towards the sky underneath which smaller ones spread their foliage.  The undergrowth is thick with vines, shrubs, creepers of every variety.  They cover the earth in a thick carpet of several shades of green.

This lush vegetation, including the trees, will be submerged over an area of more than 3,000 hectares if the Pooyamkutty hydro-electrict project in the Idukki district of Kerala is implemented. 

The project area, environmentalists maintain, is similar to the Silent Valley and a dam in the area will cause much the same type of damage.  Hence the state would shelve it and look for an alternate site, or some other means of generating power. 

The Kerala government mooted the project in 1981.  It involved the construction of nine dams and four power houses at a cost of Rs. 600 crores.  The Central Electricity Authority suggested that it would be best to undertake the project in stages and gave the clearance to the Kerala government to implement the Pooyamkutty scheme – revised cost of stage I, Rs. 250 crores – in 1984.  Thereby, environmental clearance was sought.  The Department of Environment and Forests – converted into a ministry in 1985 – sent an expert group in 1984 which gave its support provided certain conditions were met.  The Planning Commission has also given the go ahead signal (in August 1986) but the state government has been unable to do so for want of the clearance from the forestry officials of the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF).  This is required under the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980.  

Even as the MoEF rejected the proposal in 1991, it agreed to review its decision and another expert team was sent to the project site in October this year, which also held discussions with the state government officials.  (See box item).

The Kerala government maintains that “When the proposal for constructing the Silent Valley Project was rejected for environmental reasons, there was clear commitment that an alternative project with similar capacity would be approved.  The Pooyamkutty project was submitted as an alternative proposal.  Therefore, the project should have been approved, if the previous commitment made by the Central government was to be honoured”. 

The KSEB lists the advantages of hydel power (overall other forms of power) as follows: (i) pollution free (ii) cheap and (iii) relatively abundant in Kerala.

According to the state government, apart from the 106 scheduled tribe families comprising 540 members – other figures put their number at over 770 – that will have to be rehabilitated, a primary school and a primary health centre will require re-location because of the project.  These will involve a certain amount of expenditure.  Besides, the government evaluates “environment loss” based on the density of growth in the forest estimated at “0.5 in plantation and 0.8 in reserved forests”.  This has been calculated at Rs. 2.61 crores per annum; the total loss is put at Rs. 35.75 crores with respect to the “loss of value of timber”.

Obviously the  KSEB officials are sublimely ignorant about biodiversity; the advantages they have cited do not take into consideration the ecological costs of building the dam at Pooyamkutty.  However, the KSEB and the state government are not the only ones to ignore them.  It is standard practice all over the country to not account for possible ecological damage that could result as a consequence of a development project.  In fact, most government bodies are ignorant of it.  Although, consciousness regarding environmental impact is rising among the bureaucracy, it is confined to the top level officials.

The Kerala government officials do not appear to be aware of the loss to the state if over 3000 hectares of forests are submerged.  All they note is that the hydel electricity that the dam generates will be the cheapest form of electricity, many times so than thermal electricity. 

The economic loss that the destruction of biodivesity shall entail will be far in excess of the gains made by the returns through generating power in this manner.  Sadly enough, this issue does not figure in Kerala’s calculations. 

The fact is no survey has been conducted of the endemic species of trees/vegetation, or the fauna, that are likely to go under the impounded water.   

The KFRI study, which is not a full-fledged environment impact assessment, states: “Within the group of Western Ghat endemics in the Indian flora which comes to a total of about 1,500 species, Peninsular Indian endemics (175 species) noted from the two regions of Pooyamkutty flora comes to about 11.7 percent, and for such a limited area like Pooyamkutty this is a fairly high percentage.  This observation depicts in general of the flora of the region from a conservation point of view.  Further, 50 percent for more of the Peninsular Indian endemics in the area are confined to the South Western Ghats alone and this also has to be considered while assessing the importance of the flora of the region and projecting the need to protect it”.  (pp 128-129). 

