Impact of Electric Power Sector on Western Ghats : Issues and remedies

A detailed study to estimate the immense economic value of the biodiversity of the entire Western Ghats and different sections of the same should be carried out early to prove to the government that it is more than any conceivable man-made projects.

The Western Ghats running for more than 1,500 kM in states of Maharastra, Goa, Karnataka and Kerala have been designated as a part of the list of 18 biodiversity hotspot in the world, and are providing a large number of ecological services of immense economic value to our society. They are the source for a number of major and minor rivers of peninsular India, and provide livelihood for millions of families.  Some of the ecological services they are rendering to our society are:

  • Production of oxygen;
  • Recycling of water and control of humidity;
  • Source of perennial supply of water;
  • Providing thriving habitats for animals, birds, insects & plants;
  • Control of soil erosion & maintenance of soil fertility;
  • Control of air pollution through Carbon Sequestration;
  • Providing timber and non-timber products, food and herbal products etc.

A healthy upkeep of these Ghats is crucial not only for each of the adjoining states but also for the entire peninsular India. While many kinds of human activities have been devastating these Western Ghats for many decades, the impacts since independence are massive and irreversible because of the power projects.

A dispassionate analysis of the impact of power projects on Western Ghats and suitable remedies is urgently needed in order to arrest their accelerated decay.

Impact of Electrical Power Projects

In the present scenario in India the power projects of relevance to Western Ghats can be broadly classified into the following categories:

  • Dam based hydel projects including small size hydel projects
  • Thermal projects based on fossil fuels like coal, diesel and gas
  • Nuclear power projects
  • Large size windmills

There are many social, cultural and heritage impacts of hydel projects in Western Ghats, which are not discussed here in the context of the need to look at environmental protection of Western Ghats. Largely, the environmental impacts including the biodiversity impacts are considered in this discussion.

Transmission lines: A common impact of all these categories of power projects is the need for diversion of sizeable chunks of forest lands for transmission lines. Transmission lines are needed to evacuate power from large size power plants to be transmitted /distributed over large areas. As compared to small size power plants, which will cater to the local electricity needs only, large size power plants must have huge transmission network destroying the forest cover, fragmenting the forests, and opening up the thick forest cover leading to accelerated deterioration.

Even for those power projects which are not located within the Western Ghats such as Kaiga nuclear plant and many of the proposed coal based power plants in coastal areas of Maharastra and Karnataka, the diversion of forest lands of Western Ghats will be inevitable to build transmission lines to evacuate power to the load centers such as Bangalore, Pune, Chennai, Mysore etc. which are away from the coast.

In addition to the forest lands which will be needed for the ‘Right of Way’, such transmission lines will lead to deterioration of forest ecology due to dust and noise pollution during the construction activities such as forest clearing, excavation, debris dumping, temporary shelters for workers, chopping trees for firewood etc. The large scale of movements of vehicles will be a major contributor in this regard.   

Power Projects: The actual power projects have the maximum impact on Western Ghats in the form of dams, reservoirs, power stations, staff quarters and other civil / hydrological structures; the pollutants of land, water and atmosphere from the power production process; obstruction to free movement of birds and animals etc.. All four categories of power projects are likely to lead to diversion of large chunks of forest lands for non-forest activities. The four categories of power projects mentioned above all have direct and indirect impacts Western Ghats.

Dam Based hydro power stations: Amongst the four categories of power projects, the dam based power projects have the maximum impact on Western Ghats in the form of dams, reservoirs, power stations, staff quarters and other civil / hydrological structures.  Combined together these will divert large chunks of forest and fertile river valley agricultural lands.  Some of the major impacts of the dam based power projects are: 

