By Amruta Pradhan*
The valley of Wainganga River has served as a backdrop for Rudyard Kipling’s “Jungle Book”. East Vidarbha region of Maharashtra hosts major part of this lush green landscape which is ecologically one of the most significant regions of India. More than 50% of forest of Maharashtra State falls in this region. The Government of Maharashtra (GoM), however, is doing little on its part to protect these. Perceiving them as ‘hurdles’ GoM is pushing more and more unfeasible dam projects in this region in the name of irrigation. Water for rivers, biodiversity, and wildlife has taken a backseat in the growing claims on Wainganga waters. If these projects come up, the health of Wainganga basin will be further seriously jeopardized.
Wainganga Valley is of critical importance for Maharashtra to preserve its forests, wildlife, and tribal population dependent on it. Protecting the valley however does not seem to be priority for the state. The very lifeline of the valley, Wainganga River, is being subjected to growing pressure. Its flow has already been obstructed at several places with dams and barrages. By 2012 there were as many as 149 dams built in Wainganga basin. Having complete disregard for the rich ecosystem of the region, the Vidarbha Irrigation Development Corporation (VIDC), which was established by the state’s Water Resources Department (WRD), has been pushing unfeasible dam projects without assessing options for small scale water conservation which will cause lesser damage to the environment.
A whopping 257 number of projects taken up by VIDC were ongoing in Vidarbha (Wainganga and Wardha sub basins of Godavari) as on March 2011. Ironically these projects are laden with several procedural and financial irregularities like ad hoc planning and feasibility studies, poor execution of projects, displacement and rehabilitation of project-affected persons, financial irregularities, huge unjustified cost overruns, defective execution of projects, lack of distributaries, lack of requisite environmental and forests clearances etc.
Thirty seven projects in Vidarbha region have been going on unhindered without obtaining forest clearance which is mandatory as per Forest Conservation Act 1980 for use of forest land for non-forest purpose. Many of these projects have repeatedly violated this framework which has been formed to protect the fundamental rights of vulnerable groups and the environment. The Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) of India in its 2011 report as well as reports of expert committees have time and again highlighted these irregularities.
Maharashtra State in particular has been on forefront of building big dams – 36% of the total large dams in the country are built in Maharashtra alone! Recently it witnessed perhaps what the country’s largest dam scam. Gosikhurd on Wainganga River which was touted as Bhakra Nangal of Vidarbha is being built by Water Resources Department (WRD) of GoM and has been a highlight of this scam. The project has been a failure in terms of irrigation because of incomplete and inferior quality of canal networks even after 30 years of construction. The project has seen cost overrun up to 1,900% and is now being investigated by anti-corruption bureau.
Similar is the case for Bawanthadi Dam (Rajiv Sagar Interstate Irrigation Project) built on a tributary of Wainganga River which took 37 years to complete. The Maharashtra-Madhya Pradesh joint project of Bawanthadi was started in 1975, with an approved cost of Rs 23 crore. However, this rose to a whopping Rs 1,407 crore. In all, 2,294 tribal families that were displaced are yet to be rehabilitated. Itiadoh dam built on Gadvi River, which is tributary of Wainganga, is another example of dam failing to provide much promised water to the command area for more than a decade. “Down To Earth” reported in 2013 that the farmers have been staging protest, road blocks etc. for the last six years for release of water.
Adverse impacts of these projects on forests and wildlife have now started to surface. Submergence caused by dams and canals have fragmented the forest tracts and fiddled a great deal with the migratory corridors posing a severe threat to wildlife.
Kelkar committee perceives Wainganga Valley as ‘hurdle’ in development
Ironically, the dense forests of Wainganga Valley which are last of the remaining dense forests of the state are being perceived as ‘hurdles’ in completion of the dams. The Kelkar Committee — a high level committee set up in May 2011 by former Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan to “suggest measures for removal of regional imbalance” in its report submitted in October 2013 – has chosen to blame environment and forest clearances for the delay in completion of the projects. It has further suggested that the ‘systemic hurdles’ such as environmental clearance and forest clearance are legally-required instruments, put in place for informed and prudent decision making and meant to protect our natural resources, should be removed in order to implement irrigation projects in Vidarbha region.
The corridors between Kanha, Pench, Satpuda, Melghat, Navegaon-Nagzira, Bor and Tadoba tiger reserves which are important for genetic exchange and long-term survival of tigers and other carnivores are now “virtually under siege”. Dams and canals have been playing an active role in fragmenting and thinning of the wildlife corridors. Wildlife habitats of the valley are getting severely affected by submergence and canals of projects like Bawanthadi dam, Ghodazari dam and Gosikhurd dam which have been sanctioned in and around tiger habitats and corridors. Canal network in particular has fragmented the continuity of wildlife especially tiger corridors. Bawanthadi project, for example, which submerged total 4,388 ha of forest land (1,940 ha in Madhya Pradesh and 2,448 ha in Maharashtra) has destroyed 2,350 hectares of tiger forest. Its 100 km canal is causing further serious threats to wild animals in the tiger habitat. It has affected tiger movement as it falls in corridor connecting Pench reserve and Nagzira sanctuary.
