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The fragile Western Ghats is facing all kinds of threats, and the hydel projects are only adding to its cup of woes. Environmentalists have urged the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy (MNRE) to include environmental and social safeguards in its revised policy to protect swathes of the eco-sensitive areas.
Wildlife conservationist Niren Jain, who has been campaigning against small hydro-projects (SHP) in Western Ghats for several years told Mirror, “One widely known and well-developed source of renewable energy is hydroelectricity. However, past environmental campaigns against large dams have resulted in policy changes in some parts of the world, leading to an increasing number of small hydropower projects. In India, the government provides significant subsidies for small hydroprojects (less than 25 megawatts), which are often justified as less damaging to the environment than large dams. We fear numerous small hydro projects could penetrate deep into the Western Ghats.”
In 2004, he said, the Karnataka government proposed construction of over 75 small dams across the Western Ghats.
“Of the 75 projects, 27 were located in the headwaters of the Netravathiriver. If fully implemented, every tributary in the Nethravathi headwaters would have at least two small hydro-projects. Five such projects have already been built and are now operational. Yet in 2011, after protests from environmental groups, Karnataka changed the policy. It brought a new policy to ban any further small hydropower projects in the Western Ghats and put the remaining 70 projects on hold. But this has already been overturned and new small hydro projects are springing up again in the Western Ghats,” Jain said.
Further, he explained that rules on forest clearance are lenient towards projects requiring less than five hectares. Permission for a small project can often be quickly obtained at the state level, bypassing the more elaborate Central clearance process. In a letter to DrPradeep Chandra Pant, Director (Small Hydro Power, REINVEST, DBT Cell & Vigilance) and executive director (AREAS) Ministry of New and Renewable Energy (MNRE), activists representing, Conservation India, an NGO, on its website, have stated that due to the false presumption that SHPs have minimal or no adverse impact, they have been exempt from requiring environmental clearances thus far.
Massive subsidies and financial incentives are also offered to make these projects viable to the private sector. Hence, over 1266 SHPs have been commissioned and an additional 6474 sites have been identified for further SHP development, most of which fall within the ecologically sensitive Western Ghats and Himalayan landscapes.
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