In short, the Pooyamkutty region contains species that are peculiar to it, and these will vanish under the waters: a permanent loss will have been sustained.  The trees/vegetation that will be lost include timber species, medicinal plants, and plants that yield food and fodder, oil, gum and resin, tan and dyes, fibre and floss, species and condiments.  The economic damage will be highest with regard to medicinal plants, followed by timber species and food and fodder yielding plants.  As the KFRI studynotes, “…at plants are the two categories of plants that are getting fast depleted from our natural forests.” (pp. 139-140).  

To turn to wildlife that is likely to be affected, the submergence area is frequented by elephants.  We saw elephant dung just near the dam site, on the old Munar-Alwaye route.  This was perhaps when the leach climbed up this writer’s leg, chose a succulent spot near the calf, had its fill of blood and rolled off, leaving a tell-tale bruise. 

The latest team to have visited the Pooyamkutty area, where a 148 metres high main dam and 50  metres high saddle dam will be constructed (near Pndimendu), has rejected the hydro-electric project with the statement:  “It is the considered opinion of the team that the project does not merit clearance under the provisions of the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980, since the projected gains are not commensurate with the environment and forestry losses”.   

The members of the team were:

* M.S. Solanki, member, advisory committee, Ministry of Environment  and Forests (MoEF)
* Gautam Vohra, NGO representative
* Nalini Bhatt, Joint Director, MOEF
* V.B. Joshi, regional chief conservator of forests, Bangalore

Other animals to be found in the area are wild pigs, sambar (deer), the former more frequently to be seen near areas where cultivation is being practised.  Gaur, sloth bear, wild dogs, bonnet macaque live in this forest; and even a panther has been spotted.

Apart from damage to flora and fauna, the dam will have adverse impact on the population of the region.

Thanks to the reed that grows in abundance here, people living in and around the forest are able to secure employment.  The traditional sector uses it for making baskets and the modern for paper.  The former, represented by the Kerala State Bamboo Corporation (KSBC), set up over two decades ago, organises the extraction of reed and its supply to weavers throughout the state; it also markets their products.  As for the modern sector, the Hindustan Newsprint Limited (HNL) is collecting reeds from the Pooyamkutty region: about 21 to 26 thousand tonnes during a three year period.  About 43 percent of the annual reed supplies of the KSBC and about 26 percent of the requirement of the HNL are met from the Pooyamkutty forests. 

The submergence will affect the reed extraction, and reduce the employment it generates.

The submergence will also lead to the eviction of the people in the region.  Among the oldest inhabitants of the Pooyamkutty catchment are the Muthuvans (tribals) whose 50 scattered hamlets are in the submergible area of the dam.  Mammen Chundamannil, who has conducted a study on them notes “There is wide agreement that the Muthuvans were originally ploains people belonging to Madurai are and were forced to fleet to the forests during the Pandian wars.  They settled in the thick forests of Idukki district leading a life of hunter gathers and doing shifting cultivation of ragi.  Perhaps, as a protection from wild animals, particularly elephants, they choose very steep areas right on top of the mountains to do their cultivation, changing their residence accordingly to the field rotation.  They always built their houses close together and invariably settle upstream of everybody else…. Contact with Mannas, another tribe introduced them to hill paddy cultivation.”

Mr. Chundamannil observes “The Muthuva households facing eviction are acutely frustrated.  They say that it is the first time in their tribe’s history that they have invested so much in growing perennial corps.  Now, when these have started yielding, they are asked to go elsewhere.” 