  • Submergence of lands, agricultural fields, forests, grazing lands and homes on a large scale can lead to the displacement of a large number of people;
  • Disruption to downstream flows will have impact on agriculture and fisheries threatening the livelihoods of people;
  • Construction of dams are preceded by clearing of trees, excavation, fragmentation of the forests, dumping of debris/ construction materials, noise and air pollution due to construction activities etc. These would lead to the degradation of natural surroundings, and to degraded water sources; 
  • Impounding of water in the dams is known to cut off access roads thus isolating villages/ communities;
  • Impact of one dam may not appear to be as huge as compared to the cumulative impact of a number of dams in one region or as a cascade of dams on one river. Example of 4 hydel projects in Sharavathy valley;
  • Impoundment of large quantity of water in dams are suspected to trigger earthquake;
  • Questions have been asked by many observers about the actual performance of the existing dams. As per a study by Himamshu Thakkar of SANDRP out of 228 operational hydel projects in India as on 31.3.2007, which were surveyed by him, 82% were underperforming. Additionally, the survey has indicated that this 82% of the projects have achieved actual generation of electricity which was less than 50% of the design capacity. This situation is mostly due to overestimation of the hydro electricity potential of the individual projects or sedimentation or both.  Sharavathy valley hydel project, which is a major project in Karnataka, is known to have recorded full reservoir level of stored water only in 4 years out of 30 years of commissioning.  Such overestimation of the hydro potential has resulted in many projects acquiring more forest /agricultural lands than required, and consequently has displaced more people than was really necessary.
  • The hydel dams are not renewable in a true sense, because the dam and other hydro structures have a finite life of say 50-75 years after which they will need decommissioning. Even though storing of water may be done away with after decommissioning, the forest wealth, which might have been destroyed at the time of dam building, would be lost for ever. 
  • The official project reports [detailed project report (DPR)] are known to ignore the true costs (direct and indirect) of impact on Western Ghats.  These costs when taken into objective account can have a major impact on the cost V/s benefit ratio of the project itself.
  • A major issue with dams is that the quantity, quality and pattern of water flow in the rivers get impacted with the result that biodiversity dependent on river flow is severely affected. One or more dams on a river will severely affect this characteristic of a river, and hence will deprive us of all the associated benefits.
  • With much of water stored in different stretches of the same river, there will be very few stretches of free flowing river.  The health of a river is known to be affected seriously when its natural flow is obstructed. With many dams on the same river there will be pools of stagnant water as compared to a free flowing river, and towards the tail end a mighty river may become an unrecognizable stream.  Rivers Sharavathy and Kali in Karnataka, where multiple dams have been constructed have many stretches of stagnant water.
  • Whereas the National Forest Policy has recommended a target of forest /tree cover of 33% of the land area, the national average is known to be less than 25% as per the MoEF report “The State of Environment 2009”. If we continue to build more dams, not only this target will never be reached, but the region and the country as a whole will be affected ecologically.
  • It is very disturbing to note that there are no legally mandatory norms in our country which stipulates the minimum fresh water flow in a river with or without hydro electric dams.  Authorities seem to consider the water flowing to sea as a waste, without appreciating the need for such a flow to conserve the ecosystem. Such ‘Environment Flows’ are required to maintain the ecological integrity of a river and its associated ecosystems, and of the goods and services provided by them.
  • In view of the fact that many hydro electric projects involve diversion of river water through tunnels of many kM in length, if there is no minimum ‘Environment Flows’ the stretch of the river between the dam and the point where the water passing through the hydro turbines reenter the main course of the river will become dry. In many cases this stretch of a river can be few kM, and the river ecosystem in such a stretch could be destroyed.
  • Dams prevent the silt from flowing down the river and seriously affect the availability of nutrients to the bio-diversity down stream.
  • The Western Ghats are not only recognized as bio-diversity hotspots but also as fragile ecosystems with many species of flora and fauna amongst the endemic types.  Dam building activities like digging, blasting, excavation, dumping of debris etc. are highly likely to severely damage their ecology.

 Coal based power stations:  Coal based  power stations, although never located within Western Ghats, can have massive direct and indirect impacts on Western Ghats, if located on the west coast of our country. It is pertinent to note here that the land available for human habitation between Arabian Ocean and Western Ghats is a narrow strip of width varying from about 5 to 50 kM. Hence the atmospheric pollutants from these coal power stations will have adverse impacts on Western Ghats.  The major impacts can be listed as below: 

  • Pollution due to dust from the handling of large quantity of coal; coal dust from the activities such as unloading from ship /rail, storage, crushing at sea port or project site can travel the distance to Western Ghats and lead to fast deterioration of the flora and fauna;
  • Pollution due to flue gases from the chimney; fly ash is known to be able to travel to long distances of upto 100 kM radius and have huge impact on nearby flora, fauna and human beings including the agricultural crops;
  • Sulphur gas emitted from the combustion of coal is highly likely to react with humid air of the coast and cause extensive acid-rain damage on Western Ghats;
  • Increase in atmospheric temperature due to flue gases from the chimney can affect certain species of flora and fauna;
  • The unknown deleterious impact of the combination of salty air and coal/ ash pollution cannot be ignored; 
  • Potential for adverse impact of micro-ecology of the locality including insects, worms, marine creatures etc. can be considerable;
  • The Global Warming, for which the fossil fuel power stations are major contributors through Green House Gas (GHG) emission, will have long term impact the sensitive ecology of Western Ghats. 

The other types of fossil fuel power stations (diesel and gas based ones) also have similar impacts, though to different magnitudes.

Nuclear power stations:  In addition to the requirement of large chunk of agricultural and forest lands, if situated in west coast areas as in the case of Kaiga power plant, the nuclear power plants also have the credible risk of nuclear radiation affecting the bio-diversity of Western Ghats.

Large size wind mills:  The large size wind mills, though deemed to be environmentally friendly, require forest lands for locating the wind mill, access roads and electricity network required to evacuate the power. Additionally, they are also known to be affecting the free movement of birds and land animals in the area because of the height of the windmill blades and the noise they create.

