1 dam, 2 projects, many fools?

AMR dam across Netravathi (Source: Jerry Pinto)
AMR dam across Netravathi (Source: Jerry Pinto)

I was looking for Greenko’s 24.75 MW Perla Mini Hydel Project at Perla village near Bantwal, Mangalore. One would think that you wouldn't really have to search for a hydel project site given its size and scale but the villagers at Perla were puzzled when I asked them to take me there as the Project Design Document had noted the project location as Perla village. They pointed to a dam in the downstream part of the river and said, “You mean the AMR project, its not at Perla, but at Shamburi village.”

Now I was thoroughly confused as my notes said that there was a different project at Shamburi, the 24.75 MW Shamburi Mini Hydel project. “No”, I was resolutely told, “there is only one AMR Hydropower Project and it is at Shamburi on the other side of the Netravathi river”. So I crossed the wide river bed of the Netravathi and went over to the other side.

Inside the gate, I was greeted by guards and two boards on either sides of the road, one said 24.75 MW Perla Mini Hydel Project by AMR Power Private Limited and the other said 24.75 MW Shamburi Mini Hydel Project by Rithwick Energy Private Limited. And then it dawned on me...the bluff! Both AMR and Rithwick Energy are subsidiaries of the Greenko Group, one of India’s giants of supposed renewable energy. This was only the beginning of the farce.

Two projects, one dam

When I talked with the deputy engineer, he guardedly agreed that both projects operate from the same dam. The office had two rooms, adjacent to each other. One room had a signboard for AMR Power Private Limited and the other room, which was closed, had a board for Rithwick Energy Private Limited. I was not allowed to go to the dam or to see the powerhouses but from a distance, I could clearly see only one huge dam across the river, with a powerhouse structure on one bank.

The common large dam across Netravathi (Source:Parineeta Dandekar)

A single 49.50 MW project is what the 24.75 MW Perla and the 24.7 5 MW Shamburi are. The dam is more than 18 meters tall [Canara Times, Daiji World] and as per the definition of large dams in ICOLD, which states that a height of more than 15 metres from the deepest foundation is a large dam, should fall under that category. A project of this proportion should have undergone a full environmental clearance process, including an Environment Impact Assessment report, a public hearing, an Environment Management Plan, etc but it has circumvented this process by claiming fraudulently that it is two projects of 24.75 MW each. So what?

The perks of the lie

As per the EIA Notification 2006, projects with capacities under 25 MW are exempt from the Environment Appraisal process. (This assumption that projects below 25 MW are environmentally benign is fundamentally flawed and we are fighting against it, but that is another story.) Not only has it escaped environmental appraisal, it has bagged subsidies, preferential tariffs, tax rebates and more from the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy (MNRE) and the Karnataka Renewable Energy Development Limited (KREDL).

Under the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the project has even applied for carbon credits from UNFCCC as two different projects and both have been registered (24 MW AMR project in May 2009 [CDM Project Information] and 24 MW Shamburi project in November 2009 [CDM Project Information]. The CDM came about through the Kyoto Protocol and provides for emissions reduction projects which generate Certified Emission Reduction units. These CERs are then traded in emissions trading schemes. Developed countries can meet their emissions reduction commitments by buying carbon credits (CERs) from developing nations but there are several problems with this market based system.

Note that UNFCCC application is for 24 MW projects, while the projects are 24.75 MW as per the Greenko website. The calculations done by projects to claim carbon credits are also based on their expenses. They need to prove to the UNFCCC that without the support in terms of carbon credits, the projects will not be financially viable. This is known as the criteria of non–additionality, by which projects have to prove that carbon credits are the only way these renewable energy projects can be set up. This is one of the most important criterions of qualifying as a CDM project. But in this case, the costs of several components including the dam were shared by the two projects as there is a single dam with a single intake canal, a single power house structure and a single tail reach canal which releases water back in the river. But this was hidden from the UNFCCC.

In fact the cost of the Shamburi project, supposedly developed after the AMR project is marginally higher, even though there was an existing dam and canals! What is shocking is the UNFCCC's oversight. They did not realize that two applications they registered within a gap of 6 months had exactly the same geographical coordinates! KREDL, Karnataka’s apex renewable energy regulating agency, also kept mum about this fraud.

For the project to claim carbon credits, they need Host Country Approval from Ministry of Environment and Forests (India’s National CDM Authority under UNFCCC). Host country approval means that the host country certifies that the projects will indeed help in sustainable development. The approval is supposed to be given after the agency responsible for this certification ascertains that the project will indeed lead to sustainable development. It is an essential step in the CDM process. Sadly, this doesn't hold true in India.

Our MoEF’s National CDM Authority does not bother to check any ground realities or respond to any evidence given by civil society organisations. It simply acts as a clearing house when it comes to Host Country Approvals and are equally responsible for the increasing number of scams in the small hydel sector, along with KREDL, MNRE and other agencies.