Thus, there are several problems with the project:

1. In 1981, when it was first mooted, the cost was estimated at Rs. 250 crores.  Over a decade later, it will have shot up considerably. 
2. The KSEB, or any other agency of the state government, has not undertaken a study to collect the base line data which provides details on (a) the species of wildlife in the are and (b) the rare and endemic vegetation in the area.  The MoEF suggested this be done as far back as June 1985, as per the letter of S. Maudgal. 
3. South of Plaghat, there are only two significant sized blocks of natural forest, and Pooyamkutty is the larger one.  The remaining forests are found in scattered patches and all of them are under immense biotic pressure since the population in the state has shot up by four million in the decade 1981-91; the livestock has increased to 5.5 million. 
4. The value put on the trees is out of date.  Another survey needs to be undertaken in the light of aerial photographs (1988) and the Forest Survey of India’s “Status of Forests in India 1991”, which suggest a much higher rate of density in the project area than the state has reported when it undertook its valuation. 
5. The project area is classified as “Protection Forests” where no felling is permitted.  How then can clear-felling of such a large area be permitted.  And, it is not merely the submergence area that will lose out on trees and vegetation, but these will have to be removed also for transmission lines, the tunnel, to mention two of several project related works. 
6. The compensatory afforestation proposed by the state government is a farce.  The permission from the appropriate authorities has not been obtained for the sites that are earmarked for it.  Besides, most of the areas allocated for compensatory afforestation are unsuitable: they are in the low rainfall, rain-shadow region, often on steep slopes, with exposed rock and shallow soil (As per the government claim about 2,256 hectares of non-forest land i.e. revenue land, has been identified for afforestation; other land – about 1,505 hectares – is being acquired from areas termed as degraded forests).  In fact, in June 1992, officials of the government of India visited the area identified for compensatory afforestation in Devicolam district and observed that it was most unsuitable for the purpose even as they directed that alternate non-forest land be found. 
7. The catchment area treatment plan has not been prepared so far. 
8. The seismic activities are being monitored in the area.  But in view of the earthquake in nearby Maharashtra, these need to be cross-checked with research laboratories engaged in monitoring them. 
9. The Pooyamkutty project is being proposed in an area which already has too many of them: 50 percent of the existing and proposed projects are on the Idamalayar, Pooyamkutty and Periyar rivers within the district of Idukki which has about 52,9 percent of forest cover whereas the state figure is 26.5 percent.  Already these projects have led to lop-sided development, as well as the removal of vegetation rich in genetic diversity. 
10. A comprehensive master plan for rehabilitation of the oustees has yet to be prepared.  The plan, such as it is, does not take into account the “socio-economic, cultural and emotional life” of the SC and ST communities that will lose their homes.
11. No study has been done on the impact that the creation of the reservoir will have on the aquifers. 
12. A full environment impact assessment (EIA) study has yet to be undertaken. 

The Sahyadri Ecology Education Documentation (SEED), an NGO based in the region, demands that an independent body conduct an EIA before the approval of the Ministry of Environment and Forests is sought.  It observes that “the criteria for any development project should be long term benefits of the nation an people than short-term political gains of the ruling parties”.  It suggests:

*  An international standardization for EIA model be developed for each development project, with flexibility for local application. 
*  Manpower for conducting EIA needs to be trained even as institutional capabilities are strengthened. 
*  The EIA for such projects should be made available to the public, perhaps through the “right to information”.  (On this issue see report on access to information, page 10)

In the absence of an EIA, the project should not be taken up.  As things stand, the direct impact – submergence of prime forest, loss of endemic vegetation and animal life and displacement of human population – and the indirect, point to the enormous damage will be caused by it.  Indeed, the indirect impact is likely to be as serious as the direct ones (i) the labour force introduced in the area will require fuelwood for cooking and indiscriminate felling will take place (ii) increased human activity will step-up soil erosion (iii) greater accessibility will trigger a series of uncontrollable land use changes, including illegal occupation of forest land and its conservation for other purposes.  The KFRI study says as much, pointing out that the history of other hydro-electric projects in Kerala clearly indicates how harmful the indirect impacts have been, creating a whole series of problems, including political ones.  The state government maintains that the KFRI study does not apply as it was taken up to consider the original proposal of nine dams.  But in the KFRI document it is clearly stated that the study focused on stage I of the project (pp.32) and hence the impact of the Pooyamkutty dam has been delineated.  It was no go then.  It remains no go now.  q


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