The growing conflict: electricity needs and the environmental protection of Western Ghats

It may appear that environmental protection of Western Ghats, as also of the general environment of the country, may have to be compromised to some extent in order to meet the electricity demand of the growing population of the country. This is the common belief of our policy makers and authorities implementing them.  The argument offered is that for the development of our society the ever growing demand for electricity must be met, even at the expense of other aspects of our society.

 A rational analysis of the power situation in the country provides a different story.  In view of the fact that a considerable portion of our society (about 40% of the population) is yet to have access to electricity, and that our population is growing continuously we have to take a rational look at the real/legitimate demand for electricity. The legitimate demand for electricity, which is required to meet our essential needs and which is required to run our economy, could be vastly less than that projected by the authorities. This will be evident if we care to classify the electricity requirements of our society into three categories; the real needs, preferable wants, and vulgar luxuries.   Most of the electricity demand for the economically productive activities such as general lighting, industries, transportation and agricultural purposes can be termed as real needs; the electricity demand for certain domestic and commercial appliances such as fans, TVs, radios, refrigerators etc. can be termed as preferable wants; but our society has to take a tough call to categorise certain electricity demand such as night time sports, heated swimming pools, air conditioned homes/shopping malls etc. as vulgar luxuries.

 Without such a conscious decision we will never be able to meet the uncontrolled demand for electricity, even if we are to compromise the ecology of entire Western Ghats, coastal regions and Himalayas. So huge is the uncontrolled demand for electricity that the Integrated Energy Policy for the country has projected that even if the total installed capacity of our power plants increase by five times by 2031-32 the energy security of the country cannot be achieved.   Since we cannot ever dream of compromising the ecology of Western Ghats, coastal regions, Himalayas, and other sensitive regions we have to take a different paradigm than the business as usual policy of adding large number of power stations.  A good understanding of the power sector can provide a set of satisfactory remedies.

The economic value of the biodiversity in Western Ghats is exemplified by another case study. One of the first exercises to study in detail the effect of a project on the environment and to develop an economic model imbedding ecological costs has been the study of the Bedthi Hydroelectric Project proposed in Uttara Kannada district of Karnataka. This project, across river Bedthi and designed for producing a total of 210 MW, was shelved on the grounds that the economic value of the biomass generated by the local forest was more than the energy equivalent of the proposed project. It is very pertinent to note that the state government was convinced that economically the project was not a viable one after it was cleared by the Central Government and all the clearances had been obtained.  This project was looked at from economic, ecological and other angles by scientists from Centre for Ecological Sciences, IISc and other places like IIM (Bangalore), Pune as well as by reputed ecologists and local farming and forestry experts. This study indicated that if realistic cost for forest revenue, agricultural yields, grass and firewood are included in the calculations, benefit to cost ratio comes down to 0.847 from 1.5. If energy storage aspect were to be compared, the project would produce 1 MW for 50 hectares, whereas the forest can generate biomass with energy equivalent for 1 MW of power with 25.50 hectares. This clearly illustrated that energy lostin this case would be more than the energy gained.

Sustainable and eco-friendly ways to meet electricity demand

An objective review of the Indian power sector reveals that there has been gross inefficiency in the way we have utilized the existing electricity infrastructure, which if taken to international best practice level, can not only satisfactorily meet all the legitimate demand for electricity for next few years, but also can go a long way in protecting the Western Ghats. Table 1 provides an indication of the scope for meeting electricity demand within the existing electricity infrastructure.

 If all the potential in efficiency improvement, energy conservation and Demand Side Management (DSM) are effectively implemented, it may be feasible to achieve savings of about 50,000 to 60,000 MW in actual demand for electricity, and also achieve a virtual capacity addition of about 20,000 MW.    In an ideal world this would translate that the entire country can be surplus by a comfortable margin, and we can meet the future electricity requirements by a modest addition to the generating capacity without having to impact the ecologically sensitive areas such as Western Ghats. Even if we achieve 50% of this potential, it is credible to argue that the Western Ghats can be spared from the ravages of power sector on a sustainable basis.

In addition to this huge potential in getting virtual capacity addition, being a tropical country, India also has a huge potential in new and renewable energy sources (N&RE).  Table 2 provides an indication of the huge N&RE potential existing in the country.  N&RE potential is even more if they are considered as stand alone, decentralised energy sources either at roof-top or at community centers.

The scope for efficiency improvement in the existing electricity infrastructure and the potential in M&RE sources together can make it possible to meet the legitimate demand for electricity of the country on a sustainable basis without having to build large number of conventional power stations, which in turn can reduce the devastation on Western Ghats.

