You could be forgiven for believing that our political leaders and bureaucrats of the forest and environment department will not rest until every square kilometre of forest in Karnataka is destroyed, until we see only desert like landscapes even in the Malenadu and Karavali regions.

Is there, as recent developments suggest, political expediency in encouraging the destruction of the rich biodiversity in the Sharavathy and Kali river valleys?

A few weeks ago the government supplied environmental clearance to divert more than 54 hectares of old growth, very high quality tropical rainforests in the core area of the Western Ghats in Karnataka, in the ESZ or eco-sensitive zone of the Anshi National Park.

It also gave permission to use more than 6,600 cubic metres per hour of water from the adjacent Kali river to install two more power reactors in the Kaiga Nuclear Power Project in the Uttara Kannada district.

This act can be seen as the beginning of the end of both the national park as well as the adjacent Kali Tiger Reserve.

There is another application pending before the environment ministry, to divert some 177 hectares of thick forest land, again within the core Western Ghats of Karnataka, to build a power line between Karnataka and Goa.

This project proposal is even more disturbing, because it was sent to the environment ministry with the ridiculous statement that the economic benefits of constructing this power line amount to 715 times the cost of destroying 177 hectares of forest. This particular conclusion clearly indicates how our bureaucrats view the forest with disgust, indifference, and ignorance.

The Karnataka State WIldlife Board in a meeting on September 26 decided to permit some pre-construction works in the core area of the recently notified Sharavathy Valley LTM Sanctuary, to set up a 2,000 megawatt pumped storage power plant which may ultimately destroy more than 500 acres of pristine forest.

The lion tailed macaque for which the sanctuary is named is classified as an endangered species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

What can we say about the continuing approval formalities to scores of such destructive projects, even in protected areas such as national parks and wildlife sanctuaries, at a time when India’s tropical forests are considered to be the cheapest and most effective way to minimise greenhouse gas emissions?

To set the record straight, forest and tree cover in the state and the country is only about 21% of the land area, as against the National Forest Policy’s declared target of 33% for the whole country.

There are more than 20 such linear projects in various stages of planning and implementation within the core Western Ghats of Karnataka, with the definitive prospect of slaying about 2 million mature trees.

It is also reported in the media that a large number of such ‘development’ projects are going on unabated in ecologically sensitive forests of other states too, such as in the Himalayas, central India and northeastern India, only to benefit the timber mafia, contractors, and corrupt political leaders.

Diligent analysis of these projects may reveal that most of them are ill-conceived and not required. Or there are many benign alternatives to achieve the individual project objectives. Each of these project proposals may have many credible alternatives with much lower societal costs, which have not been diligently looked into.

Deplorably the views, concerns and recommendations of local residents and civil society are never seriously considered by the government, with the result that our country’s once-rich biodiversity is experiencing alarming levels of degradation, with devastating and irreversible damage.

In the case of the proposed pumped storage hydel project in the Sharavathy Valley LTM Sanctuary, it can safely be said that the total cost to our state, our country and our planet is vastly more than the meagre benefits on offer.

A pumped storage power plant is meant to generate the additional power required to meet the electricity demand for the peak hours of the day only. During off-peak hours at night it is supposed to utilise any surplus electricity in the state to pump water from a lower reservoir to a higher-level reservoir.

In effect, a pumped storage power plant will consume about 25% more electricity in pumping water from the lower reservoir to the upper reservoir as compared to the electricity it can generate from the same volume of water.

Since Karnataka has not experienced surplus annual electricity for many decades, it is ridiculous, a societal crime, to destroy about 500 acres of pristine forest inside a wildlife sanctuary for a project which will only increase the total annual energy deficit in the state.

Whereas a pumped storage power plant scheme is planned on the basis that there will be excess electricity during the late night hours (say between 10PM and 5AM) Karnataka may not have excess electricity in the night throughout the year. This is certainly the case during the summer months, say between February and June.

Since the site of the proposed plant requires about 500 acres of pristine forest land within the core area of a wildlife sanctuary, the very need for such a plant should be diligently considered. The project will be of relevance to the state for only 4 to 8 hours a day, that too only during peak hours to meet the additional load.

When we consider the overall electricity scenario in the state, it becomes evident that the project is not essential, and that it will cost much more to the state than the meagre benefit it can provide.

Peak power demand in Karnataka state can also be reduced, by making the lighting systems in the state, including streetlights and public lighting, energy efficient.

Another option is to make use of the vast solar power potential in the state to generate excess electricity during the day, store the same in energy storage batteries, and make use of these batteries during peak hours.

Yet another option is to take all feasible demand management measures to reduce the overall need for electricity during peak hours. Reducing transmission and distribution losses in Karnataka from the present level of about 18% to about 8% is feasible, sustainable and the most economical option. This will reduce the peak power demand.

Time-of-day metering with suitable tariffs, which can record the power consumed every 15 minutes, should also be considered to reduce peak loads.

Hence, there is a serious case for the people of the state to challenge the energy and forest departments on the very basis of the project, when it is well known that the costs are very high and that there are much better alternatives.

It will not be a surprise if a massive agitation is seen very soon in the districts falling within the Western Ghats to oppose this and many other destructive projects. Let us hope that wisdom prevails on the state government and the project proposal is stopped for all time to come.

It is a cruel joke for the prime minister to announce that India will increase the total land area restored from its degraded status from 21 million to 26 million hectares by 2030, even as thousands of hectares of original forest lands are being destroyed in the name of various infrastructure projects.

It is deplorable that the bureaucrats in our forest departments do not realise that the diversion of thousands of hectares of natural forests is the first step towards desertification.

Recently the Union Minister for Environment, Forests and Climate Change was reported as having said that since the green area around the Aarey Forest in Mumbai is not considered to be a forest, there should be no opposition to the felling of more than 2,700 trees there to facilitate work on a metro rail.

The same minister seems to have no qualms in approving the diversion of more than 54 hectares of very dense and high-value forests in the core Western Ghats to build two more nuclear reactors, and more than 1,70,000 hectares of thick forests in the Hasdeo Arand area of Chhattisgarh for destructive open-cast coal mining. Hasdeo Arand is known as one of the largest contiguous stretches of very dense forest in central India.

It is credibly reported in the media that over 500 projects in India’s protected areas and eco-sensitive zones were cleared by the National Board of Wildlife over the first four years of the NDA government, between June 2014 and May 2018. In comparison, the preceding United Progressive Alliance government cleared 260 projects between 2009 and 2013.

In the eyes of many responsible observers, the state wildlife boards and the National Board of Wildlife seem to have abrogated their constitutional mandate, and have simply become clearing houses for all project proposals.

The continuing loss of original forests in the country should be an enormous concern for the long term welfare of our society.

It is reported that Karnataka has lost 10,000 hectares of forest in the last three years, whereas for the country as a whole, the loss of primary forest in the last five years was more than 120,000 hectares, nearly 36% more than such losses between 2009 and 2013.

The need to conserve and enhance an adequate area of natural forests, and the planting of suitable tree species in all talukas of the country, is obvious even to schoolchildren, especially from the perspective of chronic and dangerous air pollution issues in Delhi and many parts of north India, and the severe crises of drinking water for millions of people in the country.

The onus is on the state and central governments to either become the saviours of our future, or the destroyers. Are they truly interested in the legitimate interests of all sections of our society, or only the business interests of a few corporate houses, donors and friends?

Shankar Sharma is a power policy analyst based in Sagar, Karnataka in the Western Ghats.