Will other rivers too meet the fate of River Sharavathy?
This story is about the journey of River Sharavathy in Karnataka, a river that once was the lifeline to many but has now just turned largely into a mass of stagnant water.
The Sharavathy, which flows through the dense forests of Sahyadri range, was once the lifeline of thousands of families, forests and farms. All this changed with rapid development in the area. Three dams were constructed on the river, taking a huge toll on the flora and fauna besides displacing the numerous families. In fact, this led to the extinction of several unique species found in the region.
Rainfall, which was more than 300 inches per year in some spots of this region before the first dam in 1947, is now less than 200 inches. The rainy season that stretched to more than five months annually too has reduced to less than 3 months now. The small rivulets and streams, which once brimmed with water throughout the year, now come to life only during the monsoon. The major dam at 'Linganamakki' is understood to have been filled up less than 5 times in the last 40 years. People fear that silt is piling up in the dam.
The activities linked to the construction of a major hydel power station in this once thick forest has made it vulnerable to all kinds of exploitations. The trees of the pre-dam era are being replaced by mono-culture species like Acacia Auriculiforms, Acasia Melanoxylon, Casuarina Indica, Tectona Grandis etc. The common complaints from the locals about these species (which were originally alien to India) are: they are not of much use to birds, insects, monkeys or squirrels, since they bear no useful flowers, seeds and fruits. Instead, they grow rapidly and suck a large quantity of water from the soil. The leaves of these tall trees are like plastic sheets which envelope the ground, preventing rain water to percolate. Because of shallow roots these plants cannot stop soil erosion either, unlike the native species with deep roots. They also do not allow other vegetation to come up in their shadow. There is also clear evidence of local lakes going dry because of Acacia trees.
The natives used to live in perfect harmony with the nature, protecting, preserving and worshipping the forests and animals.
Understandably, the locals are furious. They are now taking on the government agencies that propagate these alien plants in the area with the sole purpose of providing raw pulp to a few factories. People have courted arrest, and some of them have been fighting cases for decades. Many incidents of locals destroying nurseries of these species planted by forest department have been reported.
Because of the dams and power projects, a large number of outsiders, who have no understanding of the local environment have settled in these areas and are reportedly linked to illegal deforestation, cultivation of exotic species, elimination of wild animals and grass lands and even starting forest fires etc.
The natives used to live in perfect harmony with the nature, protecting, preserving and worshipping the forests and animals. There were many forts, temples, Jain bastis and educational institutions, which have since been either completely submerged in dam waters or are in a state of neglect due to the slow death of remote villages. The dam waters have resulted in small islands isolating the communities, making it difficult to continue the education for the children. Medical facilities too have become inaccessible to many villages. In fact, due to reduced water pressure at the river delta, the salt water of the Arabian Sea is penetrating inland.
It's ironic that the region which plays such a key role in providing electricity to the entire state of Karnataka, has many villages that are still to get electricity even 60 years after the first power generating unit was commissioned.
Having submerged huge tracts of forests, the state government is now contemplating reserving forest land in the region, threatening the very lives of the locals, who now face evacuation yet again. The locals also face the threat of mining in these rich forests.
Having submerged huge tracts of forests, the state government is now contemplating reserving forest land in the region, threatening the very lives of the locals, who now face evacuation yet again.
As if these atrocities on the nature are not enough, more projects in the name of development have reportedly started. These include pumping water from the down stream of the famous Jog falls to make it attractive again, permitting another hydro electric project between two existing projects, diverting more streams into the dam; building concrete structures in place of lush green vegetation to encourage tourism and building walking tracks to promote ecotourism.
Sir M Vishweshwaraya is credited with the idea of harnessing the waters of this river for the state's industrial development. Also known as a great humanist, Sir MV was known to have consulted the local leaders of the river valley on how to go about the project with minimum impact on the local environment and people. It was this concern for nature and the locals which made the initial project report to stipulate that only a portion of the annual discharge of the river be used for the electricity generation, and the rest to be allowed in the natural course of the river. Decision makers at the state and central level have exhibited no hesitation in quoting the example of Sir MV in conceptualizing high-impact projects, but have not demonstrated the same level of concern for nature and fellow living beings.
Before contemplating any new projects of such large scale impacts, the society should deliberate on finding the alternatives; make objective assessment of the earlier projects, and take all sections of the society into confidence. The only way to out of the mess we are in now is to make the effective public consultation mandatory on every major project. There is an urgent need for the paradigm shift as far as developmental priorities are concerned, keeping in view the interests of the environment. We can not afford to have similar fate for the rivers Bedthi, Aghanashini, Gundiya, Barpole and many others, which run through Karnataka.