 Table 1: Potential for Power Sector Efficiency in India

       Power Sector Area Prevailing level of efficiency / loss in India International best practice Potential for savings / virtual capacity addition

         (in MW)

Generating capacity utilisation   50 – 60% More than 85% About 20,000 to 30,000
Aggregate Technical & Commercial losses (AT&C)   35 – 40 % Less than 10% About 20,000 to 25,000
End use efficiency in agriculture   45 – 50 % More than 80% About 20,000 to 25,000 
End use efficiency in industries and commerce   60 – 70 % More than 80% About 10,000 to 15,000
End use efficiency in other areas

(domestic, street lights and others)

  30– 40 %  More than 80% About 10,000 to 15,000
Demand Side Management Potential to reduce the effective demand by more than 20% About 20,000 to 30,000

(Source: Integrated Energy Policy, Planning Commission)

Table 2: N&RE potential in India

                       Potential

          (Grid interactive power only)

  1. Wind energy      45,000 MW
  2. Small hydro       15,000 MW
  3. Solar   Over 5,000 trillion kWH/year Potential

   (estimated to be more than the total

     energy needs of the country)

  4. Bio-mass         17,000 MW
  5. Ocean Wave     With about 7,000 Km of coastal line it

should be huge, but no estimates available

(Source: MN&RE and other sources)

Credible ways to protect Western Ghats from the ravages of power plants

 If our society can be made to realize that ecological health of Western Ghats must not be compromised at any cost, then the remedies to conserve it will become crystal clear. In this regard some of the suggestions are:

  • Consider Western Ghats as a source for ecological services only on a sustainable basis;
  • Leave it out of the purview of the conventional thinking of developmental process;
  • Declare entire Western Ghats as reserved bio-sphere, and conserve it;
  • Since there are many environmentally benign and people-friendly alternatives to meet the legitimate demand for electricity, building additional power projects in or adjacent to Western Ghats must be considered only as a last resort;
  • The huge scope for efficiency improvement in the existing electricity infrastructure and the potential in N&RE sources should be utilized to the maximum extent possible;
  • Since the economic value of various ecological and product service rendered by Western Ghats is immense, the real costs V/S benefits of building any power project in the vicinity of Western Ghats should be objectively calculated through costs and benefits analysis (CBA) process.  Only if it can established beyond reasonable doubts that the benefits are much more than the true costs to the society, a project in the vicinity of Western Ghats should be considered.
  • Society has to make a tough choice of protecting Western Ghats against all other considerations;

 We should advocate the following arguments amongst other relevant ones with the policy makers.

  • In a detailed study of costs and benefits of Kotlibhel 1B hydel project in Uttarakhand, Dr. Bharath Jhunjhunwala has painstakingly listed a large number of direct and indirect costs to the society of building dams. While the project developer of Kotlibhel 1B has listed the few benefits and direct costs only, many more true costs to the society have been highlighted in this CBA. It is very relevant to note that the total benefit and cost of Kotlibhel 1B HEP in this CBA are calculated as Rs. 155.5 Crores, and Rs.  931.8 Crores respectively, because of which the resultant economic value of the project can be a net loss of Rs. 776.3 Crores to the country.  Even if the estimated losses are assumed as only 25% of the indicated value, the costs to benefit ratio will still be 3/2.  Such are the costs and benefits to the society of large dam based projects, and can be much more in a biodiversity hotspot such as Western Ghats.
  • Attention of the policy makers should be drawn to the result of the economic model imbedding ecological costs in the study of the Bedthi Hydroelectric Project as discussed in section 3 above. 
  • At the global scale the value of ecological functions as well as resources of the environment (both terrestrial and aquatic) has been estimated to be about $33 trillion per year, which is almost twice the global domestic product.  [Ref: “Bio-diversity Impact of Large Dams”, prepared for IUCN / UNEP / WCD ]
  • How much is the economic value of products and ecological services associated with Western Ghats? Even if it is considered equal to about 5% of the GDP of our country, it can be used as a serious deterrent against the temptations to commercially exploit Western Ghats.
  • Bio-diversity has many kinds of values and potential benefits for the humans and the world as a whole.  UN Convention on Biological Diversity has advocated a wise policy to apply ‘Precautionary Principle’ and take necessary action to conserve Bio-diversity before components of it are permanently lost. 
  • In a forthcoming book by title “Decommissioning of Dams in America: Lessons for India” Dr. Bharat Jhunjhunwala has addressed the topic in the background of such experiences in USA.  He has shown that the economics of dam building are being seriously analysed on credible grounds in USA, because of which many dams are being decommissioned, and which should forewarn our society of the costly experiments we may be undertaking in building a large number of dams. [Jhunjhunwala (2009), Bharat, Economics of Hydropower, Kalpaz ].

A detailed study to estimate the immense economic value of the biodiversity of the entire Western Ghats and different sections of the same should be carried out early to prove to the government that it is more than any conceivable man-made projects.

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