Gosikhurd project, which has already submerged total 2,961 ha of forest land for its dam and the Right Bank Canal (RBC), is now claiming on additional 119 ha of forest for RBC construction. Ninety one km Gosikhurd canal network, most of which is in Brahmapuri which has 27 tigers, is currently the “biggest threat” that Tadoba Andhari Tiger Reserve (TATR) is facing. There have been several incidents of wild animals getting trapped in its canals as there are no or inadequate capacity passages constructed across canals for wildlife crossing. The threat to 625-sq km TATR has now further increased following clearance to 25-year-old Human river irrigation project proposed near Sirkada (Sindewahi) on one of the tributaries of the Wainganga passing through TATR-Brahmapuri corridor. The Ministry of Environment, Forests & Climate Change (MoEFCC) recommended the project in 2004. Wildlife conservationists and activists have questioned need to construct Human, as 20-22 major and minor irrigation projects like Gosikhurd, Ghodazari, Asolamendha and Nalleshwar have already come up in Chandrapur district in the last 30 years.
A four-member high-powered committee was set up by MoEFCC in September 2015 to study the impact of Human dam project on tiger corridor and provide suggestions to ensure integrity of corridor. The report was submitted to the ministry about one and a half years back. Human dam reservoir will block the ‘bottleneck’ forest corridor from Sirkada-Shivni-Naleshwar while migrating towards Bramhapuri Division. This will further block migration of tigers.
According to the wildlife expert Kishor Rithe, who heads the Satpuda Foundation, the Human dam clearance has added to the worries of these 52 villages situated on the fringes of TATR with increased risk of humans and cattle. The project is now being revived by the GoM. It was presented to the State Board for Wildlife in its meeting held in October 2016. In the meeting it was decided to constitute another committee to study the impacts of Human Dam. The committee headed by the Principle Secretary of the Wildlife Department includes members like Additional Principle Chief Conservator of Forest, Kishore Rithe, Bandu Dhotre and Sanjay Karkare from BNHS and field staff of forest department. The committee was supposed to submit its report in March 2017, but has not had a single meeting so far!
Maharashtra Government’s Plan to divert Wainganga Waters
Brushing aside the fact that the dams built on Wainganga failed to yield promised benefits and more importantly that they have come up at the huge costs of forest and wildlife besides social and financial costs, the Maharashtra government continues with the reckless planning in the basin. Oblivious of its future environmental and ecological implications Maharashtra Government is now pushing for further diverting water of Wainganga River through ‘intra-state river linking projects’. Pre-feasibility report (PFR) of linking Wainganga (Gosikhurd) and Nalganga (Purna Tapi) has been completed by NWDA.
This proposed project envisages diversion of 2721 Mm3 of water to the Western Vidarbha from the Gosikhurd project which has failed to provide any irrigation. One of the priorities is to cater to the future municipal and industrial water requirements in the command area and the city of Nagpur. Out of 2,721 mm3 quantum of 2,207 mm3 is earmarked for irrigation, 253 mm3 is planned to be utilized for municipal and industrial purposes in the command areas and the remaining 261 mm3 will be transmission losses.
Water experts have been warning about the fascination of river linking projects calling them “fundamentally flawed and potentially disastrous”! The river linking projects could come up at a huge cost of reduction in downstream flows and the permanent damage caused to the fisheries, wildlife and biodiversity. In case of Wainganga Valley, they could come up at the cost of ecological integrity of the entire landscape. Scientific basis for these proposals along with need for river linking and its economic feasibility has been questioned time and again by experts and civil society groups, and have expressed grave doubts about soundness of the project in terms of the various benefits that are claimed.
Inter-State projects proposed in Basin
In August 2016 Maharashtra and Telangana governments signed a pact for three irrigation projects to be constructed on River Godavari. Under the agreement, the two states would take up Tummidihatti, Medigadda (Kaleswaram) and Chanaka–Korata projects.
The Tummidihetti Project featured in the agreement is in fact an altered version of much controversial Dr BR Ambedkar Pranahitha Chevella Sujala Sravanthi Project, popularly known as Pranahita Chevella project. The project has had a long history of gross irregularities and violations exposed by several agencies as well as media. This project originally planned to divert 160 TMC water from river Pranahita (a major tributary of Godavari River) by constructing a barrage at Tummidi Hetti village in Adilabad District of Telangana has already been under construction illegally for last more than two years.Construction of the canals for Pranahita Chevella project was started hastily without obtaining EC (Environmental Clearance), Forest Clearance (FC), and Wildlife Clearance (WC), without sorting out interstate aspects or without even finalizing the height of the dam or assessing any feasibility.