Mini project, mega impact

Claiming on paper that the projects are different does not wish away their impacts. The villagers downstream allege that the AMR project has been responsible for as many as 11 deaths by drowning [Daiji World] by now, due to the sudden release of water from the dam. In December 2011, it was alleged that the sudden water release from the plant without any warnings led to the death of 2 youths who had entered the river. The Netravathi does not usually flood in December. The villagers protested at the AMR office and asked for compensation [Daiji World] , or at least an alarm system to let them know about when water might be released but even this was not done immediately. The status of this simple request is still unknown.

Protests about AMR Project and sudden water release (Source:daijiworld.com)The 18.4 meter high dam caused submergence in the upstream areas. It flooded homes as well as coconut and arecanut plantations. Villagers organized and even filed a case against the project in Karnataka High Court, saying that it is a single project and villagers in the upstream should be compensated for their land and property loss. In a strange turn of events, the Court put the onus of proving that the projects are same on the petitioners- the villagers, in this case. They also mandated that this study be done only by a national hydropower company and not NIT Suratkhal near Mangalore, as requested by the villagers. The villagers couldn't afford the hefty consultation fee that the company demanded.

What seems like an open and shut case unfortunately isn't so. Why is it so difficult to prove that two projects that use the same intake canal, dam, tail reach canal and transmission lines are in fact one and the same?

One reason is because the MNRE and perhaps other agencies, consider two projects are separate simply if their powerhouses are different! With this skewed logic, a proponent can simply have two (or by implication twenty) powerhouses separated by a (imaginary one in this case) wall in between and claim that any (big) project is in fact two or more separate small hydel projects! This is ridiculous.

The villagers could not afford the court fees, the expenses and also the consultation fees of the company, which ran into lakhs. They came to an out of court settlement to end the legal drama.

But the story does not end here.

Another project in the works

It is now reported that Greenko is in fact building one more project, called AMR II, right
next to the existing two projects as a peaking power project of 10 MW capacity [Greenko website]. Peaking power will mean that the project will generate power and release water when there is peak demand. This will further skew the flow pattern of the river and will make it even more dangerous than before for people living downstream.

Cracks in the walls of residents houses close to the new construction (Source: The Hindu)

Persistent blasting of the bed rock of the river for this new construction has caused cracks on houses of nearby residents. The company engineer has reportedly told the villagers that the blasting is for a spillway canal for excess water and not blasting for a new project! [Canara Times]. This is a shocking lie when the Greenko website itself mentions that this project- the 10 MW Shanmukh Subramania project has been on the cards for quite some time. However, it is not clear from the KREDL website if they have allotted this project to this company or not. Not only is the company avoiding paying out compensation but it is also claiming that the cracks are due to poor quality workmanship and construction material! The company was so paranoid of villagers entering to inspect their work that they first did not allow them to enter and then restricted photography. 

So we will now have a third “small” hydropower project using the same dam and other facilities, which will bring up the total capacity to about 60 MW, but it will get all the benefits, subsidies and freedom from clearances that were allocated for projects below 25 MW!

Height increase of the original dam

If all this were not enough, the company has also raised the height of the original dam from 18.4 metres to 19.5 metres this year [Kannadiga World, Daiji World, Canara Times]. This has further increased the submergence in the upstream of the project and villagers there are again protesting. It is said that the company officials conducted a hushed up survey of this submergence. The farmers are saying that the Gram Panchayat officers who were initially opposing this are now strangely silent. Even the State Forests and Environment Minister seems ineffective in dealing with this issue [Bellevision.com].

Do any of the above stated facts even have the semblance of sustainable, renewable energy and a local development venture? Upstream farmers are facing issues caused by submergence and downstream villages are facing issues caused by the bedrock being blasted. The river is dangerous due to sudden releases, ecology is severely affected due to a dam which does not release eflows (eflows denote the quality, quantity and timing of water in the river critical for its social and ecological functions). All this damage so that a private company can rake in profits worth millions, using public resources.

This is anything but sustainable development.

Greenko’s AMR Project at Bantwal stands testimony to the twisted and convoluted face of renewable energy. This was bound to happen as the sector lacks credible regulation and oversight. This project, like many others in Karnataka, has exploited and violated every rule in the book. There are at least two other known cases that are indulging in similar violations: Maruti Gen Projects [DNA India] and two 24.75 MW Mauneswar-Basvanna HEPs [SANDRP] on the Krishna.

Authorities from Karnataka, MoEF, MNRE and UNFCCC are not innocent either. They have been informed about this but have refused to take any action. SANDRP as well as the villagers have raised these issues many times, the media has made a note of this. Letters have even been sent to MoEF and NCDMA on this subject but no action has been taken. All this while, Greenko is busy blasting through the bedrock, assured that none of these departments will wake up from their slumber.

Whatever the law states, whatever its impacts are, however severe its violations and most importantly, whatever the people feel, Greenko and other such private companies manage to bulldoze ahead with their plans. All in the name of renewable energy, sustainable development and clean development mechanism.

Parineeta Dandekar works with the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People (SANDRP).