Cascade of Hydro Power Projects proposed in the basin
While the estimates of forest land to be diverted for linking of Wainganga and Nalganga are not known, there is another possibility of massive forest diversion in the name of 105 MW (5×21 MW) Wainganga Hydro Electric Project (HEP), for which feasibility is being assessed. The proposed site located at a village Daungar Saungi, about 95 km from Chandrapur District in Maharashtra, has been identified by Central Electricity Authority (CEA) and the Preliminary Feasibility Study (PFR) for the project has been prepared by Water and Power Consultancy Services (India) Ltd. (WAPCOS). According to PFR, the proposed project with live storage of 5155 M cum to be created by a 32 m high concrete power gravity dam for a dam-toe type of power house. The project site is located in reserve forest area on river Wainganga. The submergence area is whopping 87500 ha, and about 80% of the land falls directly under the category of forest area.
It means that the project plans to submerge nearly 70,000 ha of forest in Wainganga Valley. Is it even possible to fathom the kind of consequences such massive diversion will imply? WAPCOS is known for conducting poor quality, shoddy and pro-developer Environmental Impact Assessment Studies (EIAs) with virtually no impact assessment. It is highly unlikely that rigorous impact assessment of Wainganga HEP on the biodiversity and wildlife will be carried out by WAPCOS.
The Wainganga HE Project is the second major project proposed on river Wainganga in the Maharashtra State, the first being 24MW Gosikhurd Project which is already under construction in the upper reaches of Wainganga. The Rs 228.79 crore project has been awarded to Hindustan Construction Company (HCC).
According to the PFR prepared by WAPCOS, while Wainganga HE project has been proposed as a storage project, there has been a string of Run-of-the River schemes proposed downstream to utilise the regulated discharges for generation of power at the Samda, Ghargaon and Kunghara HE projects in a cascade development for exploiting the hydro-potential of the Wainganga river. Tender for another five Small Hydro Projects in Gondia and Bhandara Districts has been floated by WRD in April 2013.
Cascades of hydro power projects in forests of Wainganga Valley can cause immense damage to the river valley and will take a serious toll on its wildlife. Submergence with the dams built for the HEPs can further accelerate the fragmentation and thinning of wildlife habitats by submerging more forests. They could also increase the risk of poaching of wild animals for consumption and trading through smugglers. ‘Edge’ habitats of river ecosystems which ensure the interaction between aquatic and terrestrial eco-systems could be lost due to submergence of dams constructed for hydro power generation.
This is an irreversible loss and cannot be compensated for as these habitats exist only along the banks of the river. Cascade of HEPs converts a river into series of ponds connected by tunnels. Large fragments of the river could be left with minimal flow. This disrupts the river’s ecosystem which has developed in response to flowing water. Drying up of river bed for significant period destroys the fragile species that need to remain under water and are replaced by hardier species. This change in the species populations and diversity can affect the entire aquatic food chain of the Wainganga Valley.
Other Pressures on Wainganga Valley
Wainganga valley is under tremendous pressure and the wildlife is more threatened than ever before from various other developmental projects as well such as mining, thermal power plants, widening of national highways, railway lines etc. Government relaxing the regulations for linear projects seeking forest clearance like roads, canals, laying of pipelines/optical fibres and transmission lines etc. has paved a way for more and more damage to the valley.
The Maharashtra River Regulation Policy of 2000, modified in 2009,which classified the rivers into 4 zones from A1 to A4 with specific regulations for each zone regarding siting industries, was recently scrapped by GoM. This is a matter of serious concern as emerging thermal power industry is having increasing claims on the water of Wainganga and increasing share in pollution. A Greenpeace report published in 2011 revealed that by December 2010 there were 71 power plants, with a total installed capacity of nearly 55 gigawatts, in various stages of approval in the Vidarbha region. The study stated that if all the approved projects were to come up, water availability of Wainganga Basin would drop by 16% while that of Wardha Basin adjacent to Wainganga will drop by 40%.
Over 2,558 hectares of forest land has already been diverted for coal mining in Chandrapur district since 2000 to state mining venture Maharashtra State Mining Corporation Ltd. (MSMCL) as well as mining giants like Adani. Widening of NH-7 project which cuts through Kanha-Pench tiger corridor was recently granted with wildlife clearance by MoEF. Wildlife experts like Debi Goenka of Conservation Action Trust, Mumbai or Kishor Rithe of Satpuda foundation have expressed serious concerns about increasing threat to the survival of national animal of our country. According to these experts instead of focusing on protecting and conserving these corridors, exactly opposite is being done by Government of Maharashtra.
Water for sustenance of wildlife remains out of water allocation debate
While experts are criticizing the projects like Gosikhurd, Bawanthadi, Human dam for fragmenting the tiger corridors WRD of Maharashtra Government is expediting diversion of more and more water through dams & river linking projects for irrigation, power generation, industries and urban use. In Vidarbha the discourse of river water allocation revolves largely around irrigation and thermal power industry. Water for sustenance of wildlife habitats does not feature in the debate.
SANDRP has written to the Chief Minister of Maharashtra as well as State Wildlife Board about the undemocratic, uninformed, unaccountable decision making of these projects which will come up at the cost of heavy social and ecological damage.
Let us hope that better sense will prevail and in future wildlife of the landscape is able to receive its due place in decision making and rightful share of resources, including water.
*With South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People (SANDRP). Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org. These are excerpts from the article “Wainganga River: Threatened lifeline of Vidarbha’s Forests”, published in https://sandrp.wordpress.com/